Monday, 3 August 2015

Human Organizational Behaviour Impeding Science: Annual Assessments, Scientists and Folly

The pendulum swings. I read with great amusement last week that some of the biggest employers in Britain are dropping annual assessments of employees. Somebody, somewhere, has actually had the guts to say that the king has no clothes and that much valuable time and effort has gone into something that anybody with even a couple of neurons firing would recognise as utterly futile.

The first stage of the adoption of annual assessments in the UK research councils came in the early 1970s with what were called Annual Confidential Reports. All working scientists knew that they were unnecessary, none more so than Richard Keynes FRS, then Director of Babraham. He told the old Agricultural Research Council so and asked what would happen if he refused to implement the directive. ‘You will be sacked’, came the reply from what was then the Personnel Department, then based in offices in Great Portland Street. His successor, Sir Barry Cross FRS got it right; to him it was always the Anti-Personnel Department because it actually damaged science and scientists by wasting time on pointless paper exercises and devising procedures that were actually damaging science. But these were the proximate villains; the ultimate villains were the civil servants and politicians who saw this sort of nonsense as behaving like successful big businesses. Nobody took any notice of Sir Edward Bullard’s published* statement:

A research establishment is not, however, just another large organization employing several thousand people; it is not like a factory or a railway or a regiment or a warship. Its purposes are less clearly defined and its effectiveness much harder to assess.

I  now though would add ‘financial institution’ to Bullard’s list since that is where everybody now seems to work.

Scientist working in small groups know on a day-to-day, and often an hour-to-hour, basis know how their staff are performing. Moreover, they can do something about any problems without having it all formalised in an annual process. The sad thing about the annual appraisal process was that it was sold to gullible junior staff as a magic bullet to redress any perceived grievance, or to seek promotion, by the parasitic public-sector trade union officials who claimed such measures as a ‘right’ they had fought government-funded employers to obtain.

The whole time-consuming process, as a number of us consistently argued over the years, decreased scientific productivity and had a deleterious effect on morale. Other than occupying time and effort, there was no effect in improving the quality of the science or in how people were treated; it did and does though decrease the output of science and therefore the bang for bucks. That major employers in other fields now see how useless it really is; can we afford to see it continue in science for any longer?

More widely, in all sorts of organisations, is this the first sign that the growth of the ‘human resources’ anti-personnel industry is eventually being checked? Perhaps one of my definitions of a good organisation—no human resources department—is not just a pipe dream. 

*In The Organization of Research Establishments, edited by Cockroft, J, Cambridge University Press. 1965