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Author's profile photo Jean-Christophe PAZZAGLIA

Is Management by Objectives a good practice for Research ?

Recently, I read this Euroscientist article about Death in academia and the mis-measurement of science that echoed with my current job but even more with my experience of research lab director and manager for researchers and wanted to share this experience with you.

For researchers and research teams the “publish or perish” mantra and its translation to “acquire funding or die” are among the main coffee corner topics. Nobody will deny that Research KPIs, Analytics, BI are becoming pervasive within the Education and Research industry and the questions about this are numerous:

  • Can a numerical snapshot such as the Snowball Metrics or the dashboard that we developed for different research stakeholder measure exactly the scientific excellence of an institute ?
  • Are these tools biased against fundamental research ?
  • Are they putting stress on  researchers and consequently jeopardize their creativity ?
  • Do they endanger a specific type of researchers and potentially the more genial ones ?
  • Are scandals such as the 120+=accepted bogus papers (see  Science : Nature World News) the proof that the system is wrong and  about to collapse ?

The truth probably resides in the way these types of metrics are used and this blog does not pretend to answer this question but to focus on the translation of these KPIs to researchers and more precisely in the context of how  Management by Objectives (MBO), one of the cornerstone of the talent management within the SAP HR solution suite, both OnPremise and Cloud, can support researchers and research teams.

Once upon a time …

More than a decade ago – it took me, as a researcher, some time to understand what was the purpose of my first meeting to define my “objectives”.  I was capable of managing my own time and resources and knew what was good for me, so why did my ‘manager’ want me to devote precious time to this unwanted task ?

Yes I know I have to publish (I was never very good at), yes I should acquire funded projects (I was rather good at that this and I may write some of my techniques in the next blog),and  yes I do have to ‘disseminate/sell’ my research within the company …

So let’s take a step back and explain how Management by Objectives is done in a (industrial) research organization.

How did Management by Objectives work in a Research Institution?

Our implementation of MBO was relatively straightforward and followed a standard company process, spanning the full year and consisted theoretically in this way:

  • one session (a couple of  hours) at the beginning of the year to setup the yearly objectives in relation with the lab objectives,
  • one review (typically one hour) ideally right before the summer break to review the progress,
  • one evaluation (typically one hour) at the end of the year.

The only tricky part was to map organizational wide objectives with research objectives and of course the objectives should be ‘SMART’ – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely, covering a relatively short period for researchers (eg. one year).  To achieve I used a two dimensional canvas:

  1. Role based: a set of objectives was associated with the people role in the organization and in her/his project such as PhD, Researcher, Topic owner, Team leader, Proposal writer, Project support, etc…
  2. Component based: every objective had components such as research (eg. publication target), innovation (eg. patent and technology transfer), communication (eg. event and social medias), team work (eg.collaboration) and operational (eg. budget).

To enable a fair evaluation, some KPIs were included covering the different domains (eg. publication, patent, proposals, # of dissemination events) some of them at individual levels some of them at team level.

Also it was possible at any period of the year to talk about the objectives and potentially adjust targets and was used only by few people in case of unforeseen events, for example the departure of a team member.

Let’s be critical

Still, as you can imagine, researchers like to challenge you and I had numerous discussions with different people within and outside the team. Here is a collection of arguments that was often stated

  • ‘the only judge is the quality of the publication’ … 
    yes but I was managing a team and I did want to recognize people that were helping its sustainability or were dedicating time to developed PoC, moreover research is somehow cyclical and some periods are more prolific in term of harvesting results than others.
  • ‘this is only good practice and everybody knows what to do’…
    largely true for people in the same role for years at  least if they want to stay in the similar role for decades …
  • ‘I do not need this to talk with you’…
    you are right, but it is to talk not only with me or about your last brilliant ideas (that I really liked) but to talk about you for a couple of hours and to reflect together on how we can best leverage your skillsfor the lab in the mid term.
  • ‘it is “written in stone” and I don’t like it’
    it is not the case we can at any time talk and potentially readjust them since unforeseen events always happen.
  • ‘so we do not need to write them’ …
    my last high school mathematical professor instructed me that if it was not written it was too vague ! moreover the memory is a wonderful machine to forget.
  • ‘number of publication is nonsens’
    yes it is, we will only count good ones !

To be fair, the management by objective was only rarely tackling research topics per se- this was addressed in more informal meeting or at team/strategy level except for rare cases of “self‐interest” based research. I neither do believe that it had a direct, short-term, impact on scientific excellence except for some researchers that were too humble to target highly ranked conferences (and get them !). But in the mid-term, it enables to better guide your organization or  team, to adjust the effort to acquire new funding to the appropriate level, and to value skills and involvement that were under the radar of impact factor or the H-index.

Is Management by Objectives a good practice for Research ?

After more than a decade of practice including becoming the manager of researchers and, surprisingly after my first reaction, I believe that it is good within Research and exhibit advantages:

  • Managing expectations: this discussion was a unique opportunity to understand our respective expectation and to define what will be considered a successful year from a personal but also from a team perspective.
  • “I was already a grown up” but a rookie within this research organization: it enabled to adjust the objectives to the context,, and more important for younger researchers – such as PhD students it enabled to describe to them their typical path and to (try to) anticipate difficulties.
  • Work for the team: even researchers in the same field exhibit different strengths and weaknesses, this was the moment to leverage the strength but also to find a way to workon the  weaknesses.
  • Quantitative KPI: this was probably the more debated question. This was a way to give a direction and I never blamed someone to not be right on the target. It is also a way to incentive people to write patents before publishing. The more incredible fact is that it was more convincing  than the associated bonus !!!!

Management by objective is now a widely adopted best practice and Research Institutions will continue to adopt to align its mission and priorities with its most valued resource – researchers and research teams.  Further there is no evidence that adoption MBO has a negative impact on scientific excellence but instead helps focus research teams and researchers on goals already agreed upon and provides greater visibility to the organization.

To paraphrase Rabelais “l’évaluation de la science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme”!

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