Tuesday 21 October 2014

The Skills Commissioner and learning from others - it's not as easy as you think

Last Friday saw the publication of the FE Skills Commissioner's latest letter to the sector.  In this letter Dr David Collins addresses the issue of quality improvement and the variations in quality of leadership and management seen across the sector and provides some quite straightforward advice.   

If a college is having a problem my advice is simple - find someone who is performing well in that area and learn from them. 

However, things are not quite that simple for as Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I Sutton in their 2006 book Hard Facts Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense : Profiting from evidence-based management argue there are three 'dangerous' decision practices which can often cause both organisations and individuals harm and one of which is casual benchmarking.  Pfeffer and Sutton argue there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to learn from others.  However, for this type of benchmarking to be of use the underlying logic of what worked and why it worked needs to be unpacked and understood.   Pfeffer and Sutton identify three questions which must be answered, if learning from others is to be beneficial.  
  • Is the success of a particular college down to the approach which you may seek to copy or is it merely a coincidence? Has a particular leadership style made no difference to student outcomes, even though student outcomes appear to have improved. Do other factors explain the improvement of student outcomes and which are independent of leadership style.
  • Why is a particular approach to, for example, lesson observation linked to performance improvement.   How has this approach led to sustained improvements in the level of teacher performance and subsequent improved outcomes for students.
  • Are there negative unintended consequences of high levels of compliance in well performing colleges.  How are these consequences being managed, and are these consequences and mitigating strategies evident in any benchmarking activity? (Adapted from Pfeffer and Sutton p8)
Furthermore not only is the FE Commissioner's  advice not as quite as simple as first thought, it may also be wrong.   Rosenzweig (2006) identifies a range of errors of logic or flawed thinking which distort our understanding of company (college) performance and which is implicit within the Skills Commissioner's letter and his 10 Cs.  Rosenzweig identifies the  most common delusion as the Halo Effect, as is when an observer's overall impression of a person, company, brand and product  and in this case college, influences the observer's views and thoughts about that entity's (college)  character or properties. In this case when a college's retention, achievement, success rates and operating surplus improve people (inspectors or significant other stakeholders) may conclude that these arise from a brilliant leadership and a coherent strategy or a strong and a college  culture with high levels of compliance. If and when performance deteriorates - success rates or position in leagues tables fall -  observers conclude it is the result of weak leadership and management (the Principal), and the college was complacent or coasting. On the other hand, the reality may be that there has been little or no substantive change and that the college performance creates a HALO that shapes the way judgements are made about outcomes for learners, teaching and learning and assessment, and leadership and management.

To conclude, I have argued that learning from others is not quite as simple as going to visit another college.  I have also argued that to learn from other requires awareness of possibly flawed thinking, logic and cognitive biases which means that the wrong things are learnt.  In future posts, I will argue the case for the need for evidence-based educational leadership which is relevant for the further education sector.

Pfeffer, J and Sutton, R., (2006) Hard Facts Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense : Profiting from evidence-based management. Harvard Business Review Press.

Rosenzweig, P., (2006). The Halo Effect … and the eight other business delusions that deceive managers, Free Press, London


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