Friday, 25 February 2011

KPI is killing us

Apart from the fact that the KPIs may be driving everybody up the wall, it's probably going to kill the Earth too. We should have a green KPI on the people in charge of KPIs. If your duty or job causes a lot of paper to be generated, you should get demerit points!

But I think the problem is that we count too much - too many things to count, and to show proof that you are entitled to count them. Otherwise you don't get the funding you so need ... or want.

The other day, one of the CGSS "bosses" (yes, many bosses) hailed me and asked "is any of your KPI reported anywhere?". I said "no, I don't report my KPIs". Why did you think he asked? lolz, to claim my KPI of course. The funny thing is, I didn't provide any data or proof.

KPIs as a concept is fine. It's the way we go about it which is crazy. The Schools get audited every year to check on their performance. And their performance determines how much funding they get. Some schools are super achievers (publication, publication, what else) and get lots of bonus. As a matter of principle, I guess that's seems logical. But it is also well known that some disciplines or schools by the nature of their field will suffer. Shouldn't we measure the schools or disciplines based on their strengths? Some are good in research. Some maybe good in teaching (the sceptics say there are none). Some may do very well in "corporate and social engagement".

Should we be more focus on critical measurements? Could there be some "must have" which everyone is expected to achieve. And more importantly is not audited. Just audit really critical stuff ... like the quality of teaching and learning ... which is not in the RU KPI. And do the audit say only every 3 years, on rotation? Or audit the those who didn't perform the previous years. When they perform up to mark, leave them alone for 3 years. Or audit only those areas which they under-perform.

The winds of change is blowing, though. This afternoon, there's a presentation about our HCMS our new online human resource management system which will kick in soon. Theoretically, you fill up your data (publications, etc, etc) every year as part of your annual performance review. So, this will hopefully save all the fuss and multiple requests to lecturers for copies of papers etc every few months. Then when you achieve a certain threshold, the system will trigger the process to take you one step higher - review for promotion. Sounds nice, right? I hope it actually will save paper.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The White Coffin is old news

I get requests to talk about The White Coffin a lot. Often it is a student doing an assignment who wants to interview me. I get tired of the same old question so I point to the document on the website. And I ask them to tell me what questions they have. Usually, I will tell them I am bored with the same old questions but if they have some questions or issue which is stimulating, I will meet to chat with them.

Occassionally, I will get a request from the reporters of Berita Kampus, the campus newspaper, for an interview. Invariably, this will come when an intrepid reporter is trying to follow up on a story about some culprit breaking the embargo on use of polystyrene containers in a university event. The most recent one was an activity that was (allegedly) organised by the School of Art at the Permatang Pelajar outside the Dewan Budaya. I was also told by students that this university policy was breached at the School of Pharmacy recently. Typically, the issue raised is the (in)effectiveness of enforcement on campus.

In the last year or so, I would just ignore even such a request from Berita Kampus. In the first instance, I'm not the right person to give an official response. It should come from the Sustainability Officer at the Centre for Global Sustainability Studies (CGSS). But last week, I had an agenda. I wanted to see if I could move the Berita Kampus into bigger things. So, I agreed to see them and I ended up spending more than one and a half hours chatting with two of them.

The first thing I ask is, if you go to any of the canteens in campus, will you see polystyrene containers? They will all shake their heads. Come to the USM main campus anytime you choose, I can guarantee you (99.9%) that you will not see polystyrene used by any of the operators. I cannot vouch for the other three campuses because I have not been there for a long time.

The question is, when do you find polystyrene on campus? This happens, often, when students and staff buy food outside and bring them into campus in polystyrene containers. So, the follow-up question I ask is "do you want to see the security guard at the gate checking every bag that comes in to campus?". Almost without exception, the answer is no.

What about the breach by the schools and departments organising "makan-makan" events? It is unacceptable. But again, do we want to set up a "policing" squad to ensure compliance? Right now, some bosses turn a blind eye. It is not a top priority. Their focus is on KPI. Sustainability indices is still not in the KPI. When it is, the bosses will pay attention. Of course, one of the agenda for CGSS is to make clear policies and then audit the schools and departments to see if they are working "sustainably".

But I am not totally convinced that having a set of KPI followed by audit will lead us to sustainability. The big question we should ask is "what are we supposed to measure?" and following that, are we using the correct or right instrument to measure. Perhaps, more fundamentally, do we have to measure? When will we know we have reached sustainability? In fact, is sustainability measurable? Which instigated one of the reporters to ask whether sustainability is a myth? I replied no - but you have to come see me if you want the long story.

I threw a challenge to Berita Kampus to take their sustainability reporting to a higher, intellectual, level. To talk about ideas. Big ideas. Understand the philosophy behind The White Coffin. The White Coffin is not about getting rid of polystyrene containers per se - that is old news. We should work to create new news. The White Coffin is our flagship project for environmental activism. Understand that, and we can move forward.

I suggested various things. One of it is, could we have like a regular, perhaps monthly or semester, reports by student groups evaluating how "green" the schools are? And these become a regular feature in the BK. At the end of the year, we have a students' assessment of the greenest of the schools and departments.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Manicure for trees

While coming out of the Wellness Centre this morning, I saw this crew giving the tree some TLC ... tender loving care.

It was not so long ago that when they prune trees, they will mutilate it by cutting way too much. I spent more than 5 minutes observing them. They look for branches which seems rotten or dried, and use a chain saw to trim them. Sometimes they use their hands to pull at the branches to see if it comes off easily (an easy way to test whether the branches are dead).

It is a slow and deliberate process. And it cost a lot of money to prune just one tree.

Nice job, Jabatan Pembangunan.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Moving mountains

You know the saying : "if the mountain can't come to the prophet, the prophet will come to the mountain"?

The "mountain" I refer to is the several thousand students on campus. But no, I'm not the "prophet", merely a minor disciple (with no higher aspirations).

My agenda is to move the "mountain". To lead to a transformation. In the way we learn. In what we learn. And in how we eventually use that learning.

I just went through the list of students activities on campus. There are some 15 Associations, 20 Clubs, 8 Hostel Student Councils and a host of other groups which organise probably several hundred activities a year. Some groups are extremely active, other happily exist only in name. Each of course will have their pet projects. Some have new projects every year, trying to find a niche. Often the short lifecycle of the office bearers determines what they do each year. I have over the last year or so told the students to think and plan for long-term sustainability, with impact which may only be seen several years down the road. This is very difficult for the students because they want to see the fruits of their labour during their term of office.

I think most student leaders don't or won't take kindly to meddling by outsiders (like me, for example). I do know that their advisors (lecturers) have veto power (often for the students own good?). Sometimes I almost turn the projects upside down, the students will say "I can see your point and it's good, we'll go back and see if we can incorporate your views" ... most of the time its too late to do anything; their project is already running.

Having sat in this chair for the last 3 years or so, I get a lot of solicitations from students (not the kind you're thinking of). Sometimes, they just want to chat about ideas. Often, it's to get some funding. So, invariably, I have to scrutinise their proposals or ideas. Yes, you can see much thought has gone into the proposal and the paper. However, I find that it is usually very narrow, focussed on carrying out of the project. There is usually very little discussion linking knowledge and its application in the project. I see a need to provide the student groups with toolkits or skills in project planning which better integrates the application of knowledge to achieving specific project goals. If the goals helps USM APEX U agenda, than perfect.

Over the next 2 years (until my term ends!) I will engage and mobilise students for the APEX University agenda. I only have a general idea of where I want to go, and want to be. But it's really all up in the air. I don't want to plan too much. I don't believe a masterplan or a detailed roadmap will get me to where the University wants to be, as far as mobilising the students are concerned. I agree, the students should be in the driver's seat. Experience however tells me that we need to provide some scaffoldings. And we made a start last wednesday 16th Feb 2011.

We hope to hold monthly chit-chats. Are you we with us? Drop me ( a line if you have ideas, or what to come join chat.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Working Weekend at Kuan Na Kap

... that's what the Chinese call Gurney Drive. There is the old Kuan Na Kap (Esplanade) and Gurney Drive is the new one. Looking east out my big window from the 22nd floor of the hotel, I see the sweeping coast line that is getting more and more congested with super tall condos and the E&O development on reclaimed land. Down below, Gurney Drive is still inviting but less appealing visually. I wish this was a superwide promenade where people can walk and enjoy the breeze. But the mud is taking over even though there's a sign that says an EM bioremediation project was carried out here. The mangrove trees are taking hold in some parts and given time, there will be no seaview.

 Super highrise supercondos costing millions along Kuan Na Kap.

Yesterday, my wife and I walked almost the entire length of GD 3 times. On the way, I brag to one of my USM colleague who was going in the other direction. He turned around and said that was his 7th time walking on GD that day. Impressive. I met 3 two other colleagues taking walks on GD too. So I am extremely pleased. And I am pleased to tell you that I had a most encouraging first meeting with the medical professionals at our Pusat Sejahtera (Wellness Centre) and the state of health report is on a fasttrack now with the commitment of the very top people.

Only parts of Gurney Drive is tree-lined. I wish there is a tree canopy for the entire length and I wished the sidewalk was at least double in width.

USM is famous for many weekend meetings at hotels. We don't seem to have enough time to do what we have to do on campus. I get "invited" to some of these. Well, this time they got lucky. Usually, I ignore calls from numbers not on my list in the handphone, especially when I am busy. They asked whether I could come. I demanded to know why. I wanted to know who asked them to call me. Who "approved" my name. Why me? .... Just playing hard to get. In the end I said yes. Often, they just surprise you with a letter which says "come" - often I find an excuse to say "sorry". But here I am, since Friday morning. And our job is done (sort of) so I can relax and blog a little.

The modus operandi is to gather a few very energetic people, put them in a room, give them a problem and let them deal with it. There's a lot of talking. And retalking (we go back to the same things again ... and again). Generally, we joke a lot. We are friendly. We enjoy our company. Most of us know each other quite well. We make an effort to listen. We tried to accommodate each others divergent views or concerns. But sometimes, you meet one who is hardheaded .. thinks he knows everything, has all the answers ... nothing else matters.

Sometimes we have a crowd-pleaser. He brings in his horns and strings and entertains us. I actually fell asleep yesterday after lunch while he was playing his melodic strings and woke up refreshed and full of questions.

See USM at work below:

 Service to the University is still severely capped. Yet there is no willingness to review it. Yet, we want lecturers to contribute to the university. And ironically, we give marks for service outside (in very large quantum). But I agree, we need to evoke the spirit of giving. Unfortunately, we don't treat all the parts with the same philosophy.

Why were we here? Some of you might have heard the Minister announce that there would be a third track for promotions of academics. There was research and teaching tracks (well, sort of). Now there will be "community engagement". We had to come up with the criteria for promotions. Actually, they have been doing this since about March last year and again in November. So we are really going through the work to fine tune it. This will be applied nation wide to all universities (I think). So, all eyes are on USM. We are always in the lead.

Am I happy with the outcome? In many ways, yes. In some ways, no. I am happy that, reading the paper, the conceptual and philosophical grounds for promotions on the community engagement track has been well-documented, withl concerns based on the substantial effort already going on in the US for the last 20 years (arising from Boyer's work in 1990).

But along the way, we always have to find some way to quantify it. We have to convert something which is qualitative into something which is countable. So that we can compare and say that yes, you have pass the "line" and is now eligible to be considered for promotion.

The problem is that other that the publications in journals which is accessible to the reviewers/assessors, the quality of work in teaching, and in the future, community engagement, is not available to the assessors; or is difficult to present to the assessors.

So while the working paper for promotions makes a good case in differentiating the scholarship of discovery, the scholarship of integration and the scholarship of application, the form for promotion is a sterile document. We must put more emphasis on the candidate demonstrating his "prowess" through more qualitative assessment, either by peers or by self. This is the currently the major shortfall.

But I take heart that USM now recognises the deficiencies in teaching ... and as a top management last night said .." we must do something about it". So, watch out all you academics, not just in USM, teaching assessment will become standard practice in the near future. And this will not just be for those choosing the "teaching track" ... all lecturers will have to demonstrate competency and effectiveness in teaching. And student review of teaching will be ramped up.

Will life as an academic be more stressful? Most likely. But with proper training, we can manage it.
Who will benefit? Students and employers. And academics too.

p.s. we had dimsum at the Bali Hai restaurant twice. Very popular place on weekends. And very cheap too. The hawker food we had the first night was slightly disappointing. And so was Kopitan along Beach Street.