Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.
Once upon a time the National Labs were paragons of excellence in science and engineering. No more. Over time the Nation has demanded that the Labs become paragons of accountability. The over-emphasis on accountability has ironically worked to drive excellence from the Labs. In an accountability-driven culture if no one is accountable for excellence, excellence dies. This is a direct consequence of our current over-managed and under-led status both locally and nationally.
Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.
Today no one focuses on excellence except through a host of metrics that only give a shadow imprint of excellence. All the while a culture of excellence is not cultivated at all. Rather than do the things that lead to excellence, the culture of accountability acts to undermine it. Staff will avoid going to seminars or classes that would develop them professionally for the long-term because their current projects won’t pay for them. Continually the projects drive the staff to think only in a short-term tactical project-focused manner despite the damage done to their long-term development.
Consider attendance at a conference, which has become extensively scrutinized lately. Almost any conference I attend is a broad-brushed opportunity to develop professionally across a suite of projects present and future. The accountability culture only cares about what I am presenting, but nothing about what is presented to me. In other words attending a conference is all about what is the attendee is presenting.
The reality should be balanced between what is given and what is received. A large part of a conference is the exposure to new ideas, the current focus of a community and networking with other attendees. In fact most of the benefit has nothing to do with the reason given for attending. The culture of accountability misses the key points. A culture of excellence would have no problem is accommodating the proper perspective.
The explicit drive for excellence and professionalism has been destroyed by the “customer is always right” attitude. My experience is that the customer is almost always wrong, and could greatly benefit from treating the Labs as reservoirs of expertise that could greatly improve their judgment. Too often today the customers are simply taking knowledge and products from the Labs while doing little or nothing to support the foundation that created the expertise. As such the expertise is running dry, if the well of knowledge is not sustained it will die. Our current customer-focused accountability culture is hopelessly shortsighted. There is little or no focus on the long-term development of the Labs expertise. The research is becoming ever more customer-focused and tactical. The investments in long-term sustaining research are minimal in large part because the “customer” receives no perceived benefit in the short term. All the while the customers are happy to siphon off benefit from the expertise they do little to sustain.
Of course this entire philosophy gets the core of the problem. The lack of a broad-based societal imperative for supporting the development of societal expertise is troubling. This is in contra-distinction to the events following World War II when the system of National Laboratories came into existence. The benefits of the expertise were felt across the Nation and World and usually beyond the direct impact on the agency that sponsored the Lab. Quite often the Energy or Defense or NASA Lab produced breakthroughs that impact the work of the other Labs or industries. The benefit quite often spilled over into other activities such medicine or industrial production. Computing is the archetype of this cross-fertilization. Computing’s various breakthroughs came from numerous fields and ultimately spurred the creation of a massive industry. No system of accountability could have been responsible for what happened, it was the product of broad-based excellence in science. I would submit that the current short-term culture of accountability would have likely short-circuited the entire thing. I worry that our focus on accountability is probably undermining our future prosperity already.
A primary task of management in the developed countries in the decades ahead will be to make knowledge productive.
The result is the nearly systematic destruction of an essential National resource. The true irony is that no one is accountable for this act violence against our National security. In fact it is hidden behind a veil of accountability standards that provide the façade that everything is being done well. We only assure that the terrible things are done efficiently. A large part of the devotion to accountability is couched in fear and suspicion. Excellence is founded on hope and trust guided by principle.
There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.
The same thing is happening at Universities across the country too. The educational aspect of a university is the epitome of excellence, and any observation of the value system in place shows unequivocally that teaching has less value than research. Our students are not simply burdened by student loans and the concomitant debt, but also by increasingly poor instruction. They are getting a worse education at a substantially higher price. At the core of the problem is money. Less societal support for education is driving universities to focus on research grants as a source for money along with the student loans. The grants drive emphasis from teaching and push a variety of inappropriate foci such as research associates, post-docs as labor, and adjunct professors as cheap teacher (adjuncts are another key measure of the value placed in teaching, which ain’t much!).
The combined effect of the erosion of excellence in Labs and Universities is hurting our Nation’s prospects for the future. No amount of accountability can fix this. Only by backing away from the current shortsighted philosophy can we recapture the excellence that once exemplified these institutions. It will require us to do a number of things we have lost sight of including long-term goals, trust for our fellow citizens, and the belief that we have things worth working together toward.
What gets measured gets improved.