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On the importance of theory in Performance Management

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Performance Management Theory

smartKPIs.com Performance Architect update 5/2010

Performance management is one of those disciplines that seem to be intuitively easy. It is closely related to everyone’s life. We all hear about setting goals here, achieving targets there, implementing strategies, writing vision statements, living values and so on.

It is not the same for disciplines such as risk management and enterprise architecture – ask someone on the street a question in these fields and there is a good chance the person will be much quieter than expected. Ask the same person a question about performance management and the chances of obtaining a response are much higher.

All of us have been exposed to performance management in some form through our lives, starting with childhood. Performance management is about doing well in sports, doing well in school, playing an instrument, doing well at work and contributing to the organization we are a part of.

So intuitively we know what it is about, why it is needed and how it works. But how many times did we stop to think about these aspects? Or think about the way we think about performance management? Why does it work? What happens?

Such questions have been asked mainly by researchers (as oftentimes consultants are too busy consulting and experts too busy giving advice to ponder on such esoteric questions). As a result, responses to such questions remained mostly in the realm of the academia. And one of the all time favorite terms in academic literature, almost unknown (in the academic sense) to business practitioners is: theory.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary states the following about theory:

  • Etymology: Latin (theoria) and Greek (theoria, from theorein)
  • Date: 1592. (Note: There must have been some other term used before that time, as theories are as old as Greek philosophy.)

Of all the uses of the term mentioned by this dictionary, the ones that I prefer are:

  • 1 : the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another
  • 3 : the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art <music theory>
  • 4 a : a belief, policy, or procedure proposed or followed as the basis of action <her method is based on the theory that all children want to learn>
  • 5 : a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena <the wave theory of light> (Merriam-Webster, 2010)

So why is theory important in performance management? I propose three reasons why learning and thinking about the theory behind practice is important:

  1. As performance management is such an embedded discipline in our life, it impacts us more than many others. It would be beneficial to know the logic behind many of the processes and tools used for performance management initiatives. A driver with a few skills in mechanics is a better driver than the one that doesn’t have a clue that there is an engine behind the bonnet and it requires fuel.
  2. Understanding the theory behind practice puts us in a better position to make informed decisions and question solutions proposed to us. Too many performance management products and ideas are promoted and taken for granted. A more informed buyer is a smarter buyer and a happier customer.
  3. Critically reviewing the theory behind practice enables us to question its validity and try improving it. How can we improve and advance performance management if we keep focusing on solutions without thinking why and how these solutions work?

Perhaps theory is another item on the already heavy list of elements the Balanced Scorecard should balance. Or perhaps we’ll forget give the Balanced Scorecard a break and start balancing things ourselves… Smartly…

Either way, next time you are offered a solution don’t forget to ask the question: So, what is the theory behind this? You might get lucky and the response will put a smile on your face for the rest of the day.

Stay smart! Enjoy smartKPIs.com!

Aurel Brudan Performance Architect, www.smartKPIs.com

References

An introduction to theory in Performance Management: Goal Setting Theory
The Innovation Capacity Index
free

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