Measurement Mistakes: When KPIs Drive Bad Behaviour – The Case of Citation Stacking
2 July 2021
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can be an incredible force for good, but they can also be extremely dangerous if they are turned into targets. Recently, some academic institutions have been exposed for commanding academicians to cite their colleagues in research articles as a requirement for their annual KPIs.
Unfortunately, organisations who give KPIs a bad name and don’t use them as they are intended cause a ripple of negativity around them and ultimately harm the good that can be realised when they are used properly. It doesn’t take more than one bad experience with KPI management to turn employees and leaders against them.
In academia, having articles published and cited in journals is an important criterion of success, and articles with more citations appear to be more influential. Authors cite the most relevant sources that influenced their work and while it would certainly be nice if those citations were from their own institution, requiring it as part of a performance evaluation is cause for concern and ethically suspect.
That’s precisely what landed the Universiti Malaya (UM) in hot water. According to several reports, citing the work of colleagues was being required as part of their annual assessments. This certainly wasn’t the first time that citation stacking, the term used to describe boosting the profile of an article by requesting other authors cite it in their articles to create a “citation cartel,” occurred, but its tie to KPIs is definitely troubling.
The Universiti Malaya tried to brush it off by saying other universities participate in this practice. While that might be true, it doesn’t make it ethical or OK to adopt it as common practice to make that a requirement of people’s performance. When the transgression was picked up by Retraction Watch, it became clear that whatever the advantage the university hoped to gain by instituting this requirement resulted in significantly more harm than good.
Citations began to be used as an indicator for high-quality academic articles back in the 1960s, but they really gained prestige in the 1970s when The Impact Factor was published as part of the Journal Citation Reports and continue to be the standard tool to evaluate journals and articles today. What started out as a reasonable way to differentiate quality has been muddied by authors who just cite each other’s work in return for the same when they publish.
The Case for Key Performance Indicators
I still believe Key Performance Indicators should be used by all companies, business units or project teams to measure their progress against STRATEGIC goals. As was the case with Universiti Malaya, things can go wrong and KPIs can drive bad behaviour when a KPI turns into a target rather than a measurement.
No measurement is perfect or complete. As its name suggests, a KPI indicates performance, but can’t provide a complete picture. If we use KPIs as a target, we only get what we measure and the singular focus for everyone ultimately becomes achieving the target rather than finding ways to improve in wider sense.
However, if KPIs are viewed as an indicator—as it’s intended to be—they provide powerful insight to opportunities for improvement.
It is necessary to define targets for KPIs simply to know how to judge good performance and bad performance—simply a reference point. This is how some organisations get off track, because they misinterpret the objective of the target and make it into the end-all, be-all of what they are shooting for. If the KPIs become the goals, then they turn into toxic material that will inhibit performance improvement.
Every organisation should be able to measure how well it’s delivering on key goals and strategic priorities. That’s precisely what a KPI can help do for an organization. Organisations who use KPIs effectively take the data generated from the KPI to inform decision-making and ultimately action.
The last thing you want to have happen when you put KPIs in place is to have your team mindlessly chasing numbers to the detriment of performance. Well-designed KPIs provide a vital navigation tool to reach high performance rather than encourage bad behaviour in an effort to just hit a target number.
Trust me: KPIs do work for all organisations from small family-run businesses to global multi-nationals. When you create a set of well-designed KPIs and keep them pure, they are powerful for every business.
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