A post written by Dane Pflueger and Tommaso Palermo

 

As a recent NY Times article has pointed out, the public rankings regime in higher 

education is changing. From the elusive quest of determining quality or ‘who’s

the best’, public and private authorities in America have moved to the even more 

daunting quest of determining best value, or, as the article explains it, ‘where you 

can get the most bang for your buck’.

 

Although, as the article makes clear, there are innumerable different ways in which 

this new notion of best value is being measured and expressed, it is made possible, 

in principle, by placing a denominator, cost, below those sort of public measures that 

might be summarised as quality.

 

Best Value = Quality/Cost

 

We might consider this movement to be simply another instantiation of the public 

ranking phenomena, producing yet another set of dysfunctional effects through 

mechanisms such as reactivity and commensuration to use Espeland and Sauder’s 

terms. 

 

However, one ranking is not necessarily the same as any other. As accountants are 

well aware, fractions are very different from integers. Indeed, as we aim to quickly 

show here, drawing from examples in management accounting, public rankings 

that are conceptually-conceived fractions, might produce quite distinct sorts of 

phenomena and effects. 

 

The movement from an integer to a fraction reorients attention and action in two 

directions. Faced with the fraction quality/cost, administrators confront two options 

for increasing performance: increase quality or reduce cost. 

 

This sounds initially like a more enlightened form of ranking than quality alone. 

Indeed, it transforms inputs from a constraint on performance, into an asset, thus 

injecting the notion of performance with a more relative and even democratic appeal.

No longer, it might be argued, is organizational performance constrained by one’s market

or business model. Instead, quality is reconstituted as something closer to ‘fit for purpose’. 

 

However, much management accounting literature has drawn attention to the fact 

that such options are heavily constrained by the organization’s existing place in the 

league table, leading to ‘under-optimization’ from the standpoint of the system as a 

whole is a common result. 

 

In the case of the Return on Investment ration (Profit/Assets), which is conceptually 

similar to Best Value, organizations that initially achieve high performance are 

encouraged to under-invest in assets that will be productive from the system 

perspective, but that will lower the ROI of the individual unit. At the same time, poorly 

performing units are encouraged to invest to generate new returns, but at much less 

efficient rate than the system as a whole. The net result is that overall performance 

of the system declines at the inside of the edges: either through under-investment in 

profitable assets or over-investment in unprofitable ones.

 

In the educational setting, using quality/value as a primary public measure of 

performance might manifest itself as a constraint on overall educational market, 

discouraging high performing universities from expanding its offerings into less 

value products, while encouraging low performing universities to expand poor value 

products. 

 

The movement from an integer to a fraction also highlights the distinctive relationship 

between the numerator and denominator, which presumably interact in a quite 

specific manner. In the ROI regime, there is seen to be an imperfect relation 

between return and investment. Managers, it is sometimes thought, can increase 

returns by increasing investment, but very good managers can increase return/

investment at a higher rate. This may be true in the long term, but in the short 

term, ‘very good managers’ are made by exploiting the imperfect relationship 

between the two terms, often in dysfunctional ways. Managers, for example, often 

manipulate the timing of investment and booking of revenues so as to drive a 

temporarily artificial wedge between the two and increase returns. 

 

In the educational context, the relationship between cost and quality is under-

explored and undoubtedly complex. We might imagine that, like ROI, the best value 

school, like the good manager subject to ROI calculations, will try to interact the 

two terms opportunistically (shifting more costs from tuition to fees, for example, or 

borrowing heavily to boost quality at one point, only to pay for it in increased fees 

later). 

 

It is also unclear how quality and cost relate and interact. If cost and quality relate 

in a perfectly elastic way, then the ratio merely presents different possibilities for 

organizations to move along the ratio line, repositioning itself in a different ‘market’ 

but not affecting the overall value of the product delivered. This scenario might be 

quite likely given the existing arguments about costs simply providing market proxies 

for quality. 

 

If cost and quality are perfectly inelastic, then the ratio merely presents two variables 

to optimise without considering them to have a tradeoff or mutual effect. Hence we 

would have merely an extension of the ranking system on merely a number of new 

points.

 

One final point relates to those who produce or sponsor a ranking system for higher 

education institutions. As a recent article shows, ranking systems themselves 

‘compete’ with each other. A successful ranking is one that combines familiarity 

(some universities have to be at the top!) and surprise (something unexpected that 

attracts the attention of the media). On this basis, it is clear that the production of a 

specific ranking system is far from being a neutral game. 

 

Considering all the unintended consequences and behavioral problems that rankings 

may trigger, the question is whether some sort of auditing or external certification 

of the quality of rankings might help. The answer is probably not. As shown in 

Free at al. (2009)  on the FT ranking, the auditing of the data underlying 

universities’ rankings is subject to several constraints leading to the auditing of the

relatively small portion of data that indeed is auditable. 

 

In summary, rankings need to be handled with extreme caution by university 

administrators and those responsible for allocating funds to the higher education 

sector. The cursory discussion of changes in the public measure system suggests

some interesting questions to be pursued regarding the changing public measures 

regime in education. Often a number is seen to be just the same as any other 

number, but a closer attention to the type and form of the number might help 

us better understand the many complex ways in which public measures and 

organizational performance intertwine. 

 

Tommaso Palermo is a Lecturer in Accounting at the London School of Economics. 

Dane Pflueger is an Assistant Professor in Performance Management at at Copenhagen Business School. 

Here’s some great news. Today the Wall Street Journal is running an article on the research that Yuval and I have been doing for ah… a number of of years, on the New York Stock Exchange.

You can find a link to the newspaper article here here.

Blog readers may be interested in “Capitalizing on Performativity: Performing on Capitalization”, a symposium to be held at the Ecole des Mines de Paris on 16-17 October 2014. Details on purpose, content and form here.

Christian Borch, professor at Copenhagen Business School, has been awarded a prize from the ASA’s theory section for his excellent work in The Politics of Crowds (Cambridge, 2013). The book traces the changing relationship between crowds and rationality within 19th Century sociology.

Christian reminds us that long before ‘ask the audience’ was a useful lifeline on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, crowds were considered to be a destructive, contagious and irrational force that could threaten social order. To get a taste for the history, you can check out an early article where he argues that the “re-description of crowd behaviour in rational terms” obliterated “almost every distinguishing trait that the crowd possessed according to 19th-century semantics” (see European Journal of Social Theory, 2006).

Since completing the book, Christian has launched a research colloquium to explore ‘Crowd Dynamics and Financial Markets’. If you can’t make it to Copenhagen, the website for the initiative is an interesting resource where you can learn more about some of the work-in-progress on finance across Europe.  

On November 24-25, the group will host a special workshop on ‘High-frequency trading sociality, crowd psychology and dynamic collectives‘. Abstracts no longer than 500 words should be submitted to Ann-Christina Lange (ala.mpp@cbs.dk) by September 30 2014.

In 1992, Stella Liebeck was badly burned when a cup of coffee from McDonalds spilled on her lap.

If you’re curious to know more about how and why a jury of her peers awarded her $2.9 million then have a look at this thoughtful review of the story on RetroReports, a documentary news initiative that revisits and reexplains big stories from decades past.

This is an excellent case study in valuation. Liebeck’s story shows that value doesn’t make sense without also understanding the process, the mechanism, by which value is assessed.

If you thought the case was frivolous have a good look at the photos of the physical damage Liebeck suffered. It’s hard to grasp how so much damage could have been caused by a little cup of coffee. The images featured in the report are truly gruesome.

 

CFP: Investigating High-Frequency Trading. Theoretical, social and anthropological perspectives.

For details click the following link: CFP – Investigating HFT

Organised by:

Ann-Christina Lange, Assistant Professor, Copenhagen Business School (ala.mpp@cbs.dk).

Marc Lenglet, Lecturer in Management, European Business School Paris (marclenglet@ebs-paris.com).

Robert Seyfert, Postdoctoral Fellow, Cluster of Excellence, Konstanz University (robert.seyfert@uni.kn).

Deadline (for Workshop 1 in Copenhagen): September 30, 2014.

The 1980s are over

July 7, 2014

In 1989, a brutal crime seized the civic imagination of New Yorkers. The victim, an ambitious young investment banker working in the corporate finance department of Solomon Brothers, would simply be known as ‘The Jogger’.

The Jogger was out for a run into central park after-work, when she was viciously attacked, dragged into the bushes, severely beaten and raped. As one reporter noted at the time of the trial, The Jogger was “part of the wave of young professionals who took over New York in the 1980’s. Some among them had seemed convinced that if you worked hard enough and exercised long enough, you could do anything; even go into the park at night.” (NYTimes)

As the decade of Me drew to a close, The Jogger became NY’s symbol of a courageous middle-class figure dragged down by the grimy underbelly of a city in deep recession. But of all the crimes that happen in New York, why the intense focus on this particular woman? Why the sensation around this particular case?

Essayist Joan Didion asked this very question in 1991, in a probing NYRB article entitled New York: Sentimental Journeys.

The answer Didion provides is sociologically quite complex, traversing everything from race relations and sexual politics in America, to the historical design of central park. What surprised me the most in her analysis, however, is that she also ties the symbolic charge of The Jogger to the crash of October 1987, which she says “damaged the illusions of infinite recovery and growth on which the city had operated during the 1980s”.

In 1990, it felt as though there was something wrong with New York. Didion reports that people were talking about “their loss of flexibility, about their panic, their desolation, their anger, and their sense of impending doom”. The public, she says, associated its sense of anxiety with accusations of wild behavior in the public space. New Yorkers were eager, too eager, to believe their uneasiness was caused by the teenagers roaming in the park that night, five of whom were publicly arrested, humiliated and convicted of the crime.

Didion objects. The teenagers are not to blame.

These people were talking instead about an immediate fear, about money, about the vertiginous plunge in the value of their houses and apartments and condominiums, about the possibility or probability of foreclosure and loss; about, implicitly, their fear of being left, like so many they saw every day, below the line, out in the cold, on the street.

They were not, she said, “talking about drugs, or crime, or any of the city’s more publicized and to some extent inflated ills”.

Didion was right. In 2002, having already served a collective 41 year in prison, the five men had their convictions overturned. A serial offender who was behind bars confessed to the attack on Trisha Meili in 1989, and DNA evidence later confirmed.

Last week, the five men received a $41 million dollar settlement from the city of New York. For them, the 1980s are only now over. The riches they couldn’t access before, their belated share, has finally been doled out.

 

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