LAST DECEMBER, I was planning to write an essay on the politics of the imagination for this magazine. But then I felt so worn out by worrying about how to urgently cut a lot of money from next year’s budget in my corner of the university, as happens every year at this time, while at the same time worrying about how to urgently spend a lot of money from last year’s budget, as happens every year at this time, and then too, worrying about whether our fabulous research group (being only a capital-G Group and not a capital-C Centre) might be left out when the new capital-P Platforms come on line, not to mention worrying about whether my staff had exceeded or only met expectations against their objectives, both cascaded and individual, and how I would handle any difficult conversations with them without having been to any of the four free management coaching sessions I was entitled to – in sum, worrying about a myriad such things, big and small – that I gave up. However, refreshed after the Christmas break, I reconsidered. For one reason, such an essay, in such a distinguished outlet, would be good for my KPIs…
But – how have we come to this? How is it that my mind is so comfortably colonised by what American anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bright empty terms’ like strategic planning, quality, vision and excellence and that I no longer even do ironic air quotes when I utter that acronym of distilled jargon: ‘KPIs’? Today, it is almost impossible to imagine an actually existing professional workplace in which we didn’t have a strategic plan, KPIs and all the rest. And not just in the university sector. What would we do all day? Would we simply waft from moment to moment, unstrategically? Surely our KPIs would slump, our competitors would get ahead in the marketplace, we would quickly lose our jobs… This is reality, we tell ourselves. Get a management coach.
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