Personal Impact Factor 3: Ends

For me, the most significant insight from the Personal Impact Factor has been the need to separate ends from means. That thorny question, “If your paper appears in a journal and nobody reads it, did you get a publication?” helped me realize that what my administration rewards (papers, and increasingly, money) is not the summum bonum of academic life for me. Rather, papers and presentations are means through which I can achieve what I define as my ultimate ends. I have two of them:

  1. Improve the thinking of my colleagues, my students, and practitioners. Which is to say, I strive to educate them. This is not to suggest that their thinking is defective, only that it may be incomplete in some narrow areas in which I claim expertise. The creation and dissemination of knowledge ought to have as its goal the education of appropriate audiences. If I create knowledge but fail to educate anyone, the task is incomplete. Unfortunately, most of the reward structures in a research university recognize knowledge creation only.
  2. Improve the practice of material handling and logistics, my particular areas of expertise. This end is different than the first in that it addresses the state of the art itself, rather than the people that participate. Under this heading, I strive to create “beautiful and useful techniques and technologies” (see the Grand Ideals) for their own sake. But again, my goal is to move the technology, as far as I am able, toward practice. The home run for me is to see my research change practice for the better. Not all of my work will do that—I will hit singles, doubles, and yes, I will strike out—but homers are the goal.

What these ends have done for me is to identify a new end point for research projects. No longer can I be satisfied just to see a paper appear in print (I do get some satisfaction from that); rather, I must go through the extra steps to see the knowledge or technology created affect the world around me.

And here’s the kicker: none of the formal reward mechanisms in a research university are behind me. If I am featured in a front page article in the Wall Street Journal and tens of thousands read it; if the ideas in that article change the practice of hundreds of major companies; if thousands of academics, managers, and engineers improve their thinking about the logistics systems they encounter everyday—none of it counts. (My vita might mention the WSJ article on page 7.) What counts in the system is pubs and money, if only because pubs and money are…well, countable. Real impact is not countable, and therefore it has no metric, and therefore it is not part of our evaluation scheme.

Rather than throw up my hands, I decided to create my own metrics, which as a whole make up my Personal Impact Factor. I will describe these Measures in a future post.

Questions to ponder

  • Is there a mismatch between what you are rewarded to do by your employer and what you feel you really ought to be doing?
  • Have you been focused on the means, rather than the ends? What are your ultimate professional ends?
  • How might you change your work life to achieve your ultimate ends, while still playing within the boundaries of your employment structure? [Hint to the untenured especially: I do not advocate abandoning publishing!]

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