The Notion of “High Performing Organizations”

In the past month I’ve heard the term “High Performing Organization” much more than I’ve ever wanted to.  And even though the term was used to describe the vision of two different organizations in two different sectors (a public institution (the government) and a nonprofit institution) I found that there were certain similarities that existed and some key differences also.

The first mention of a high performing organization was during a briefing of a report from the Institute of Medicine about the Department of Health and Human Services.  Generally speaking, the things that were mentioned in the briefing was around aligning vision -> mission -> strategies.  Surrounding the vision, mission and strategies were the key factors of people (leaders, managers, and administrators).  There wasn’t anything that I hadn’t heard before, but the central key idea was the notion that it was necessary to continuously reinvent the organization and improve on what it was doing.

Throughout the Georgetown Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate program that I’ve been taking, the term “high performing organization” has been thrown around a lot (e.g., development & fundraising, organizational change, strategic planning).  I think the most relevant one and the closest term that aligns with what is typically used is the one used with organizational change.  I wasn’t really surprised that there was no significant differences between the concept between the two sectors (nonprofit and public), and I would venture to say that there is no difference between those and the private sector either.  So in essence the ideals of a high performing organization exist across sectors.

What’s interesting to me though, is that even though the definition of a high performing organization is consistent across sectors, it is very difficult to point to examples of them except for in the private sector.  In the private sector, companies like IBM are pointed to as being exemplary organizations.  However, in the nonprofit sector, there’s significant disagreement across which organization is representative of a high performing organization.  Certainly there are nonprofits that perform their mission well, but that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a well-run organization.  This was never more apparent than the first class at Georgetown where organizations appeared on both my colleagues “Top 3” and “Bottom 3” nonprofits.

In light of that, I don’t think the notion of a high performing organization necessarily applies to all sectors.  I’ve come to the thinking that it is easier to benchmark private corporations to the same bar, profit.  With nonprofit and government agencies, I find that it is increasingly difficult to determine how to measure whether they are a “high performing organization” versus a “successful organization.”

In the end, I postulate the question: Does high performing mean good at counting beans, while successful mean good at getting results?  If that’s the case, what kind of an organization would you rather be?