The iAbacus® story

This is the story of iAbacus, its foundation in research and development, a summary of the process, and how it transforms the way people plan for and sustain success.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

What is iAbacus?

iAbacus is an online, self-evaluation and strategic planning tool.

 

Thousands of individuals, teams and organisations worldwide, are using it to look at what they do with a view to doing it better.

 

iAbacus users plot ability, achievement, output or performance against criteria as they plan and implement improvements. From quality assurance to operational efficiency, the process works for a whole range of evaluation and improvement needs.

 

It’s attractive, with the visual interpretation of a physical abacus. It saves users time and effort as they progress, intuitively, through simple software. The proven and research-based improvement process is reliable and compelling. 

 

“Staff knew they had to self-evaluate but didn’t know how - iAbacus showed them how. As we went through each screen, it was collecting our thinking and producing a cumulative report to print off and share! It’s a blessed relief from wading through pages of Word document plans.” Jill Boyle, Headteacher 2012

Why and how was iAbacus created?

iAbacus was launched in 2012 but the story began in 1970 when John Pearce embarked on five decades of success across senior posts in education, public services, business and the charity sector. John’s practical experience (strengthened by his university research, published academic writing and consultancy) led him to design a deceptively simple sequence of activities that enabled effective self-evaluation and success planning. He called it the Abacus.

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Using an early abacus

The Abacus process replicated a traditional abacus with single beads moving, left to right, representing increased levels of achievement. Users plotted their performance against known standards as they planned and implemented improvements. The kinaesthetic simplicity and focus it offered was well received and John received requests to share the approach more widely, in business and charity sectors.

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Daniel & John at the AWARDS

In 2010 John met Daniel O’Brien, a successful pioneer in internet technology. As John described the self-evaluation activities, Daniel instantly realised Abacus could be transformed into a powerful software tool. Their partnership blossomed and in 2012 the iAbacus was launched. It was heralded as a unique and transformational software tool and in 2014 it gained official recognition as a Bett Awards finalist, as a piece of ‘genuinely innovative ICT provision and support’.

What is unique about the iAbacus?

The iAbacus is founded on proven leadership and development methodologies, and over 50 years of experience applying them. It’s unique because it combines all of these into one simple, logical sequence.

Users (an individual, team or organisation) are asked straightforward and emotionally intelligent questions within each step of the software.

 

  • How well are we doing? 

  • What’s our evidence?

  • What’s helping and hindering success?

  • So, what will we be doing to drive improvement?

 
As iAbacus users answer these questions they become increasingly aware of what success means and how they can achieve it.
 
iAbacus begins with users making a judgement about their performance. Judgements are checked against agreed criteria, secured with evidence and then a deep analysis of factors affecting performance informs the planning.
 
In the strong tradition of action research iAbacus recognises that receiving a judgement and having a detailed plan, are no guarantee of future success. It is the implementation and subsequent review of plans that makes iAbacus transformational. 

iAbacus continual improvement diagram

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COLLABORATE AND DISSEMINATE

As the above process diagram shows, evaluating the impact from the first sequence, feeds second and subsequent cycles.
 
John underlines this
 
“We can all tell stories of businesses, athletes, manufacturers, hospitals and professionals who were once highly successful, admired and applauded but slipped down the rankings because they took those rankings for granted. I wanted a process that challenged such complacency by ensuring a wary eye focussed on the progress of those in similar situations - our competitors. iAbacus is about reviewing our own criteria for success and the ever-increasing expectations of colleagues, clients and customers, in order to attain and sustain success.”

iAbacus process summary

iAbacus users choose a template of criteria to match their needs before they progress through the following sequence. More detailed information about selecting from the library of templates can be found in the iAbacus User guide and range of How-to videos. In-software guidance and online customer support is also available.
 

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Daniel adds:


“We have developed a huge library of criteria templates, available for users to download and use or customise. It’s critical the evaluation criteria are meaningful and relevant for the individuals and teams using them. So, a major benefit is our bespoke customer service, helping users to create their own criteria which can then be shared across the iAbacus community.”

1. Making a judgement

This first action in iAbacus involves the individual, or team, sliding a bead to judge their current level of performance. Their kinaesthetic movement ensures engagement from the start. 

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John explains:


“I soon learned to work with people from where they are, rather than hectoring them about where they ought to be. Time and time again, we’d find individuals and teams already had a deep and informed understanding of their own and the organisation’s level of performance. Invariably, they knew, ‘Why we are where we are’ and were well able to make good suggestions about how to move on. 
 
“Many don’t need to collect evidence at the start because it’s already there, in their heads. It’s both unwise and potentially damaging to underestimate this insider knowledge or ‘nous’. The trick is drawing out their internal wisdom and, only later, setting it alongside the views of others.”
 
That’s why iAbacus starts with asking for user judgements, which they later justify, rather than collecting evidence to impose a judgement, often to those outside the organisation.

2. Verifying the judgement

Now check your judgement against the criteria and moderate accordingly. 

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Verifying the original user judgement against criteria has three key benefits. It strengthens the quality of user judgements by setting them against criteria. It embeds a more informed understanding of performance targets. And users are challenged to develop a wider and potentially more accurate and informed set of perceptions.
 
John puts this into context:


“In my experience the majority of individuals and teams are precise in their judgements. However, there are some humble souls who ignore positive evidence and underestimate their performance. Of course, there are also some conceited folk who overestimate theirs. Asking the humble and conceited to make a judgement then look at the criteria (and later show the evidence) is always a powerful learning experience for them.” 
 
Criteria could reflect self-made goals, industry regulations, KPIs etc. In the most effective applications of iAbacus there’s a combination of self-imposed and externally mandated criteria, facilitating a higher-level of success - driving improvement rather than just hitting targets.
 
iAbacus has a huge library of criteria templates available to use or adapt, ensuring the evaluation criteria is meaningful and relevant for the individuals and teams using them. There are even blank versions so organisations can create their own.

3. Providing the evidence

Write an evidence statement to justify your judgement.

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This is both pure scientific method and good business sense. A hypothesis without proof is an opinion, an allegation without evidence is unproven. In iAbacus, evidence is requested so users are able to support their judgements.
 
The software provides space for an evidence statement to be provided together with references, attachments or hyperlinks. 
 
Daniel reiterates:

 

“A full range of qualitative and quantitative information, from raw data, through reports to video, allows a fuller, triangulated picture and is therefore more convincing.”
 
Users will now have a judgement verified against criteria and justified with evidence.

4. Analysing factors

Analyse factors that help or hinder. 

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John and Daniel both see analysing factors as the heart of iAbacus. They recognise that becoming successful requires a deep analysis of why things are as they are, in order to plan for improvements.
 
Daniel explains:


“Successful scientists, entrepreneurs and athletes recognise that to be successful, they need to understand what their strengths and weaknesses are in order to improve. Often they have teams of statisticians to review and identify the best factors to alter. Even small changes, marginal gains, can make huge improvements.”
 
In this analysis users identify factors such as people and resources that have helped, or may yet help. These are then set against opposing forces that have hindered, or might become barriers to improvement.
 
Keeping the individual or team at the centre of this activity is important. It’s a powerful enabling process. Users are encouraged to solve problems and issues themselves, rather than handing them upwards for senior colleagues or experts to solve. 
 
John explains the potential: 


“I just love watching folk energised by force-field analysis. Identifying barriers to progress and how they might be removed is transformational. I’ve seen individuals and whole workforces increasingly empowered and motivated to take action by just this one activity.”
 
Once identified, the most significant factors are prioritised and users can move on to planning ways to strengthen what helps, and weaken what is hindering. This will help to power the abacus bead towards the right, towards a higher-level descriptor, nearer success.

5. Planning for success

Plan your actions to strengthen helping factors and weaken hindering factors. 

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Most users will be familiar with a range of proformas to aid planning. John and Daniel's research helped them identify key elements in an effective planning format including: What is to be done? Who does it? How will it be measured? and When will it be done? Each of these are included in iAbacus for users to create their own action plans.
 

Daniel explains:


“The power of iAbacus is in the way the analysis in self-evaluation feeds through to meaningful plans, targeted to move that original judgement bead towards greater success. We have learnt that the best plans are works in progress, referred to and updated as actions are implemented. Collaboration is key to planning, so that all involved understand why these particular activities have been designed. This is the best way to harness colleagues in delivering their part of improvement. The worst plans are written, maybe by one person, filed away and forgotten until review time.” 

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Continuous improvement

iAbacus understands that the most successful continually review, revise and re-evaluate. To maintain performance and sustain success, inertia is not an option. The iAbacus process allows for continual evaluation and improvement as once you’ve started an abacus, additional information can be added easily and the progress of improvement is recorded; not only with the movement of the bead when making a new judgement, but with updated evidence, factor analysis and action plans.

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The cycle of evaluation and planning can be completed by an individual, team or whole organisation within the software. The following section examines the functionality of collaboration.

Collaboration

Planning for success is rarely a solitary pursuit and whilst iAbacus places great weight on individual endeavour, it also stresses the importance of collaboration.

 

Research indicates that improvement can only become sustainable when everyone in the organisation has the capacity to self-evaluate and move on to make strategic plans for progress.
 
John adds:


“We encourage peer learning and team endeavour, throughout iAbacus in order to provide the highest level of support and challenge. So, colleagues, coaches, even friends, can facilitate thinking whilst the individual or team make judgements, create and modify criteria, select evidence and then undertake analysis, diagnosis and planning.”
 
iAbacus supports collaboration in a number of ways throughout the entire process, not just at the end. Users can share work in any of their abacuses via email. Reports and papers, videos and other references can be shared digitally to inform a wider group or community.
 
Daniel adds:


“We continue to add sophisticated collaboration features to iAbacus. Users can provide links for collaborators to see, comment, or even slide beads and edit content. More sophisticated collaboration can be undertaken when users share abacuses to be compared, contrasted and merged.”

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In conclusion

When organisations deploy iAbacus, they can be confident it is built upon decades of research and experience. 
 
Uniquely, iAbacus blends the best of methods from the full range of evaluation approaches, rather than focusing on one. It embeds both critical and strategic thinking into the behaviours of its users and creates the permitting circumstances for transformation.
 
iAbacus has a moral purpose; valuing the perceptions of individuals and teams within an organisation and fostering a growth mindset (or can-do culture) in order to achieve sustainable progress.
 
iAbacus recognises that effective improvement is not a snapshot of performance. It illustrates progress of an individual, team or organisation over time. Once established, iAbacus aids planning with minimum intervention and is therefore sustainable.
 
In these ways, the sum of combined methodologies in iAbacus is far greater than their parts.

 

End notes

John and Daniel believe iAbacus is their very best creation, seeing it as a unique and powerful transformational tool. They are both passionate about demonstrating its power to new users.

John Pearce, MA DipEd, is a successful and experienced practitioner, researcher and writer in leadership, evaluation and improvement. 
 
John developed the original Abacus model during a successful career, spanning five decades across education, public services and business. He worked as a teacher, headteacher, adviser, inspector and consultant leader, including for the National College. He has owned and run successful businesses, designing and leading improvement programmes for local authorities, government, businesses and charities.
 
“John is extraordinarily energetic and creative, with a capacity to pull together disparate ideas in a way that is readily accessible. He is a pleasure to work with bringing warmth and a profound sense of values and purpose into everything he does." Kevin Ford, CEO FPM and Visiting Fellow Cranfield School of Management
 
John’s practical experience, strengthened by his university research, published academic writing and consultancy, enabled the creation of iAbacus.
 
For more information visit www.johnpearce.org.uk 
 
Daniel O’Brien is a ‘hands-on’ Director at Opeus, which he founded in 1999. Daniel, and his team of technologists, design unique, end-to-end software products, blending simplicity and ease-of-use with power and functionality. Opeus systems are transforming hundreds of schools, colleges, universities, charities and businesses across the world. 
 
“Daniel has a rare ability to understand complex issues and find ways to work through them by creating a simplicity in his software that belies a deep sophistication. He is exceptionally creative, honest and reliable, and always there to help, with a listening ear, a reassuring voice, driven by a strong sense of purpose and values.” Gerald Haigh, Author and IT Journalist


Daniel is a pioneer in the pedagogical use of internet technology. He created one of the first electronic portfolio systems in 1999. Success continued with virtual learning environments, blogging systems, mapping tools and online resource directories. 

References


The models, theories and research that influenced the original Abacus and subsequently iAbacus include:
 
Evaluation and action research:
 
Fullan, M.. (2005) Leadership & Sustainability, California, Corwin Press.
Lewin, K. (1951) Force Field Analysis in Social Science, London, Routledge.
Pearce, J.S.& Clemmett A.J. (1986) The Evaluation of Pastoral Care, London, Blackwells.
Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline - Systems Thinking, UK, Random House.
 
Individual, team and organisational success:
 
Egan, G. (1998) The Skilled Helper, 6th Edition, Brooks/Cole, US Library of Congress
Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning, London, Routledge,
Rotter, J.B. (1971) External Control and Internal Control, Psychology Today
Phares, E.J. (1976) Locus of Control in Personality, Canada, General learning Press
Tagiuri, R. (1968) Organisational Climate, Harvard, Business Studies Journal