Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Human Performance Measures: Start of a Series

I’ve been working with people measures for more than 25 years. Nearly every day, I see strong reactions to these common leadership tools.  Some embrace measurement as a tool for positive change, and others are nervous. Some question the measures, and others hide behind the authority of the data. 

These reactions to measurement and data fascinate me. They also hold the key to getting results from measurement systems. 

When measurement systems work well, people develop understanding, gain insight, become motivated, and set new directions. Just as often, however, measures simply do not work. In these cases, people ignore the measures or build elaborate defenses to dodge, manipulate, or diminish the data.

Over the next few months I’ll be writing about how systems and people respond to measures of human performance and how organizations can get beyond negative reactions. This is a topic I’ve been researching for years, and it may be my strongest and most nuanced area of understanding. 

I started my career focused on measurement systems. I took enough graduate courses in statistics and methodology to work as a psychometrician, and my dissertation combined the disciplines of psychology and economics. 

As I matured and worked in the real world of organizations, I started to see that the value of measurement can be found less in precision and mathematical finesse than in communication and learning. The most elegant performance management system is useless unless it is genuinely called on to help people communicate, learn, and adapt. 

In other words, measures need to be applied to produce data; data needs to be reviewed and interpreted to be useful; and useful information needs to be considered in context if people are to learn and improve. 

I can say with confidence that measures and data alone will not change organizations or behavior. There are too many psychological, organizational, and social factors that can prevent measures from translating into learning and improvement.

As a society, we spend huge sums of money on human performance measurement—and we start measurement early. All of us are familiar with the U.S. public education system, which now tests every student in the third through eight grade annually. In a number of states, databases are being developed to link these test scores to school, teachers, and student demographic information. 

When we graduate from the public education system, we find that most large organizations rely on annual employee appraisal systems. A manager can spend a few months each year rating employees, summarizing the information, and providing feedback. 

Despite the intensity of the data-gathering, improvement is not obvious. Many are dissatisfied with the measurement systems.  As a result, these measurement systems are often re-imagined and implemented with great hope and promise, only to fail. I don’t think much of this activity and investment. Don’t misunderstand: I’m a fan of measurement, because it’s critical to precise feedback and growth. But I’m an advocate for thoughtful investment in measurement. I’ve seen its transformative power. 

The public education system is still experimenting with measurement systems, and will be for years to come. Some corporations rethink their annual appraisal systems regularly. 

Technological and social trends suggest that performance measurement will only increase. Some argue that this investment is inappropriate. Addressing the merits of this societal investment isn’t my purpose here. My purpose is to make sure that individuals, organizations, and society get more value from the investments that are made.

I have workable tools and tips to make sure all of this data yields some return. Paradoxically, I won’t spend much time writing about measures. As I’ve said, it’s not as much about the measures as how they are used. I hope you will find the posts in the following weeks useful.

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