Written by
Paul Kirkham

Published
11 Jul 2017

Avoiding measurement for measurements sake

11 Jul 2017 • by Paul Kirkham

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

This commentary on the science of measurement is traditionally attributed to either Albert Einstein or William Bruce Cameron, an American professor of sociology. Could either have imagined how enduring it would prove?

Management by metrics is not without merit – far from it. In many cases, as the old adage says, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. A basis for comparison is the universal key for discerning improvement.

But sometimes it pays to pause and think about what – if anything – is actually being measured. Nowadays, in the rush to “turn data into decisions” and with everything from sales figures to intelligence quotients likely to feature in the average organisation’s ever-expanding databanks, it’s easy to forget that many things really can’t be measured at all. For example, what about the attributes that might come under an umbrella term such as “the human element”?

A landmark lesson in 'garbage in, garbage out'

Sir Francis’s Galton’s Hereditary Genius, published in 1869, represented the first scientific attempt to study “greatness”. Today it makes for a truly jaw-dropping read. There are few better illustrations of false premises leading to false conclusions.

Working from a starting point that “high reputation is a pretty accurate test of high ability”, Galton compiled a list of English judges from 1660 to 1868. He then investigated whether the characteristics that marked them out were passed on to their descendants.

 And would you credit it? It turned out many judges’ sons became judges themselves, while others became “bishops, archbishops, novelists, physicians, admirals and generals”. “There cannot, then, remain any doubt that the peculiar type of ability that is necessary to a judge is often transmitted by descent,” proclaimed Galton.

 We could laugh at this astonishing instance of ‘GIGO’ – garbage in, garbage out – were it not for two sobering considerations. First, eugenics, the “science” that grew out of Galton’s ramblings, reached its wretched zenith in Nazi Germany. Second, there’s very probably more GIGO now than ever.

 Galton further argued that “sterling ability is sure to make itself felt” and that “if a man is gifted with vast intellectual ability, eagerness to work and power of working... he is sure to be welcomed with universal acclamation”. But where does this leave those who might be more modest and unassuming – or even more principled – than some of their fellows?

Qualities that defy metrics

Norman Heatley, the biochemist whose work on penicillin culture transformed Alexander Fleming’s discovery into a practical treatment, appears to have missed out on the Nobel Prize because the committee restricts laureates to a maximum of three persons per award. In 1990, he belatedly received a single honorary degree. Fleming claimed the Nobel Prize, received an estimated 25 honorary degrees, picked up numerous medals and other distinctions and was even immortalised in several statues.

It’s reported that if it was ever suggested he should have enjoyed Fleming-like fame Heatley would simply shrug his shoulders and say: “Oh, well...” Even the omission of his name from papers and patents in the US amused rather than irked him. As one colleague remarked: “I think he just enjoyed the fact that he’d been involved in important work.”

 

Physicist Richard Feynman did win a Nobel Prize – for his groundbreaking research in the field of quantum electrodynamics – but shared Heatley’s disdain for being judged. “I’ve already got the prize,” he said. “The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it – those are the real things. The honours are unreal to me.”

No metric could reliably reveal sentiments such as these. The would-be unsung hero or the brilliant innovator who dislikes fanfare can’t be quantified, classified or categorised – not in a way that’s meaningful or even remotely precise. It’s seems far more likely that metrics would serve only to further obscure such qualities – or even to damage them.

The fact is that we don’t need to crunch absolutely everything into data – particularly when the threat of GIGO is all too great. There are other means of gauging worth. Sometimes it’s better simply to listen – or, even better still, to talk. The more we measure for measurement’s sake, the more we risk changing the very things we’re measuring; and the more we try to evaluate every single aspect of “human capital”, however well intentioned our efforts, the more we risk dehumanisation.