Sunday, 10 April 2011

You can't measure everything!

OK, I know the current trend in CVs is to make sure that you concentrate on your achievements, and to quantify all the incredible successes in your outstanding, tangible and demonstrable track-record of relentless delivery.

But one can go a bit too far, especially when that involves attempting to quantify the unquantifiable.

Here’s an example:

I received a CV this week from a recruitment consultancy drawing my attention to the merits of one of their candidates.

That he had "successfully led and managed the revamp of the performance appraisal system from conception to completion and ongoing monitoring for effectiveness" I do not doubt for one moment.

That he had "reduced staff turnover by 12%" I am prepared to accept, although I doubt if he achieved this single-handedly.

But that his "measures to improve staff knowledge and understanding of the organisation’s strategic objectives led to a 14.3% increase in staff knowledge and understanding" is something I find rather difficult to fathom.

Only 14.3% I hear you gasp? Not the industry average of 14.9%? Or perhaps your organisation has managed to nudge up the score into the magical land above 15.12%.

Clearly I jest.

How can you manage to measure something as nebulous as knowledge and understanding so accurately?

The answer is that you can’t.

Yet as HR professionals, we regularly and foolishly attempt to justify our existence (and our organisations’ investment) by ascribing success to our activities and initiatives using measures that cannot withstand even the briefest challenge.

In a world obsessed by Cost Benefit Analysis, we’d do well to make ourselves familiar with this definition:
Cost Benefit Analysis is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower, and the priceless is given a price. It can never therefore serve to clarify the situation and lead to an enlightened decision. All it can do is lead to self-deception and the deception of others (Boyle 2001)
Or, how about this for a bit of controversy to get the brain cells working as the week begins?
To believe that perfect, objective, non-political decisions can be reached through number-crunching and that human prejudice can be eliminated, is the hope. Yet a fixation with quantification embroils people in a paralysis of analysis. Instead of pursuing pseudo-scientific precision – the impression of dealing objectively with things – people should measure less. Instead of analysing HR costs and benefits why not trust HR professionals to identify needs, design activities, and deliver them professionally? (Stephen Gibb, Human Resource Development, 2008)
I'm sure that at lest 56.83% of you will agree


  1. 'But that his "measures to improve staff knowledge and understanding of the organisation’s strategic objectives led to a 14.3% increase in staff knowledge and understanding" is something I find rather difficult to fathom.'

    Simples. He sends them a memo, then a follow-up multiple-choice questionnaire testing them on the content of the memo. Preferably he marshals them one by one into a windowless, locked room so that they can't cheat by looking up in a book or copying from their workmates.

    Then compares against the same test results from last year.

    Crunch the numbers ("don't know" answers can be slanted either way) and hey presto, you come out at a 14.3% increase in retention rates. Knowledge retention, I mean.

    As I said, simples.

  2. Whilst I agree that to quantify certain HR activity is futile, I think that to expect the holders of the purse strings to pay for our services based on gut feel and good will is naive.

    Oh to live in a world when the business could trust HR professionals, it would be great. But I can’t imagine that will happen until we stop spending vast amounts of the profits on things like re-developing the performance management system for the umpteenth time in the same number of years or running huge management development campaigns that are never followed through.

    When we live in the world of the tangible, why shouldn’t we attempt to be a little more scientific in what we contribute, difficult as that may be?