By Dr Lindsay McMillan

Recently I have been reflecting on the role metrics play in the workplace. It is timely to be thinking about the huge role they play especially as many of us prepare for the end of the Financial Year.

Organisations are getting ready, with annual report in hand, to front shareholders on whether business has performed better or worse than the last financial year. These reports are full of measurements: profits, dividends and customer sentiments are some examples. More recently many companies also measure the percentage of women on their boards, employee productivity and community donations.

Metrics offer us clear answers to questions about performance, however not everything in the workplace is just as clear – some things simply cannot be measured.

In spite of this, metrics are used to drive decisions in many areas of the community: schools require their students to take standardised tests; hospitals, and even our governments and public servants, measure the success of surgeries by mortality rate or emergency department waiting times.

Recently, an embarrassed Victoria Police had to admit 258,000 breath tests were faked over the last five years by officers themselves. Police officers falsified breathalyser tests to meet quotas in a practice called “ghosting” to avoid being reprimanded by supervisors, particularly on long weekends when they were required to conduct tests on top of their normal duties.

This use of metrics does not incentivise people to do their job better – rather it gives them the precise figure of what is the bare minimum.

Take for example experimentation in business, something essential to keeping any business competitive, a lesson most famously learned by Kodak. Such experimentation has a net result of zero before something new is created and there are no guarantees it will be in time for the next quarterly report.

The hard work that goes into such projects and the progress it makes cannot be practicably measured, however it does not change the fact that it is needed. Jerry Muller, a professor at the Catholic University of America and the author of The Tyranny of Metrics, wrote this article suggesting many industries have fallen victim to relying on metrics alone. According to Professor Muller, focussing on results alone gives workers a disincentive to be enterprising because they are too busy focussing on what is being counted. “Compelling people in an organisation to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable features degrades the experience of work”, Professor Muller contends. 

Metrics are important; however, they should not be prioritised ahead of good judgement. We simply cannot measure everything that matters with numbers.