For every quantification, there’s a way of gaming it. So argues this timely manifesto against measured accountability and other “knowledge that seems solid but that is actually deceptive.”
“Man is the measure of all things,” said Greek philosopher Protagoras. These days, it seems that humans are the most measured of all things, endlessly tested and quantified. As Muller (History/Catholic Univ. of America; The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought, 2002, etc.) observes, “a key premise of metric fixation concerns the relationship between measurement and improvement.” In other words, we are measured so that we provide more productivity, better test scores, and more money. In fact, as the author notes, when we are measured so fixedly and fixatedly, we tend to figure out ingenious workarounds: surgeons whose success rates are so quantified, with hospital ratings and pay scales set accordingly, tend to avoid difficult cases that can skew the score. The quality of information gathered tends to be degraded with increasing standardization—witness the phenomenon of teaching to the test, which in the end teaches almost nothing but improves the numbers by lowering the expectations and the standards. In a spirited, nicely wrought diatribe that is of a piece with Edward Tufte’s much-studied excoriation of our addiction to PowerPoint presentations, Muller delivers some sharp arguments against received wisdom. He is the rare college professor who allows that not everyone should be in college, that “the metric goal of ever more college students is dubious even by the economistic criteria by which higher education is often measured.” So what is to be done? Deprecate metric fixation, the author argues, in favor of “the key functions of management: thinking ahead, judging, and deciding.” Ask the old cui bono question: who benefits from more metrics? And other such revolutionary stuff.
A monkey wrench in the works of HR, bean-counting, and other such enterprises and a pleasure for contrarians in a hypernumerate world.