• Robb G. Best

Measuring the Unmeasureable

"Metric" is a kind of sexed up word for measurement, popular among the corporate crowd. The interesting thing about "metric" is that it has moved beyond its institutional role, denoting a specific calculation, to one that implies actual value.

I can evaluate your sales output in dollars, but judging the impact of education on a sales force is a Herculean task. To that end, when budget time rolls around, a ‘soft asset’ like education is frequently eliminated. The devaluation of education is a common theme in corporate America, where the spreadsheet reigns supreme.

The operating assumption is that if it can’t be measured, it is expendable. Yet there is an obvious flaw here. Take, for example, a patient waiting in the emergency room with a migraine headache. Migraines can cause excruciating, near-unbearable pain. No one would argue they don't exist, but how does one go about measuring just how much it hurts?

Medical institutions sometimes attempt to answer this question by employing a 1-10 scale, with one representing relative comfort and 10 denoting agony. The individual is asked to assess his or her level of pain against this scale.

On the face of it, this sounds like a cogent method. The problem is that there's zero frame of reference. After all, you can only have one headache at a time. And even if you suggest a number, how do you know your scale lines up with anyone else's?

Since measuring sensation is anything but an exact science, it can be easy to dismiss. No one would suggest that makes sense, especially the person in the emergency room. And it’s not just headaches. You can’t measure love or depression, or even the shifting momentum in a football game, yet they are clearly important.

The spreadsheet, the fiscal benchmark of modern corporations, has limitations. It works well for the quantifiable, the left brain analytics. There is no comparable right brain, feelings-driven chart.

All evidence suggests that the emotional brain drives decision-making, while the rational brain only comes along for the ride. But applying analytics to a non-analytical entity is like measuring the distance between two objects only using hope. It works well in cartoons, but translates badly onto Excel.

No matter where you are, hope--like education--is vital. But making the argument with numbers can be a challenge.

The truth is corporate managers will continue to sing the praises of education and then slash it from the budget until they recognize a simple truth: that which defies measurement doesn’t lack value. If that were the case, millions of people would lose hope.

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