To Measure or Not to Measure – The Dilemma Continues

Einstein said ‘everything that counts cannot be counted and not everything that can be counted counts’. But common wisdom has it that ‘you cannot manage what you cannot measure’.

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Much of human nature and most of the business world thrives on the measurable. The stock market is after all the most quantified of company success measures.

And herein lies a key dilemma for the corporate responsibility practitioner; for CR to succeed within the business we need to demonstrate our value to the business with measurable outcomes. But for businesses to fully embrace corporate responsibility within the wider world, the business and its stakeholders need to embrace that not everything that counts can be counted.

I have written a number of posts on the topic; a commentary for GE’s sustainability report on the role of ROI in corporate responsibility; a piece for this blog on my view that SMART (where the M stands for measurable) objectives can undermine sustainability objectives; I have also written a number of times on my views on quantified corporate responsibility rankings.

This past Sunday the New York Times carried two articles expressing the same dilemma, but in different fields.

In Metric Mania in The Way We Live Now section of the magazine, Johan Allen Paulos explores the extent to which we use metrics, and presents some examples of how easily they can be misleading. His examples come mostly from social issues; medicine and poverty for example. He uses a ranking of the ’20 Most Lovable Neighborhoods’, “Friendliest Colleges’ and finally Standard and Poor’s Credit Ratings to illustrate the extent to which selecting and adjusting (I would say ‘weighting’) the criteria impacts the outcomes. Very similar to my concerns about CR ranking programs.

The Book Review carried a review of a book on testing and choice in education by Diane Ravich. According to the review, the book claims that testing has been gamed (my word) by teaching to the test, and apparent improvement achieved by changing testing procedures. These ideas parallel my concerns about the sustainability downside of measurable objectives. Illustrating the dilemma further, the author of course has to call on data to reach her conclusions!

Read both pieces. They are well worth it. They show that the measurement issues we are struggling with in corporate responsibility are not unique to us. We would do well I am sure to watch and learn from findings in other fields. Paulos concludes “This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be counting – but it does mean we should do so with as much care and wisdom as we can muster”.

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