OPINION21 May 2010

Do we live in an age of measurement?

The headmaster of Eton College has said that an obsession with data is harming boarding schools.

Speaking at the Boarding Schools’ Association’s annual conference earlier this month, Tony Little said: “It is a sad thing, it seems to me, that where once men were able to speak of sweeps of history such as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, we now seem to inhabit the Age of Measurement… Our day-to-day lives are circumscribed by a variation of the McNamara fallacy: only that which can be measured has worth, if it cannot be measured it can have no worth. This kind of thinking cuts to the heart of everything I believe in as the head of a boarding school.”

Inspections have helped to bring improvements over the years, he said, but measurement “comes at a cost”, distorting the way staff and students work and putting short-term goals ahead of long-term success. Teachers have become more risk averse and pupils have worked out how to achieve the stated targets with the minimum effort.

In a commercial context, market researchers are the ones who have to justify the cost of measurement – both the money spent on it and the unintended consequences of how you choose to do it on how your business performs.

In recent years there has been growing pressure to demonstrate returns on investment in research – to measure your measurement. Little’s comments provide a warning that this sort of thinking can only go so far.

Market research is about making better decisions. But it’s not always easy to know what decisions you might have made, or what the consequences would have been, had it not been for the research. So for all its boardroom appeal, attaching a simple, numerical value to research can be misguided.

Tony Little says this sort of overemphasis on meeting targets is at odds with everything he believes in. Before relying too much on measurement for reassurance, buyers of research need to consider what they believe in too. Putting your customer at the heart of your business. Basing your decisions on evidence. Staying alert to change. There’s value there that everyone can understand.

@RESEARCH LIVE

1 Comment

13 years ago

Constructing and then knocking down straw men is fun. But to say measures harm boarding schools, that we measure too much now or we believe only what is measured is important is disingenuous. Measures are made because they provide evidence of change, growth, development, decline and decay. When you know, when you have measured, then you can better compare, better assess and better judge what should be done. You don’t need measures to compare, assess or judge to act, but generally better decisions are those based on some objective understanding, some observable facts and measures supply or attempt to supply that objective understanding. And in reality, only things that matter to people are actually measured. The public pays for weather forecasts, based on past weather measures, because knowing the likely helps adjust future behaviour. Punters review form guides in the same hope, with the same reason, and businesses measure consumer behaviour or intent to maximise supply of wanted or saleable goods or services, for strengthened and measured profits. Without measures base, we would have faith and belief, opinion and view, to guide us. While we all believe our own beliefs, faiths and opinions are generally correct, reality does intrude. It does rain in Australia and you do need to be prepared for that – or be wet. Companies can produce great products that are sales duds because consumers just didn’t want them. Even great cricket teams can decline and that decline is most easily seen by the measures – wins, losses, runs scored or wickets taken. Once you know, once you really know because you have measured, then you can more effectively act. Not all things are worth measuring but usually things that matter are measured, and measured objective bases are better bases for action than gut feel. Hence, Eton’s Head may just have to live with a more modern world that uses measures as aids to better thinking, better practice and better lives, and reflect stoically that today’s measure-approach is in accord with later Age of Enlightenment views that you act to secure the greatest good for the greatest many, and to know that, you do need to measure!

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