Looking Past Professional Values? The Dark Side of Metric-Based Performance Evaluation

Measurement can contribute to better performance, but only if the measures are designed to function in alliance with professional values rather than as an alternative to them.

Extract from an article by Theodore M. Porter

The notion of a “metric” as a performance measure became familiar in the 1970s and 1980s as a tool of business management. Almost immediately, its use was extended to the assessment of a range of activities and institutions, from medical outcomes and educational programs to military projects. The credibility of metrics rests in part on an affiliation with ideas of business efficiency and in part on the supposition that measurement is tantamount to science.

Although the numbers whose “tyranny” form the subject of Jerry Muller’s timely book [The Tyranny of Metrics] share some of the attributes of scientific measurement, their purposes are primarily administrative and political. They are designed to be incorporated into systems of what might be called “data-ocracy,” often for the sake of public accountability: Schools, hospitals, and corporate divisions whose numbers meet or exceed their goals are to be rewarded, whereas poor numbers, taken to imply underperformance, may bring penalties or even annihilation. In The Tyranny of Metrics, Muller shows how teachers, doctors, researchers, and managers are driven to sacrifice the professional goals they value in order to improve their numbers.

Measurement, he concludes, can contribute to better performance, but only if the measures are designed to function in alliance with professional values rather than as an alternative to them. Good metrics cannot be detached from customs and practices but must depend on a willingness to immerse oneself in the work of these institutions.

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