Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Are you measuring the right thing?

Statistics is a fantastic tool and capable of creating enormous advances. However, it remains the slave of the data that you have. The worst case scenario is when the "objective metric" is actually measuring the wrong thing. Consider customer service in Modern America:

Modern businesses do best at improving their performance when they can use scalable technologies that increase efficiency and drive down cost. But customer service isn’t scalable in the same way; it tends to require lots of time and one-on-one attention. Even when businesses try to improve service, they often fail. They carefully monitor call centers to see how long calls last, how long workers are sitting at their desks, and so on. But none of this has much to do with actually helping customers, so companies end up thinking that their efforts are adding up to a much better job than they really do. In a recent survey of more than three hundred big companies a few years ago, eighty per cent described themselves as delivering “superior” service, but consumers put that figure at just eight per cent.

Here, the core issue seems to be that measuring efficiency at delivering customer service is not the same thing as having good outcomes. Having done statistics for a call center, I can assure you that they are obsessive about everything that can be measured. But satisfaction is a hard thing to measure and it most assuredly matters.

This analogy is why I am concerned with the use of standardized tests for measuring educational achievement. It is possible that they are capturing only part of a complex process and that the result of focusing on them could be fairly poor. After all, companies have tried to deliver exceptional customer service via call center for a couple of decades now and the results do not appear to be a uniform consensus that customer service is a delightful experience.

It is not that these processes can't be evaluated. It's just that the success of education or customer service may depend on things that are hard to measure. If we only measure those features that are easy to measure we may end up wondering why education is in decline despite a steady improvement in the key metrics we use to evaluate it.

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