Quantitative measurement of performance—of peoples, of organizations, of institutions—purports to provide accountability and transparency. But this heightened expectations for key performance indicators and metrics is a symptom of a broader erosion of social trust. It’s part of a broader economic narrative that tells us that human judgment is inherently fallible and untrustworthy; numbers provide the objective truth of the matter where human judgment cannot or will not. Numbers provide objective criteria by which to assess the performance of others and ourselves, while providing evidence to protect us accusations of mismanagement or poor decision-making. Often, we're less interested in the right decision than the defensible one; pointing to supposedly "scientific" or "objective" data helps on that score.
They also serve to bring into line employees who cannot be trusted to put the needs of shareholders or profitability above their own; in this sense, the metrics function as a proxy for a kind of social contract. (See: Principal-agent theory.)
For public institutions, they serve to reinforce the economic narrative of efficiency above all else, by holding public missions accountable to hard logic.
Of course, this assumes the numbers themselves can be trusted. Unfortunately, there's no reason to expect quantitative measures to be more reliable than qualitative assessment.
- Measuring performance stymies organizational intimacy
- Measurement changes our relationship to our work.