Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Employee behavior analysis

When is measurement a good thing? Louis Menand's short New Yorker essay "The Graduates" inspired me to continue the thread I started with "When not to connect the dots." Although Menand is writing specifically about American higher education, his diagnosis of its strengths and weaknesses seems intended to apply much more broadly--to any system founded on principles of universal access and meritocracy.

Menand explains, "Meritocratic systems are democratic (since, in theory, everyone gets a place at the starting line) and efficient (since resources are not wasted on the unqualified), but they are huge engines of anxiety. The more purely meritocratic the system—the more open, the more efficient, the fairer—the more anxiety it produces, because there is no haven from competition."

Those of us who are regularly called on to measure social networks see this anxiety play out all the time. Potential survey respondents rightfully fear being rewarded or punished based on their position and activity in the network. Normally in my work, I devote significant energy to acknowledging this "measurement anxiety" and helping leaders and their organizations to manage it productively. For a CEO, however, unmitigated meritocracy has an especially important role to play. I experienced that CEO perspective firsthand while reading Menand's essay. At the time, I was in the middle of assigning semester grades to my 60 students. At such a moment, efficient meritocratic action is necessary, and empathy for rank-and-file anxiety is a burden too heavy to be worth bearing.

The dilemma of measurement anxiety is nothing new. A classic New Yorker cartoon shows the Druids celebrating the creation of Stonehenge. One remarks, "Now that we can tell time, I'd like to suggest that we begin imposing deadlines."

We take deadlines for granted now and very rarely if ever live without a clock handy. Network measurements are not nearly so ubiquitous as wristwatches, and we are still figuring out where those measurements cross the line and do more harm than good.

Some network practitioners are clumsily crossing this line (in my opinion). I would rather not link to them or name them directly. Thankfully, Bill Ives recently panned the very malefactors I had in mind on FASTForward. I am happy to link to FASTForward, where the world of "Enterprise 2.0" (including messy issues like measurement anxiety) looks to get a good airing.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License and is copyrighted (c) 2007 by Connective Associates except where otherwise noted.


Brian Grant said...

Bruce, you may be interested in the comment I added to that entry of the FASTForward blog. I don't want to restate it here as it mentions a company product by name as well. However, I had a little e-mail conversation with someone from that company who tried to address my similar concerns.

allyson said...

I enjoyed reading Menand's essay and agree that meritocratic systems are, as he writes, "huge engines of anxiety". I think, at times, the reasons for this are different from those he states. Alain De Botton has written an book exploring this topic called Status Anxiety. I recommend it.