ISPI and Metrics

Measurement Counts! Metrics, ROI, and Accomplishments (the missing element)

A recent publication, Metrics, by Jay Cross of the Internet Time Group, presents an opportunity to comment on some current issues in measurement and evaluation. The author, who happens to be an old friend, is an entertaining and wide-ranging thinker (some might say Renaissance Man), and his book is noteworthy in part because of its unconventional form: a constantly updated eBook available for purchase online. Jay’s history in financial services, training, marketing, and a whole host of cerebral pursuits has left him most recently in the world of e-Learning, where he has become something of a pundit.

While I don’t agree with everything in Metrics, I recommend it because it’s a quick and enjoyable read, because it contains valuable references and links, and mostly because it challenges us to think outside many of the current ruts in measurement and evaluation.

Things I Like about Metrics
Here are some of Jay’s key points along with my comments:

  • “Metrics are measurements that matter.” With this sentence, he challenges us to measure results that our clients agree are important and to look for large valuable improvements. He adds, “Don’t fritter away time on the small stuff.”

  • “Start with business problems and work backwards.” He later adds that we should “focus on process not on behavior.” These comments point in the direction of our best strategy for measuring the right things, following Thomas F. Gilbert’s dictum to identify accomplishments, the outputs of processes or of individual jobs that contribute value toward business results. Behavior costs money while accomplishments have value. Following the path from business results back through measured accomplishments will lead to the behavior and improvement strategies that produce worthwhile organizational outcomes.

  • “Forget measurement of value based on cost savings!” As an e-Learning strategy consultant, Jay has probably tired of cost justifications based on saving travel time and expenses. It is critically important that we find ways to use our technologies and interventions to improve outcomes, not simply reduce costs for the same (often mediocre) outcomes.

  • “Time matters.” Whether we’re speaking of time to perform (fluency, productivity), time to achieve benchmark performance (ramp-up), or results over time (revenues, profits), we cannot ignore the time dimension in either our measurement of learning and performance during training or our measurement of desired business results.

  • “Gather baseline data.” While it is easy to interpret this statement as simply that we need a “before” measure to evaluate the worth of our “after” results, the “line” in baseline is very important. To clearly understand the effects of our interventions, we must view current performance in the context of measured levels, trends, and bounce (or variability) over time. We need a series of counts (per minute, per day, per week, or per month) to establish a true baseline so that we can tell whether our interventions or ongoing efforts are changing trends, levels, and/or the “bounce” (variability) of measured outcomes.

  • “You must be able to relate your decisions and choices to the profitability of your organization.” While much of Jay’s discussion focuses on what I call “validation data”—measurement to justify expenditures by showing that programs work—the best measurement systems support ongoing decision-making. This is why I recommend ongoing measurement as feedback to performers and decision-makers, and why I like Timm Esque’s book, Making An Impact, so much.

  • Jay disagrees with much of the current thinking about ROI, suggesting that his book can save you the cost of an ROI workshop. Whether or not this is true, managers would certainly prefer to see how your program improves their specific outcomes beyond a general payback ratio or cost justification. And since some current-day ROI “methods” use subjective estimates of payback rather than direct results measures, we need to question in detail many ROI claims before we accept them.

Things I Don’t Like So Much About Metrics
Lest you think I’m giving my friend a free pass, let me make a few comments about shortcomings.

  • The second half of the book is mostly a justification for e-Learning, something I would have preferred left to a few pages. I recognize that Jay makes his living in this field, but it would be more helpful if the book addressed the general case with a broader set of examples. Moreover, it is inconceivable that even the best e-Learning program will produce optimal results without efforts to improve other factors in a performance system, including expectations, feedback, tools, resources, consequences, and selection.

  • Jay does not discuss what’s a good measure and what’s not. For example, he mentions the limitations of test results as metrics but does not explain that percentage correct is not a measure of performance because it is a dimensionless quantity from which we cannot determine either the count of behavior or accomplishments nor the time required to complete them. He does not point out that the best metrics count things in absolute units (dollars, widgets, gallons, etc.) rather than rating them on subjective scales. Careful application of all his recommendations can still yield meaningless measurement if we fail to adhere to this basic principle.

  • Jay speaks of using both “subjective and objective” data. For me, the term “subjective” means open to wide interpretation or idiosyncratic. What I think he means by “subjective” is measurement of opinion or preference, which can be very objective if we refrain from applying “voodoo math” by summarizing numbers on rating scales of subjective impressions to produce “average” ratings. It is not subjective to say that “20 people out of 45 rated the program as very good and 10 said it was poor”—a quantitative measure of personal opinion that can be safely manipulated within the rules of arithmetic.

I suggest you read Metrics yourself, and discuss it vigorously with your colleagues and clients. I am sure you will find it both entertaining and illuminating.

Dr. Carl Binder is a Senior Partner at Binder Riha Associates, a consulting firm that helps clients improve processes, performance, and behavior to deliver measurable results. He may be reached at [email protected]. For additional articles, visit

Posted by Jay Cross at March 10, 2004 07:05 PM | TrackBack

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