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1, 2, 3, No! - Don't get lost in questionable numbers...
Wed, 30th Jul 2014
FYI, this story is more than a year old

I’m constantly amazed at how enamoured people are with numbers.

Every time I give a presentation, I see people scribble down statistics about anything even if the validity or actionability of the number is questionable.

I’m not arguing against the use of data for informed decision making, I’m just amused at how people glom onto statistics for their own sake. (If you want to explore the lure of statistics further, I’d recommend reading Charles Wheelan’s book Naked Statistics.)

There’s another kind of number that is bothersome – those metrics that organisations often collect about performance.

Most often they are the ‘easy to collect’ types of numbers that really don’t tell us much.

They can report activity but don’t contain much insight on what the activity means. Say, for example, that you have a community of practice with 100 members.

Is that better than a community with only 10 members? We can’t really tell unless we explore how well the community is servicing its members. If the 10-person CoP is giving the membership what they want, then the value of the community can’t really be measured just by looking a headcount.

Where activity measures do come in handy is for determining progress. So let’s say our goal is to create a new CoP for software engineers so they can share best practices.

As we market the new community to engineers, tracking which activities let to the greatest increase in membership will help us understand which approaches work best. In this case, tracking the percentage growth in membership over time is useful as is watching for a drop off in membership which could indicate waning interest or relevance of the community.

What I’m really anxious to see, though, are numbers that help me improve my work performance. I’m hoping that before long there will be a digital workplace Fitbit that will give me analytics that I can use to make meaningful adjustments to how I work.

It’s not hard to imagine an app that would give me feedback on things like the time of day when I’m most productive. In fact, there are companies that provide this type of measurement analysis today.

But going further, it would be so nice to be able to track the progress I’m making in pattern recognition of key trends, my success in collaborating with colleagues, my improvement in communication and presentation skills.

The numbers that will be most useful are those that help me understand why something happened the way it did and what to do differently to change it.

Instead of a flat number – “your research report received this score from readers” – personal analytics that are actionable will tell me what readers liked about it that made them give it a high score and what they would like to see improved.

Those are the numbers I can appreciate!

By Carol Rozwell - Analyst, Gartner