Segregating Information By Intended Use
In the last few words of his above protest, Flamholtz (1979) notes that measurements are intended to provide a basis for decision making. This is true of all measurement categories. Motivational measurement is used to decide whom to reward and whom to punish, thereby providing impetus for workers. Refinement of process measurement is used to decide which processes to redesign and how to redesign them. Coordination measurement is used to decide when to acquire new resources and how to allocate them.
It is important to notice that the distinctions between the categories of measurement reside entirely in distinctions between the categories of the decisions for which they are intended to provide information. Nothing about a piece of information makes it inherently motivational or informational. Rather, it is the way in which the information is used that determines the measurement category. Measuring the progress of a software project and comparing the measurements against planned progress generates information that is probably of interest to someone. But knowing the nature of the information and how it is generated does not permit categorization of the measurement. Something more must be known about the way in which the information will be used. If the reason for measuring is to decide who among project managers should receive the largest salary increase, then the measurement is motivational. If the reason for measuring is to decide how to improve development processes, then the measurement is process refinement. And if the reason for measuring is to decide when more resources should be added to the project, then the measurement is coordination.
Because the category of measurement is not inherent in the information provided by the measurement, information is difficult to segregate by intended use. Difficulty in segregating information yields a consequent difficulty in dictating how measurement information will be used. Information on whether a project is behind schedule can be used either motivationally or informationally, regardless of what was intended when the measurement system was put in place. The designers of a measurement system are usually powerless to guarantee that measurement information will be used in accord with their intentions, if not from the moment of the installation then certainly by the time the system has been in place for a while.
People working on activities that are being measured understand that dictating the uses of measurement is difficult and choose their behaviors accordingly. Unless trust between workers and managers is greater than usual in organizations, claims that measurement will only be used in a particular way are not credible. Regardless of official declarations, workers may believe it is in their interest to assume that available information will be used for performance evaluation and begin preparing for that possibility. In preparing for motivational measurement, people being measured will glean information from the design of the measurement system. Ridgway (1956) points out that
- Even where performance measures are instituted purely for purposes of information, they are probably interpreted as definitions of the important aspects of that job or activity and hence have important implications for the motivation of behavior (p. 247).
People in organizations have a justifiable interest in understanding what is important to those who make decisions about rewards and punishments. And measurement systems—even those that are supposed to be purely informational—provide some of this understanding.
As has been shown in the examples, dysfunction is a possible result of the difficulty in segregating uses of information. Dysfunction occurs when the validity of information delivered by a system of measurement is compromised by the unintended reactions of those being measured. Unintended reactions become possible whenever measures are imperfect. Recall the hypothetical farm-produce regulation example at the end of Chapter Two; produce ratings were not intended to be evaluative, but, rather, to provide a common language for use by buyers and sellers in talking about fruits and vegetables over telephone lines. The intention of the regulation is coordination, to allow buyers to make purchases based on independently verified grade rather than based on expensive trips to inspect produce being considered for purchase. The dysfunction arises in such a case because motivational uses of the measurement information are not precluded by the design of the measurement system. The price of some grades is higher, and buyers and farmers react to that fact, regardless of the system designers’ intentions.
Note that many measurement systems are expressly intended to serve both motivational and informational purposes. It is common to hear motivational phrases like “improved accountability” intermingled with informational phrases like “better understanding of processes” in justifications of organizational measurement systems. As will be shown, even some experts have these dual expectations of their measurement systems. When systems are expected to perform motivationally and informationally, situational characteristics that affect the quality of measures become critical. For many such systems, the phenomena being measured seem far too complex to permit perfect measurement, which in turn seems to imply dire consequences for the systems’ prospects of avoiding dysfunction. Unless the latitude to subvert measures can be eliminated (that is, unless measures can be made perfect)—a special case—or some means can be established for preventing certain kinds of information use (for example, if it could be made unthinkable within an organization’s culture to use measurement to evaluate people), dysfunction seems destined to accompany organizational measurement. The sense of inevitability in Campbell’s (1979) law of corruption of measurement indicators seems justified:
- The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor (p. 85).