The quest for the holy metric?
On: 18th January 2012
“The only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew every time he sees me, while all the rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them”
There has been a lot of talk in the sector recently around developing common and shared approaches to measurement. Of course I am supportive of this if it enables a better understanding of social change and ultimately improves our work. However, to really get at the root of the problem, I think it’s worth reflecting on why we need shared measures at all.
George Bernard Shaw eloquently makes the point that measurement needs to be ongoing and tailored to the individual to be meaningful.
For project evaluation this means that we use different measures to effectively capture the changes that occur in our projects. While they may be some similarities, many projects will have different sought outcomes, will work in different domains and will employ a different approach. This leaves us with the situation we have now, lots of different scales and measures being used across the social development sector.
So let’s take time to consider why do we need to have common measures anyway? I suspect Mr Bernard Shaw’s tailor was using a tape measure. But frankly he could have measured dear George in string lengths or arm span if he was the only one who needed to know. This would only have become a problem when he needed to buy his cloth (presuming string length is not a measurement standard in the tailoring industry). In other words, our individualised measurements only become a problem when they have to interact with another measure. This intersection is where a shared value is defined. So while the tailor may have known exactly how much cloth was required for his ‘just short of a hug’ waist measurement of George, he’d have to translate this into inches and feet to figure out how much the required material would cost. I suspect that the transition from arm stretch to tape measure is a little easier than the challenges we face demonstrating the social value of our projects. But it provides a useful question to help understand the purpose of shared measurement in the social development sector: Where are and when do we have these intersections of measurement and value definition in project evaluation?
Hopefully there will be answers already buzzing around your head, but for me a lot of it can be boiled down to 2 main areas:
- Communication – when we need to articulate and communicate the change that has happened in a particular situation to others. (Communication could be internally, to help understand how to improve our work, or an external communication of value, e.g. to investors or funders).
- Comparison – when we compare the impact of different projects and approaches. (Both internally to know whether an approach is working, or externally so investors or funders consider whether they are interested in supporting a project or not).
The problem behind this communication and comparison is that while tailors can commonly define value in terms of the amount or type of cloth, in our sector we don’t all value the same social change. Different organisations, funders, investors and governments, all have different understandings of what is important in creating social change, all have different theories of change, and consequently all value different things. So the heart of the common measures issue is not an evaluation problem, it’s a translation problem - how can I translate the value that I have captured into a language that you understand so that you value the work too?
So how do we go about translating our value so that we can all communicate about it? I’d been interested in your thoughts, and I’ve shared mine here.