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Can too much measurement actually be a bad thing?

This post was written by Imogen Casebourne and first appeared on the Epic blog on 12th April 2013.

measurementPerhaps not surprisingly given my job as Epic’s Director of Learning, I’m a big fan of self-directed life-long learning.

As someone who loves reading, learning about things is relatively straightforward. Learning how to do new things without a teacher or coach has been tougher. In the last 20 years, I’ve mastered two actual languages (the ones people speak) and several programming languages (the ones people code), as well as learning how to Jive. But learning new skills such as these is time-consuming and requires willpower, determination, resilience and some way of getting feedback on how you are doing.

Enter quantified self-movement

That’s why I’ve been excited by the recent development of quantified-self movement apps. Although many of these are aimed at people aiming to lose weight, cut down on smoking or manage medical conditions, these apps harness technology to help individuals with issues such as willpower and resilience. The apps harness the power of technology to help provide the reminders, information and feedback on performance that keep users working towards their goals even when the going gets tough. This is exactly the sort of technology that could also be of real assistance for self-directed learners, battling their way towards self-imposed goals and assignments.

So I’m excited about these innovations, and their potential to gather data that in turn allows technology to offer ever more useful and targeted feedback on learning and performance.

However, it’s important for techie enthusiasts (myself included) not to be blinded by the positive potential of new technologies and therefore fail to anticipate and plan for the potential negative consequences of using these. In the interests of playing devil’s advocate, it’s worth thinking about how quantified self-movement may appear to those individuals who don’t want to set themselves goals and measure their progress towards them. While I think working towards learning goals is fun, worthwhile and something everyone can benefit from, it does and should remain an optional way of spending your free time.

The potential perils of over-measurement

Consider Klout. If you set yourself the goal of being influential in social media, Klout is a great way of finding out how you’re doing. It uses an algorithm to award you a score, showing you how influential you are in comparison with peers. Useful feedback. But should you put that score on your CV? Should your boss be able to ask what it is? What if organisations start to measure how influential staff are within the organisation, using internal measures? This is a question Michael Schrager posed in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review.

If measurement via technology starts to be externally imposed rather than self-imposed, it could be experienced as an unpleasant extra burden rather than a useful tool. What started as a movement embraced by enthusiasts trying to realise their ambitions to grow and develop could morph into a quantified worker movement, with harassed employees battling to fulfil a multiplicity of externally imposed targets.

This is something the commentator Evgeny Morozov warns against. Part of the concern is that as big data merges with the ‘Internet of Things’ (with people sporting wearable technology becoming ever more measurable in their behaviour) the effect may start to feel like Big Brother. To some extent, this is already happening in some types of roles, with workers at Amazon packing stores allegedly having both their movements and work-rate measured by tracking devices, and workers at some call centres being measured on the number of calls they answer.

For individuals, this over-measurement could very well be dispiriting and stressful, which might not work out too well for organisations either. The old adage ‘you get what you measure’ reminds us that the results of choosing the wrong measures can be unexpected and unwanted.

For that reason, I think that it’s vital that organisations be very careful indeed when deciding what they will set out to measure. As they find they have the opportunity to measure more than was previously possible, they will need to consider carefully how this will impact their relationship with employees. In the field of learning and development, well-meaning professionals are offering better support with tailored feedback, easier access through mobile device and learning with game mechanics such as badges to reward achievement. But before deploying, they should conduct careful analysis to be sure they understand how these measures will be viewed by their target audience.

They just might find that it may be better for employees to set their own learning goals when it requires very close measurement of progress.