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July 21, 2016

Tony Fujs wrote a great blog post last year on how performance measurement systems should aspire to be more like a GPS navigation device. He compared the real-time and painless processes of collecting and presenting data inherent in a GPS to the expensive, intrusive and slow processes that are typical of most evaluations. Not only that, for a GPS, the user interface has been well designed so the advice is clear and (when voice-enabled) hard to ignore; whereas an evaluation report may be a hard to read and easily discarded volume of paper, produced long after the intervention has had its impact.

GPS image

Fujs drew the lessons that performance measurement systems should strive for automatic data collection and processing, and that results should be useful, understandable and hard to ignore. While recognising the importance of a culture of data, he pointed out that ‘drivers adopted the GPS because it is useful and easy to use, not because they developed a culture of data. Building useful, simple, and intuitive performance measurement systems can also be a powerful and sustainable strategy to generate buy-in.’

However, we need to recognise several differences between navigating the terrain of organisational performance and navigating roads. These can be separated into the issues of problem definition and of problem solution.

Problem definition

It is easy to define the problem for a GPS – simply state the selected destination, and then allow the machine to calculate the fastest route. For organisational problem solving, the aim is rarely so clear. Objectives are often multiple, contested and ambiguous. In addition, the purpose of the evaluation may not even be to recommend a specific solution, but just to map out the terrain – to provide information on the merit, worth and significance of the program, to use Scriven’s definition of evaluation. This is analogous to the ‘map’ mode of a GPS (as opposed to the ‘route’ mode – simply providing the map in front of us, and the driver can use that to decide where to go). In this case, it is worth noting, there are no instructions from the GPS on which way to go.

Problem solution

I never cease to be amazed by modern technology, including that of a GPS. From the detailed data on all the roads in the nation that have been entered into a data base somewhere, to the remarkable technology of orbiting satellites that, from a distance of many thousands of kilometres are able to provide precise location. In addition to all that, the computational power to assess all feasible routes and present a recommendation, residing in a small box in the car, is probably greater than that of a main frame computer of a few decades ago. This billion dollar investment in supporting technology – satellites, computational hardware and software – is only economically feasible because there are many millions of GPS devices all performing comparable tasks to share the costs. Most evaluations, unfortunately, are bespoke tasks that are unable to share the computational load with others. There are simply not the resources available to provide such a comprehensive data base and powerful analytical engine for such evaluations.

The nature of organisational problems is often much harder than finding the fastest route from A to B. For a GPS, there may be traffic and roadworks, but for organisations there are people, politics, and forces that are sometimes actively trying to stop you getting where you want to go. In these circumstances, mapping a route can be a complex problem that defies a simple solution.

Getting to the destination

But the lessons Fujs teaches us are nevertheless important. We may not have access to the equivalent of a detailed electronic map, but there are many sources of free or easy to get data that may be relevant. We may not have access to a suite of satellites in the sky, but perhaps we can talk to citizens in the street. And we certainly need to simplify evaluation reports and make them more timely. Perhaps, in some ideal future, decision-makers will turn to evaluation as frequently as drivers turn to their GPS; but let’s hope they also continue to keep their eyes on the road!


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