Joy, data (and performance management?)

Performance management is fundamentally a challenge of learning: How can we make sure employees learn from their successes and failures over time to improve their performance?

This is why I was fascinated to watch the inaugural Australian Learning Lecture, delivered by Sir Michael Barber. Barber is a British educationist who has served as head of the global education practice at McKinsey and advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Barber’s lecture focuses on the idea that more measurement leads to both better outcomes and a happier, more successful learning environment. There’s a lot of powerful thinking here that all of us involved in the space of performance management can learn from.

You can watch the lecture below (or jump down for my key takeaways on better performance management).

I took away four points that are highly relevant to how we approach performance management:

One: Measurement is suffering from an image problem

Barber makes the strong argument that “we need to reclaim data as an ally in improving the human condition…In the modern world, Joy and Data are often seen as opposites; the one creative, spontaneous, warm, and spiritual; the other, scientific, bureaucratic, cold and analytical.”

Performance management take-away: Like in education, badly designed and executed performance measurement processes (i.e. rank and yank) have left some with a bad taste in their mouth.

But done well, performance measurement is an empowering conversation about self-development. That’s a conversation that all employees (and students) can buy in to. It’s up to all of us working in performance management to continue to reclaim and reinforce the humanistic side of performance management.

Two: Hard work without measurement is folly

Rapid learning comes at the intersection of knowledge and data. As Barber states in the lecture: “Many people peddle the myth that data undermines creativity and the joy that may come from it.”  But these people ignore that there’s no creativity unless you have a feedback mechanism to improve your own performance over time. And to be effective, that feedback mechanism requires data.

Performance management take-away: In a business environment, performance management is your feedback loop. It’s the constant cycle in your work that facilitates learning and improved performance.

Measurement is the core of the learning process. If you don’t have a feedback loop built on data to guide your behaviour, you’ll never achieve exceptional performance.

Three: Measurement creates the right circumstances for leaders to lead

Greatness is about much more than just data. But good data and measurement creates the right circumstances for leaders to lead.

As Barber stated in the lecture: “[you] cannot mandate greatness; greatness has to be unleashed …[The] role is to create the circumstances in which success is possible while teachers and school leaders lead the way to greatness. Part of the context has to be good, close-to-real time data at classroom, school and system level.” 

Why can’t you mandate greatness? In Barber’s opinion it’s because: “[every] decision requires more than the evidence. It requires judgment, analysis and ethics too. If you put it mathematically it might look like this: DATA x ANALYSIS x ETHICS x JUDGMENT = GOOD DECISIONS”

Performance management take-away: Like in the classroom, measurement enhances the role and impact of leaders.

Rather than displacing the role of leaders, great performance management increases their impact. With more data, leaders have the ability to take better actions faster.

Four: The problem is never the measurement – it’s how humans use the data

The problems with measurement typically come from how humans choose to use the data (not the measurement itself).

To quote from the lecture: “The risk is that through false interpretation of the data or through a failure to recognize that the data is incomplete, human beings mislead themselves; or, worse, that by manipulating the data or the presentation of it, one group of human beings deceives another.”

Performance management take-away: You can implement the best performance management tool in the world (And yes, we think Cognology is one of them!). But it’s equally critical to make sure your people are adequately trained and resourced.

Performance management is a human process. As such, there’s a huge amount of leverage in making sure your people deeply understand the aims of the process and have the resources they need to complete it successfully.

In conclusion

There’s some fascinating thinking in this lecture on how we can use measurement to improve the learning process across the whole of society (and more specifically in the business context of performance management).

Fundamentally, without measured performance there’s no feedback loop. And without a feedback loop, there’s no learning. This is why growing recognition of the importance of measurement makes it an exciting time to be in performance management. Getting measurement right in schools and businesses worldwide has huge potential to improve global happiness, living standards and productivity.

And as always, I’d love to hear what you think of this article. You can add your thoughts in the comments below, or join the conversation on Twitter via @Cognology.

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.