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The Art of Measurement

Measurement has value, in context and within limitations. Understanding those limitations is why and where we need the humanities.

It is important to know where the limits of measurement are and the effects of the “what gets measured, gets managed” paradigm.
Paramount, too, is pointing out the difference between indicators and metrics (proxies), and that they should be used wisely instead of sporadically and plastered over everything we do. Indeed, in the words of Charles Spurgeon, “wisdom is the right use of knowledge”! This doesn’t just apply to the increasingly matriculated ivory towers of academia, but also to more diverse actors in society, such as business, civil society, and governments. So, the ability to balance the extent to which metrics and indicators are used and a qualitative reflection on the purposes and reasoning to do so for human activity, is essential especially through the trans-disciplinary lens of sustainability science, which inherently crosses boundaries and contexts, temporally and spatially.
A good take away from this is that we need more reflexive way of thinking, as well as doing and measuring, which is well-summarised in the sentence: “critically analyse not just the measurements themselves, but what we choose to measure, the stories we tell ourselves about those things, and the histories and power structures behind those stories”(Guardian, 2015).

With a bit of imagination, let’s define, for a moment, “the Why of things” as Simon Sinek would do (Sinek, 2009) (why we humans run a business, open a school, save a life, measure a value) to be the main research field of the Humanities, the driving force for philosophers. With the same ease, we could therefore associate “the How” of doing things to the methodology of hard sciences, or, more intuitively, the development of technologies and processes, this being “the What” of the resulting experiences, namely tangible products and services: the ones we purchase daily for pleasure and business. In such conditions, the last centuries of human social, economic and political evolution have seen much importance given to the last category (the What, the experience) and the result has been product/service driven societies, in which those who manually produce have great value (workers). Very recently, during the multidimensional global financial crisis of recent years, part of our interest as humans shifted towards How we are producing such experiences (products/services). Discovering the hard way the sudden constrains of a system that we always thought to be without boundaries, we raised attention to the way in which we do things. Growing importance has thus been given to resource constrains, economic forecasting, resilience, sustainability, responsible supply chain management, clean technologies, efficiency, sufficiency, and so forth. We have seen the rise of strategy as a science, the central role of technocrats and technologists (engineers) to maximise resources in systems that surprisingly turned our shared planet to being ‘finite’, overnight. This is (or was) the era of efficient measurement, of precise calculations and forecasting, in which humans have undeniably become supreme.

However, if we stop for a moment and take a look at "why do we do the things we do”, or alternatively “why do we measure the things we measure” probably even the best technocrats would have hard time in giving us an answer, aside from “because this is the efficient way to achieve the objective” (with the bonus of implicit reference to the monetary value of the process).

The question that needs to be raised at this point is not if money actually has a role in defining the ‘Why we do and measure things’ - which it certainly does – but rather if the coming generation of consumers will still fit into such an Homo Economicus black-and-white worldview. There are many societal and market trends suggesting that the “maximisation of utility as a consumer” does not overlap with current consumer’s behaviour.
With regard to society, the last few decades have seen an unprecedented rise of public interest in CSR, employment/workers’ rights, equal opportunities in corporations, as well as how they relate with diverse actors in society, from indigenous peoples to organised civil society and political movements. Subsequently, greater transparency and accountability is now demanded on the non-financial ESG side of corporate activity. They are more aware of specific global challenges such as climate change, inequality, and poverty as they increasingly become more prescient and spokespersons from business, academia, politics and popular culture alike step up to

the plate. See for example the notable recent strong (perhaps even daring) advocacy, from Pope Francis to Leo Di Caprio and Arnold Schwarzernegger for the climate justice movement in the run up to the COP21 negotiations in Paris. Strong cultural tides cannot be ignored, not even if our interests as homo economicus are restricted to markets and moneymaking.

From a customer’s perspective, let’s just think of the importance of brand reputation, that has made some organisations succeed and others fail in the blink of an eye; or yet the rising importance of certifications, eco-labels, fair-trade associations or even greenwashing campaigns that have made companies win. People, or customers, allocate their resources in experiences (products/services) that feel right, even if they cost more. A few organisations have understood this and are quickly becoming leaders in their markets; too many others are still blindly passive to such transformational change in society.

Little is known about why certain consumer behaviours make so little economic sense, but it is likely that human feelings will keep giving a hard time to those who try to assess them with purely quantitative analysis. Why? How can companies find a way to read their clients’ feelings and forecast them? Why does a purpose sell more than a product? And most importantly, what are the rules of competition in these uncharted waters? It is probably time to give the deserved space to philosophers, social scientists, and the humanities, and therefore our socio-cultural values if we want to find an answer to these questions and learn how to manage purpose effectively. They will distinguish and add more shades to the spectrum between metrics and values that pioneering companies in the 21st century must learn to read and navigate. After all, markets are fundamentally determined by human behaviour en masse, and these, as we have found since 2008, can be quite irrational. Therefore, we must qualify societal, cultural, and environmental effects of a firm’s activities in a clear and balanced manner, as well as quantifying its financial and non-financial performance. It is only by walking this tightrope that we can navigate an increasingly challenging future using more of the ‘Why’ rather than just the ‘how’ and the ‘what’.

Alex Baker Shelley is a PhD researcher and analyst at ICIS-Maastricht University specialising in organisational transformations towards embedding sustainability. He holds a BSc in Environmental Science from the University of Manchester and an M.Sc. in Sustainable Development from Uppsala University & SLU. He has cross-sectoral experience as a researcher, sustainability analyst (Route2Sustainability), and community volunteer (Manchester Climate Forum). His master’s thesis gauged corporate governance and sustainability accounting with the GRI 3.1 for the Nordic mining sector. He sits on the University Council of Maastricht University and works closely with their Green Office.

Alberto Corti is a market analyst specialized in organizational resilience to social change. He has gained experience from both private and public sector working at the United Nations, the European Commission’s CoM, Skanderna and BSD Consulting. He holds a BA in International Studies from Milan and Tromsø University and a M.Sc. in Sustainable Development from Uppsala University. He co-founded Casta&Bucks, is part of TEDxStockholm’s Board of Directors and Shifo Foundation’s Advisory Board.

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