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HR Metrics Series: The Most Fundamental Problem in How we Use HR Metrics

The way we define HR metrics today depends on what they measure. For example, if you were to ask a major consultant at a well known consulting company what types of metrics are there to be used by human capital and human resource professionals, they may respond with 1- human capital metrics, and 2- human resource productivity metrics. (see screenshot of a slide I found online saying just that). But, there is a fundamental issue in defining the metrics we use in this way – namely it doesn’t benefit us at all.

human capital metrics - the standard model


Defining metrics by what they measure essentially results in redundant classifications, and classifications limit our viewpoint and our ability to use them effectively. I’m not sure if I can explain this well in a blog but let me give it a shot.

Let’s say we decide to define metrics by HOW they measure, and not by what they measure. There is precedent in doing so. For example that phone or computer you’re using to read these words is commonly defined as an “electronic” because it uses electricity (classified by the how not the what), and the vehicle that’s waiting outside your work or home is defined as “transportation” because it transports you from one place to another – once again they’re defined by the how not the what. Classifying metrics in the same way can teach us some things about how to use them, and what they’re useful for much more than by the standard method of classification. In the least, classifying by how rather than what gives us a little bit of information that we did not have before.

Let’s say you agree with all that for the moment, then your next question should be, ok how do we benefit from the different form of classification? Well, it leaves us free to conceptualize metrics in a number of different ways. The way I’ve found it much more useful in past consulting arrangements and in my work in general is by using the analogy of the human body.

Metrics represent a system of measurement that helps us understand some pattern or some trend that is currently occurring with some system. In other words, it’s a way of gauging a system’s health, responsiveness, overall behavior, and anything else we wish to understand. The human body is similar in that regard and that often times when we need to make some diagnoses based on some hypothesized illness, we traditionally begin to take measurements of certain things in the body. For example, we have our doctor take our temperature when our body feels very cold or very hot, when we seem to be having heart problems we take blood pressure and heart beat (EKG), and we measure various other things depending on the illness or the condition that we want to understand.

I’m not a doctor in any way shape or form, but I would say that you can group the various measurements that we take of the human body into four general, over arching categories.

The first category would be static measurements: things like body temperature, and blood pressure would qualify as static measurements. The reason I would categorize them as static measurements is because they are measuring and often non-changing quantity that describes volume or allows us to contrast two or more different measurements. The second category I would classify as the responsiveness measurements of the body. Now I don’t know exactly how doctors measure nervous system responsiveness these days, but I do remember the old days when they would push a little bit under your kneecap to see if you have a healthy reflex. This category of measurements is designed to understand the body’s ability to move and to react. The third set of category measurements would be aimed at understanding individual organ health. For example is your liver cleaning your blood sufficiently, and is your kidney able to filter fluids properly. Finally, the fourth set of category measurements will be focused on how your body is behaving and reacting at this very moment in time. And the closest thing I can think of that would help us understand instantaneous body behavior and reactions would probably be the example of measuring a heartbeat rate or EKG.

If you look at the four categories that I mentioned above, you begin to see a holistic picture of how the body behaves, and going back to our analogy, how the organization as a whole behaves. The most important thing to understand about this small exercise that we just went through is to understand the simple truth that if you are feeling sick today you are probably going to get a diagnosis which will be based on some combination of measurements of the above four categories. This is really important understand. Because as we define HR metrics today, it would be the equivalents of focusing on a single category of metrics. To clarify my meaning, consider if you are feeling very sick for a few weeks now, the chances are your doctor will measure a combination of factors related to your body, will ask a number of questions related to a number of different issues to ensure that you get to the right diagnosis, and therefore the correct solution. He or she won’t just stop at taking your temperature.

In the next part of the metrics series, I’ll show you a number of graphics that will clarify what I’ve described above, and I will plainly list the categories of metrics that I use in my work and that you could benefit from using in yours.

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

About The Author
Dr. Joseph A.E. Shaheen
Computational Social Scientist with a twist of network science, social network analysis, data science, and random thoughts.
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