All that counts cannot be counted
William Bruce Cameron, in his book Informal Sociology: A casual introduction to sociological thinking, says something very profound, in fact, so profound that many a time, he has been robbed of the authorship of the statement, and it has been wrongly assigned to Albert Einstein! The contentious sentence is, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.” It simply means that all things of value cannot be measured or, even more straightforward, don’t go by numbers alone.
In the business world, which has an increasingly growing impact on the social sector, it is very common to hear that it is only with numbers that goals are achieved and performance measured. One cannot deny this sentiment’s efficacy, but I have an issue with the word “only”. And yet what is the best substitute for numbers? This is something that I would like to explore.
Cameron even says: “It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. Again, however, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” What are some of the essential things that cannot be assigned to numbers?
The other day I was talking to a senior Human Resource person whose responsibility is to build a robust corporate culture and hire the right people to fit into the organisation’s vision. He said that he looks for passion and commitment in his new hires. How can passion be measured or even identified in just one interview? HR guys are no clairvoyants but have to resort to their years of experience and gut feelings about individuals that sometimes defy all matrices and algorithms. As an educator, I truly believe that some children are late bloomers, and no one should be labelled too quickly. We have encountered many stories of geniuses that their teachers wrote off at an early age. So why do IQ tests fail many a time?
Some essential elements for success and well-being are difficult to quantify. To cite a few — confidence, motivation, self-esteem, prowess, talent, ability, reputation and empathy. How can one measure an individual’s ability to build and maintain relationships, gain trust and credibility, create pride and generate positive perception? No quantitative study can show, with guarantees, a profile that encompasses all these quality variables. One, however, has to admit that success in a job or life, for that matter, demands large doses of these qualities. Yet, when the effectiveness of an individual at work or the impact of an NGO in the social sector is being assessed, it is the general tendency to resort to the comfort of numbers. It is as though data in the form of numbers or comparative statistics save an HR or the CSR person’s back.
The other day I heard a CSR person ask for means to determine ROI on their donation. It is a legitimate query to see if their money has been well spent if the terms and conditions of the agreement have been met and if the beneficiaries have truly benefitted. Experience has shown the donors that many a time, even some of the better NGOs with the right intentions, cannot leverage the financial grant to its optimum level because of poor management decisions. This is where comparative numbers and grid analysis help. But anyone in the social sector understands that it is just as important to invest in the intangibles.
A recently published McKinsey report states that sectors that have invested the most in intangibles, more than 12 per cent of their GVA, have achieved higher growth in GVA, at more than 2.7 per cent per year, or 28 per cent higher than other sectors. Knowledge-intensive services have invested relatively heavily in intangibles at 15 per cent of their GVA and, on average, achieved above-average GVA growth of 3.0 per cent a year. Innovation-driven services, including information and communications technology (ICT), on average invested 17.4 per cent of their GVA in intangibles and grew at 2.9 per cent a year. In the corporate sector, some intangible assets are goodwill, brand value and research and development. In the social sector, the intangibles are goodwill and brand value, of course, but goes a little beyond the spirit of well-being linked with safety and trust created around both the employees and the beneficiaries.
In the education domain of the social sector, the tangibles are the attendance of the students, the number of dropouts, and the grades achieved in each of the classes and the final years. We have to add to that the percentage of students going to college and completing it. Other factors like rate of employment, nature of jobs secured, the salaries earned, and even appraisals from employers can all be gathered and put in quantitative measures with comparisons with the rest of the market. What, however, cannot be measured is the level of confidence, self-esteem, decision-making abilities, and ability to empathise and contribute not just money but time and attention. I would say that the best way to measure the impact of an education model for less privileged children is to assess the ripple and multiplier effect the children have in their community. How many child marriages have they been able to stop, how have they been able to intervene in local domestic abuse, and how have they influenced the local youth to make the right choices? We must enquire about their changed perceptions of gender, justice, and sectarianism. Most importantly, how have they ensured that every child in their families and neighbourhood is sent to school?
I realise that every statement I have made is open to debate, and I am ready to debate. My submission is that it is essential to assign values to anecdotal data because that, too, mirrors the impact that reflects the change. Sure, if there is doubt that anecdotes could be a subjective narrative and dependant on contextual interpretations, then let’s get several versions of that anecdote and make a judgement. Let’s not ignore valuable data because it cannot be counted and has no numbers attached.
If we are to realign these expectations, it would significantly impact the education system in our country. The system will move away from marks and grades that today are the sole determinant of the student’s success. The first attempt in choosing a professional career depends on the marks the students get in the competitive examinations and whether they get the cut-off marks. In this manner, we could lose much talent with passion because of half a percentage mark. Schools need to emphasise creating environments where learning happens happily and joyfully. This will lead to the general well-being of the students, teachers and the entire school community. This happiness will spill over to the homes and neighbourhood. Unfortunately, this kind of happiness can never be counted; thereby, we do great injustice to some fundamental truths.