“The human condition can almost be summed up in the observation that, whereas all experiences are of the past, all decisions are about the future. It is the great task of human knowledge to bridge this gap and to find those patterns in the past which can be projected into the future as realistic images.”

Kenneth E. Boulding


This is about measurement in business, specifically, about learning and developing a learning organization.

First. Let me say I am dubious of almost all measurement. Why? Because in today’s world everyone is (a) incentive to make a specific measurement usually at the expense, with no cost, of other things that could be measured, and (b) measurement creates objective blindness.

Suffice it to say, if something is going to be measured people will figure out a way of gaming the system to attain whatever is to be measured. Sound cynical? Not really. Its just reality. If you have a system that rewards attainment of things measured you create a culture, society and civilization believing only what is measured is important.

Second. I believe most of the truly important things in business and in life don’t need to be measured because if they are truly important, they will trigger the intrinsic energy with everyone to go out and make those important things happen. As a follow-up to that, yes, there are unimportant things that need to be done. And, no, they don’t need to be measured to make sure they are done (and done well). if you have a system in which intrinsically people attack important things, they will do the unimportant things simply because they know they need to be done.

Third. As Arie de Gues said: “Institutional learning is much more difficult than individual learning.” The individuals know there must be a better way to do the business of doing business and what ‘growth’ should be and, yet, the institution, collecting all that may be important, i.e., what is foremost to the institution itself, warps its ‘directed learning’ toward its wants, not the individuals, and seeks to shape the individual TO what it wants.

Which leads me to learning cannot be measured.

Judged perhaps, but not measured. But that has never stopped us from measuring learning. We try and try and try and then claim it has been measured. I would suggest we do this as part of some devious command and control ideology. What I mean by that is we use those measurements to dominate others and control their actions and behaviors under the guise of “intelligent leading” when it really is in the pursuit of institutional objectives. Regardless. Measurement, or let’s call it ‘performance management’, cause some real issues:

  1. Gaming 81% of the time
  2. Information manipulation 74% of the time
  3. Selective short-termism 55% of the time
  4. Give an illusion of control
  5. Negatively affect social relationships 81% of the time

While measuring learning has all the appearances of being critical to the learning processes it more often creates results counter to the objectives of the business, i.e., agility to meet emergent opportunities and adaptability to optimize situational needs. In other words, measurement tends to stratify, not make the business more elastic. That said. I would argue you can only ‘measure’ through direct observation of performance or by examination of a ‘conclusion of activity’ that required use of acquired learning (that’s more individual-activated self-learning rather than some L&D initiative).

To make a distinction. While I tend to believe how we measure learning in schools (mostly below college level) is fucked up, I do believe measuring young people’s learning progress, retaining of knowledge and usefulness, is good.

Anyway. The truth is business learning and rational thinking demands a bit a setting aside the ego; and measurement almost always triggers ego. Learners be open to include a changing, overlapping knowledge of minds/thinking which can come from anywhere at any time. Since a person cannot collect all relevant information if they are to be competent at identifying relevant actions/possibilities, they must to some extent know where to look for the apparently most useful information as well as be open to connectivity within a community of people who knows things they do not.

Which brings me back to business.

Most businesses fear unmeasured learning not because of wasted time, but more so wasted efficiency. What I mean by that is business fears anything that could create a complicated and time-consuming process that less-than-efficiently stitches together all the necessary knowledge/data to decide or do something. The fear is that reality is vague if there are no numbers to create an outline to see (and business fears vagueness). The fear is that any actionable learning is too late to make the optimal impact on financial performance. Look. Learning shouldn’t be judged on efficiency only effectiveness. Learning has no need for logic other than learning is good and therefore learning has no need for measurements other than “am I consistently providing an environment which encourages people to pursue learning.”  I know that sounds like heresy in a business world religiously attached to measurement.  I think of “intelligence” as less to do with “knowing a bunch of stuff” and more to do with figuring stuff out in new and uncertain situations, but that skill is only developed by actually being in uncertain situations full of unknowns. So maybe measurement should be reflective of ‘effective navigation’ (financial performance is an outcome of this done well consistently).

Which leads me to end with Mary Parker Follett.

Follett offered 3 core concepts and five principles to support what she called the “circular reflective learning arc.”


  1. thinking in terms of wholes
  2. harnessing the creative power of self-organized integrative thinking
  3. enhancing our ability to respond to what she called “the law of the situation


  1. engaging our internal sense of intention and purpose
  2. engaging and learning from the intentions, values, and purposes of others who are different or who think differently
  3. designing change through a process of co-creation informed by those differences
  4. enacting and acting on those designs where experiences meets experiences
  5. adapting and learning from those experiences, the doing, learning about, and living of life itself.

Basically, at the core everything Follett suggests is connective and as part of a community – I AND We. None of it is solely individualistic except possibly self-awareness. I imagine I end here to point out that learning, driven in direction and interest of the individual, combined with that learning forged against other’s learning, is about the only thing truly measurable – outcomes of various situations navigated. But. You don’t measure learning because, well, who knows what learning will be most important in future situations? You don’t. Ponder.

  • postcript: there are a number of highly qualified people in my network of friends and acquaintances who absolutely are wrapping their heads around this measuring issue. in particular, Rachel Happe and community measurement, Hilton Barbour on culture, and Jeppe Haansberg on internal networks. I imagine most of them, if not all, would debate me on this issue. And that’s a good thing.
Written by Bruce