By the Numbers


When and why did personnel departments become human resources? “Personnel” comes from person. “Human resources” sounds to me like stuff to be used, used up, and discarded as companies bring in new human stuff to be used up. I hope most companies have better understandings of HR.

In his book, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen points out that people like to simplify their thinking by assigning a single, supposedly definitive number to a very complex human situation. The single number enables us to pretend to be able to quantify and measure the development of human lives and societies. For example, the Gross National Product (GNP) or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are sometimes assumed to tell the whole story of a country’s status and quality of life. Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, discusses how very much of a nation’s life and its quality we cannot tell from the number and how effectively the number can be used to perpetuate injustices by hiding them.

Now many in power want to measure our nation’s schools, teachers, and children by a single number or number set assigned by “the test.” Did the number go up or down, and how does any particular school’s number compare to a national average or to an arbitrary goal? What can we do to push our numbers up? Few outside the teaching profession seem to ask what the number actually represents and what it misrepresents (which is much). Instead, the number is simply treated as gold.

The desire for magic numbers is understandable. Quantification is a big step toward gaining control: administrative power over the process. And people in authority want power to control the whole process, unencumbered by professionals who know more about that process or particular phases of it. The number gives power without knowledge or understanding. Hence its appeal to authoritarian managers and politicians.

There are many negative results of number worship, too many for this blog, for example in business when the numbers come out quarterly and mean everything. In time, I believe, we will pay dearly for constantly demanding the short-term gains indicated by quarterly numbers.

Can at least some quantitative evaluations not be useful? Of course they can, when used properly and not overblown in importance or misused to intimidate and assign blame to people who lack the power and resources to control situations far more complex than uses of the numbers recognize. Knowing (and caring) how to interpret data properly and fairly is crucial.

Thankfully, people cannot be known or understood by the numbers, which at best, when used properly and responsibly, offer just clues. Sadly, when we assume we can know all we need to know about people by the numbers, we dehumanize them, ourselves, and our society. And, as with the sword, those who live by the numbers will sooner or later perish by the numbers.