Friday, January 5, 2007

Measurement as an intervention

I started my career as an alleged 'rocket scientist'(as a scientist/engineer on the satellite launch vehicle side of the Indian Space Research Organization - to be precise). However I got carried away by things like organization psychology and found a 'socially acceptable escape route' in the HR MBA programme offered by XLRI. Since then I have been 'in HR' (for good or bad - mostly good, I suppose). However I have remained a 'scientist' at heart and I have often thought about the differences between a working in physical sciences/engineering and in social sciences.

While there are many important dimensions here(e.g. difficulty in finding one optimal solution to HR related issues & proving the the correctness/superiority of the same to the satisfaction of all - as mentioned in my previous posting, difficulty in establishing causality etc.) the one I want to discuss here relates to the concepts of measurement, observer/measurement influence and using the measurement itself as a part of the intervention. Of course, I am using the term 'measurement' in a broad manner and it includes all actions to sense/diagnose/measure the state of the system as part of a behavioral science intervention.

In general, when one tries to do a measurement in the physical sciences context(outside quantum mechanics), the attempt is to do the measurement without affecting the phenomenon/system that is being measured (to the extent possible). However in many well-designed HR/OD interventions the measurement(e.g. administering questionnaires, conducting fact-finding interviews etc.) itself is a key part of the intervention & they are integrated into the overall change management plan. Another (somewhat different kind of ) example is the Appreciative Inquiry technique where the positive energy generated by the process itself is a key deliverable in addition to the specific action items coming out of the exercise. I feel that there are many good reasons for this. It is very difficult to do the kind of measurements that we were talking about without impacting the system/subjects(e.g. raising fears/expectations). Keeping in mind the dynamic, interlinked and complex nature of the human systems we can neither make the system stand still (for the intervention) nor do we have the luxury of investing time only for measurement. Again, these measurements (if they are properly designed and integrated to the overall plan for the intervention) provide an excellent opportunity to influence the system in the desired direction. Thus it makes a lot of sense to use measurement itself as an intervention tool.

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