Build it and they will come

“It” in the popular Kevin Costner movie, “Field of Dreams,” was a baseball diamond. He put it in a corn field. Not only did a ghost team conjure itself from the corn, so did a line of headlights on the road. There would seem to have been a stunning lack of preparation for crowds of fans, as parking, food, and toilet facilities were nowhere in sight.

Those things would be taken care of in due course, but that’s another story. The point has nothing to do with being realistic and everything to do with making dreams come true. Believing in yourself and your dreams is hard. Dreams are inherently unrealistic. As George Bernard Shaw said, reasonable people adapt to life and the world. It’s unreasonable people who think the world should adapt to them. And, accordingly, change comes about only because unreasonable and unrealistic people act to make things different.

I dream of a playing field, too. I can’t just go clear a few acres in a field to build it, though. The kind of clearing I’m dreaming of is more abstract. But the same idea applies. I, too, am certain that, if we build it, they will come.

What is it? Who are they? “It” is a better way for each of us to represent who we are to the world, and to see where we stand in it. It is a new language for speaking the truth of what we are each capable of. It is a way of tuning the instruments of a new science that will enable us to harmonize relationships of all kinds: personal, occupational, social, and economic.

Which brings us to who “they” are. They are us. Humanity. We are the players on this field that we will clear. We are the ones who care and who desire meaning. We are the ones who have been robbed of the trust, loyalty, and commitment we’ve invested in governments, corporations, and decades of failed institutions. We are the ones who know what has been lost, and what yet could still be gained. We are the ones who possess our individual skills, motivations, and health, but yet have no easy, transparent way to represent how much of any one of them we have, what quality it is, or how much it can be traded for. We are the ones who all share in the bounty of the earth’s fecund capacity for self-renewal, but who among us can show exactly how much the work we do every day adds or subtracts from the quality of the environment?

So why do I say, build it and they will come? Because this sort of thing is not something that can be created piecemeal. What if Costner’s character in the movie had not just built the field but had instead tried to find venture capital, recruit his dream team, set up a ticket sales vendor, hire management and staff, order uniforms and equipment, etc.? It never would have happened. It doesn’t work that way.

And so, finally, just what do we need to build? Just this: a new metric system. The task is to construct a system of measures for managing what’s most important in life: our relationships, our health, our capacity for productive and creative employment. We need a system that enables us to track our investments in intangible assets like education, health care, community, and quality of life. We need instruments tuned to the same scales, ones that take advantage of recently developed technical capacities for qualitatively meaningful quantification; for information synthesis across indicators/items/questions; for networked, collective thinking; for adaptive innovation support; and for creating fungible currencies in which human, social, and natural capital can be traded in efficient markets.

But this is not a system that can be built piecemeal. Infrastructure on this scale is too complex and too costly for any single individual, firm, or industry to create by itself. And building one part of it at a time will not work. We need to create the environment in which these new forms of life, these new species, these new markets for living capital, can take root and grow, organically. If we create that environment, with incentives and rewards capable of functioning like fertile soil, warm sun, and replenishing rain, it will be impossible to stop the growth.

You see, there are thousands of people around the world using new measurement methods to calibrate tests, surveys and assessments as valid and reliable instruments. But they are operating in an environment in which the fully viable seeds they have to plant are wasted. There’s no place for them to take root. There’s no sun, no water.

Why is the environment for the meaningful, uniform measurement of intangible assets so inhospitable? The primary answer to this question is cultural. We have ingrained and highly counterproductive attitudes toward what are often supposed to be the inherent properties of numbers. One very important attitude of this kind is that it is common to think that all numbers are quantitative. But lots of scoring systems and percentage reporting schemes involve numbers that do not stand for something that adds up. There is nothing automatic or simple about the way any given unit of calibrated measurement remains the same all up and down a scale. Arriving at a way to construct and maintain such a unit requires as much intensive research and imaginative investigation in the social sciences as it does in the natural sciences. But where the natural sciences and engineering have grown up around a focus on meaningful measurement, the social sciences have not.

One result of mistaken preconceptions about number is that even when tests, surveys, and assessments measure the same thing, they are disconnected from one another, tuned to different scales. There is no natural environment, no shared ecology, in which the growth of learning can take place in field-wide terms. There’s no common language in which to share what’s been learned. Even when research results are exactly the same, they look different.

But if there was a system of consensus-based reference standard metrics, one for each major construct–reading, writing, and math abilities; health status; physical and psychosocial functioning; quality of life; social and natural capital–there would be the expectation that instruments measuring the same thing should measure in the same unit. Researchers could be contributing to building larger systems when they calibrate new instruments and recalibrate old ones. They would more obviously be adding to the stock of human knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Divergent results would demand explanations, and convergent ones would give us more confidence as we move forward.

Most importantly, quality improvement and consumer purchasing decisions and behaviors would be fluidly coordinated with no need for communicating and negotiating the details of each individual comparison. Education and health care lack common product definitions because their outcomes are measured in fragmented, incommensurable metrics. But if we had consensus-based reference standard metrics for every major form of capital employed in the economy, we could develop reasonable expectations expressed in a common language for how much change should typically be obtained in fifth-grade mathematics or from a hip replacement.

As is well-known in the business world, innovation is highly dependent on standards. We cannot empower the front line with the authority to make changes when decisions have to be based on information that is unavailable or impossible to interpret. Most of the previous entries in this blog take up various aspects of this situation.

All of this demands a very different way of thinking about what’s possible in the realm of measurement. The issues are complex. They are usually presented in difficult mathematical terms within specialized research reports. But the biggest problem has to do with thinking laterally, with moving ideas out of the vertical hierarchies of the silos where they are trapped and into a new field we can dream in. And the first seeds to be planted in such a field are the ones that say the dream is worth dreaming. When we hear that message, we are already on the way not just to building this dream, but to creating a world in which everyone can dream and envision more specific possibilities for their lives, their families, their creativity.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
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You see, there are thousands of people around the world using these
new measurement methods to calibrate tests, surveys and assessments as
valid and reliable instruments. But they are operating in an
environment in which the fully viable seeds they have to plant are
wasted. There’s no place for them to take root. There’s no sun, no
water. 

This is because the instruments being calibrated are all disconnected.
Even instruments of the same kind measuring the same thing are
isolated from one another, tuned to different scales. There is no
natural environment, no shared ecology, in which the growth of
learning can take place. There’s no common language in which to share
what’s been learned. Even when results are exactly the same, they look
different.

 

You see, there are thousands of people around the world using these new measurement methods to calibrate tests, surveys and assessments as valid and reliable instruments. But they are operating in an environment in which the fully viable seeds they have to plant are wasted. There’s no place for them to take root. There’s no sun, no water. This is because the instruments being calibrated are all disconnected. Even instruments of the same kind measuring the same thing are isolated from one another, tuned to different scales. There is no natural environment, no shared ecology, in which the growth of learning can take place. There’s no common language in which to share what’s been learned. Even when results are exactly the same, they look different.

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