Subjectivity, Objectivity, Performance Measurement and Markets

Though he attributes his insight to a colleague (George Baker), Michael Jensen has once more succinctly stated a key point I’ve repeatedly tried to convey in my blog posts. As Jensen (2003, p. 397) puts it,

…any activity whose performance can be perfectly measured objectively does not belong inside the firm. If its performance can be adequately measured objectively it can be spun out of the firm and contracted for in a market transaction.

YES!! Though nothing is measured perfectly, my message has been a series of variations on precisely this theme. Well-measured property, services, products, and commodities in today’s economy are associated with scientific, legal and financial structures and processes that endow certain representations with meaningful indications of kind, amount, value and ownership. It is further well established that the ownership of the products of one’s creative endeavors is essential to economic advancement and the enlargement of the greater good. Markets could not exist without objective measures, and thus we have the central commercial importance of metric standards.

The improved measurement of service outcomes and performances is going to create an environment capable of supporting similar legal and financial indications of value and ownership. Many of the causes of today’s economic crises can be traced to poor quality information and inadequate measures of human, social, and natural value. Bringing publicly verifiable scientific data and methods to bear on the tuning of instruments for measuring these forms of value will make their harmonization much simpler than it ever could be otherwise. Social and environmental costs and value have been relegated to the marginal status of externalities because they have not been measured in ways that made it possible to bring them onto the books and into the models.

But the stage is being set for significant changes. Decades of research calibrating objective measures of a wide variety of performances and outcomes are inexorably leading to the creation of an intangible assets metric system (Fisher, 2009a, 2009b, 2011). Meaningful and rigorous individual-level universally available uniform metrics for each significant intangible asset (abilities, health, trustworthiness, etc.) will

(a) make it possible for each of us to take full possession, ownership, and management control of our investments in and returns from these forms of capital,

(b) coordinate the decisions and behaviors of consumers, researchers, and quality improvement specialists to better match supply and demand, and thereby

(c) increase the efficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets, harnessing the profit motive for the removal of wasted human potential, lost community coherence, and destroyed environmental quality.

Jensen’s observation emerges in his analysis of performance measures as one of three factors in defining the incentives and payoffs for a linear compensation plan (the other two being the intercept and the slope of the bonus line relating salary and bonus to the performance measure targets). The two sentences quoted above occur in this broader context, where Jensen (2003, pp. 396-397) states that,

…we must decide how much subjectivity will be involved in each performance measure. In considering this we must recognize that every performance measurement system in a firm must involve an important amount of subjectivity. The reason, as my colleague George Baker has pointed out, is that any activity whose performance can be perfectly measured objectively does not belong inside the firm. If its performance can be adequately measured objectively it can be spun out of the firm and contracted for in a market transaction. Thus, one of the most important jobs of managers, complementing objective measures of performance with managerial subjective evaluation of subtle interdependencies and other factors is exactly what most managers would like to avoid. Indeed, it is this factor along with efficient risk bearing that is at the heart of what gives managers and firms an advantage over markets.

Jensen is here referring implicitly to the point Coase (1990) makes regarding the nature of the firm. A firm can be seen as a specialized market, one in which methods, insights, and systems not generally available elsewhere are employed for competitive advantage. Products are brought to market competitively by being endowed with value not otherwise available. Maximizing that value is essential to the viability of the firm.

Given conflicting incentives and the mixed messages of the balanced scorecard, managers have plenty of opportunities for creatively avoiding the difficult task of maximizing the value of the firm. Jensen (2001) shows that attending to the “managerial subjective evaluation of subtle interdependencies” is made impossibly complex when decisions and behaviors are pulled in different directions by each stakeholder’s particular interests. Other research shows that even traditional capital structures are plagued by the mismeasurement of leverage, distress costs, tax shields, and the speed with which individual firms adjust their capital needs relative to leverage targets (Graham & Leary, 2010). The objective measurement of intangible assets surely seems impossibly complex to those familiar with these problems.

But perhaps the problems associated with measuring traditional capital structures are not so different from those encountered in the domain of intangible assets. In both cases, a particular kind of unjustified self-assurance seems always to attend the mere availability of numeric data. To the unpracticed eye, numbers seem to always behave the same way, no matter if they are rigorous measures of physical commodities, like kilowatts, barrels, or bushels, or if they are currency units in an accounting spreadsheet, or if they are percentages of agreeable responses to a survey question. The problem is that, when interrogated in particular ways with respect to the question of how much of something is supposedly measured, these different kinds of numbers give quite markedly different kinds of answers.

The challenge we face is one of determining what kind of answers we want to the questions we have to ask. Presumably, we want to ask questions and get answers pertinent to obtaining the information we need to manage life creatively, meaningfully, effectively and efficiently. It may be useful then, as a kind of thought experiment, to make a bold leap and imagine a scenario in which relevant questions are answered with integrity, accountability, and transparency.

What will happen when the specialized expertise of human resource professionals is supplanted by a market in which meaningful and comparable measures of the hireability, retainability, productivity, and promotability of every candidate and employee are readily available? If Baker and Jensen have it right, perhaps firms will no longer have employees. This is not to say that no one will work for pay. Instead, firms will contract with individual workers at going market rates, and workers will undoubtedly be well aware of the market value of their available shares of their intangible assets.

A similar consequence follows for the social safety net and a host of other control, regulatory, and policing mechanisms. But we will no longer be stuck with blind faith in the invisible hand and market efficiency, following the faith of those willing to place their trust and their futures in the hands of mechanisms they only vaguely understand and cannot control. Instead, aggregate effects on individuals, communities, and the environment will be tracked in publicly available and critically examined measures, just as stocks, bonds, and commodities are tracked now.

Previous posts in this blog explore the economic possibilities that follow from having empirically substantiated, theoretically predictable, and instrumentally mediated measures embodying broad consensus standards. What we will have for human, social, and natural capital will be the same kind of objective measures that have made markets work as well as they have thus far. It will be a whole new ball game when profits become tied to human, social, and environmental outcomes.


Coase, R. (1990). The firm, the market, and the law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009a, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement, 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P.. Jr. (2009b). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (Tech. Rep. No. New Orleans:

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010, 22 November). Meaningfulness, measurement, value seeking, and the corporate objective function: An introduction to new possibilities. Available at

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 12(1), in press.

Graham, J. R., & Leary, M. T. (2010, 21 December). A review of empirical capital structure research and directions for the future. Available at

Jensen, M. C. (2001, Fall). Value maximization, stakeholder theory, and the corporate objective function. Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, 14(3), 8-21.

Jensen, M. C. (2003). Paying people to lie: The truth about the budgeting process. European Financial Management, 9(3), 379-406.

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