Comments on the New ANSI Human Capital Investor Metrics Standard

The full text of the proposed standard is available here.

It’s good to see a document emerge in this area, especially one with such a broad base of support from a diverse range of stakeholders. As is stated in the standard, the metrics defined in it are a good place to start and in many instances will likely improve the quality and quantity of the information made available to investors.

There are several issues to keep in mind as the value of standards for human capital metrics becomes more widely appreciated. First, in the context of a comprehensively defined investment framework, human capital is just one of the four major forms of capital, the other three being social, natural, and manufactured (Ekins, 1992; Ekins, Dresden, and Dahlstrom, 2008). To ensure as far as possible the long term stability and sustainability of their profits, and of the economic system as a whole, investors will certainly want to expand the range of the available standards to include social and natural capital along with human capital.

Second, though we manage what we measure, investment management is seriously compromised by having high quality scientific measurement standards only for manufactured capital (length, weight, volume, temperature, energy, time, kilowatts, etc.). Over 80 years of research on ability tests, surveys, rating scales, and assessments has reached a place from which it is prepared to revolutionize the management of intangible forms of capital (Fisher, 2007, 2009a, 2009b, 2010, 2011a, 2011b; Fisher & Stenner, 2011a, 2011b; Wilson, 2011; Wright, 1999). The very large reductions in transaction costs effected by standardized metrics in the economy at large (Barzel, 1982; Benham and Benham, 2000) are likely to have a similarly profound effect on the economics of human, social, and natural capital (Fisher, 2011a, 2012a, 2012b).

The potential for dramatic change in the conceptualization of metrics is most evident in the proposed standard in the sections on leadership quality and employee engagement. For instance, in the section on leadership quality, it is stated that “Investors will be able to directly compare all organizations that are using the same vendor’s methodology.” This kind of dependency should not be allowed to stand as a significant factor in a measurement standard. Properly constructed and validated scientific measures, such as those that have been in wide use in education, psychology and health care for several decades (Andrich, 2010; Bezruzcko, 2005; Bond and Fox, 2007; Fisher and Wright, 1994; Rasch, 1960; Salzberger, 2009; Wright, 1999), are equated to a common unit. Comparability should never depend on which vendor is used. Rather, any instrument that actually measures the construct of interest (leadership quality or employee engagement) should do so in a common unit and within an acceptable range of error. “Normalizing” measures for comparability, as is suggested in the standard, means employing psychometric methods that are 50 years out of date and that are far less rigorous and practical than need be. Transparency in measurement means looking through the instrument to the thing itself. If particular instruments color or reshape what is measured, or merely change the meaning of the numbers reported, then the integrity of the standard as a standard should be re-examined.

Third, for investments in human capital to be effectively managed, each distinct aspect of it (motivations, skills and abilities, health) needs to be measured separately, just as height, weight, and temperature are. New technologies have already transformed measurement practices in ways that make the necessary processes precise and inexpensive. Of special interest are adaptively administered precalibrated instruments supporting mass customized—but globally comparable—measures (for instance, see the examples at http://blog.lexile.com/tag/oasis/ and that were presented at the recent Pearson Global Research Conference in Fremantle, Australia http://www.pearson.com.au/marketing/corporate/pearson_global/default.html; also see Wright and Bell 1984, Lunz, Bergstrom, and Gershon, 1994, Bejar, et al., 2003).

Fourth, the ownership of human capital needs clarification and legal status. If we consider each individual to own their abilities, health, and motivations, and to be solely responsible for decisions made concerning the disposition of those properties, then, in accord with their proven measured amounts of each type of human capital, everyone ought to have legal title to a specific number of shares or credits of each type. This may transform employment away from wage-based job classification compensation to an individualized investment-based continuous quality improvement platform. The same kind of legal titling system will, of course, need to be worked out for social and natural capital, as well.

Fifth, given scientific standards for each major form of capital, practical measurement technologies, and legal title to our shares of capital, we will need expanded financial accounting standards and tools for managing our individual and collective investments. Ongoing research and debates concerning these standards and tools (Siegel and Borgia, 2006; Young and Williams, 2010) have yet to connect with the larger scientific, economic, and legal issues raised here, but developments in this direction should be emerging in due course.

Sixth, a number of lingering moral, ethical and political questions are cast in a new light in this context. The significance of individual behaviors and decisions is informed and largely determined by the context of the culture and institutions in which those behaviors and decisions are executed. Many of the morally despicable but not illegal investment decisions leading to the recent economic downturn put individuals in the position of either setting themselves apart and threatening their careers or doing what was best for their portfolios within the limits of the law. Current efforts intended to devise new regulatory constraints are misguided in focusing on ever more microscopically defined particulars. What is needed is instead a system in which profits are contingent on the growth of human, social, and natural capital. In that framework, legal but ultimately unfair practices would drive down social capital stock values, counterbalancing ill-gotten gains and making them unprofitable.

Seventh, the International Vocabulary of Measurement, now in its third edition (VIM3), is a standard recognized by all eight international standards accrediting bodies (BIPM, etc.). The VIM3 (http://www.bipm.org/en/publications/guides/vim.html) and forthcoming VIM4 are intended to provide a uniform set of concepts and terms for all fields that employ measures across the natural and social sciences. A new dialogue on these issues has commenced in the context of the International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO), whose member organizations are the weights and standards measurement institutes from countries around the world (Conference note, 2011). The 2012 President of the Psychometric Society, Mark Wilson, gave an invited address at the September 2011 IMEKO meeting (Wilson, 2011), and a member of the VIM3 editorial board, Luca Mari, is invited to speak at the July, 2012 International Meeting of the Psychometric Society. I encourage all interested parties to become involved in efforts of these kinds in their own fields.

References

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Barzel, Y. (1982). Measurement costs and the organization of markets. Journal of Law and Economics, 25, 27-48.

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