Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Rasch Measurement as a Basis for a New Standards Framework

October 26, 2011

The 2011 U.S. celebration of World Standards Day took place on October 13 at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C., with the theme of “Advancing Safety and Sustainability Standards Worldwide.” The evening began with a reception in a hall of exhibits from the celebrations sponsors, which included the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the Society for Standards Professionals (SES), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Microsoft, IEEE, Underwriters Laboratories, the Consumer Electronics Association, ASME, ASTM International, Qualcomm, Techstreet, and many others. Several speakers took the podium after dinner to welcome the 400 or so attendees and to present the World Standards Day Paper Competition Awards and the Ronald H. Brown Standards Leadership Award.

Dr. Patrick Gallagher, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology, and Director of NIST, was the first speaker after dinner. He directed his remarks at the value of a decentralized, voluntary, and demand-driven system of standards in promoting innovation and economic prosperity. Gallagher emphasized that “standards provide the common language that keeps domestic and international trade flowing,” concluding that “it is difficult to overestimate their critical value to both the U.S. and global economy.”

James Shannon, President of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), accepted the R. H. Brown Standards Leadership Award in recognition for his work initiating or improving the National Electrical Code, the Life Safety Code, and the Fire Safe Cigarette and Residential Sprinkler Campaigns.

Ellen Emard, President of SES, introduced the paper competition award winners. As of this writing the titles and authors of the first and second place awards are not yet available on the SES web site (http://www.ses-standards.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=56). I took third place for my paper, “What the World Needs Now: A Bold Plan for New Standards.” Where the other winning papers took up traditional engineering issues concerning the role of standards in advancing safety and sustainability issues, my paper spoke to the potential scientific and economic benefits that could be realized by standard metrics and common product definitions for outcomes in education, health care, social services, and environmental resource management. All three of the award-winning papers will appear in a forthcoming issue of Standards Engineering, the journal of SES.

I was coincidentally seated at the dinner alongside Gordon Gillerman, winner of third place in the 2004 paper competition (http://www.ses-standards.org/associations/3698/files/WSD%202004%20-%203%20-%20Gillerman.pdf) and currently Chief of the Standards Services Division at NIST. Gillerman has a broad range of experience in coordinating standards across multiple domains, including environmental protection, homeland security, safety, and health care. Having recently been involved in a workshop focused on measuring, evaluating, and improving the usability of electronic health records (http://www.nist.gov/healthcare/usability/upload/EHR-Usability-Workshop-2011-6-03-2011_final.pdf), Gillerman was quite interested in the potential Rasch measurement techniques hold for reducing data volume with no loss of information, and so for streamlining computer interfaces.

Robert Massof of Johns Hopkins University accompanied me to the dinner, and was seated at a nearby table. Also at Massof’s table were several representatives of the National Institute of Building Sciences, some of whom Massof had recently met at a workshop on adaptations for persons with low vision disabilities. Massof’s work equating the main instruments used for assessing visual function in low vision rehabilitation could lead to a standard metric useful in improving the safety and convenience of buildings.

As is stated in educational materials distributed at the World Standards Day celebration by ANSI, standards are a constant behind-the-scenes presence in nearly all areas of everyday life. Everything from air, water, and food to buildings, clothing, automobiles, roads, and electricity are produced in conformity with voluntary consensus standards of various kinds. In the U.S. alone, more than 100,000 standards specify product and system features and interconnections, making it possible for appliances to tap the electrical grid with the same results no matter where they are plugged in, and for products of all kinds to be purchased with confidence. Life is safer and more convenient, and science and industry are more innovative and profitable, because of standards.

The point of my third-place paper is that life could be even safer and more convenient, and science and industry could be yet more innovative and profitable, if standards and conformity assessment procedures for outcomes in education, health care, social services, and environmental resource management were developed and implemented. Rasch measurement demonstrates the consistent reproducibility of meaningful measures across samples and different collections of construct-relevant items. Within any specific area of interest, then, Rasch measures have the potential of serving as the kind of mediating instruments or objects recognized as essential to the process of linking science with the economy (Fisher & Stenner, 2011b; Hussenot & Missonier, 2010; Miller & O’Leary, 2007). Recent white papers published by NIST and NSF document the challenges and benefits likely to be encountered and produced by initiatives moving in this direction (Fisher, 2009; Fisher & Stenner, 2011a).

A diverse array of Rasch measurement presentations were made at the recent International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) meeting of metrology engineers in Jena, Germany (see RMT 25 (1), p. 1318). With that start at a new dialogue between the natural and social sciences, the NIST and NSF white papers, and with the award in the World Standards Day paper competition, the U.S. and international standards development communities have shown their interest in exploring possibilities for a new array of standard units of measurement, standardized outcome product definitions, standard conformity assessment procedures, and outcome product quality standards. The increasing acceptance and recognition of the viability of such standards is a logical consequence of observations like these:

  • “Where this law [relating reading ability and text difficulty to comprehension rate] can be applied it provides a principle of measurement on a ratio scale of both stimulus parameters and object parameters, the conceptual status of which is comparable to that of measuring mass and force. Thus…the reading accuracy of a child…can be measured with the same kind of objectivity as we may tell its weight” (Rasch, 1960, p. 115).
  • “Today there is no methodological reason why social science cannot become as stable, as reproducible, and hence as useful as physics” (Wright, 1997, p. 44).
  • “…when the key features of a statistical model relevant to the analysis of social science data are the same as those of the laws of physics, then those features are difficult to ignore” (Andrich, 1988, p. 22).

Rasch’s work has been wrongly assimilated in social science research practice as just another example of the “standard model” of statistical analysis. Rasch measurement rightly ought instead to be treated as a general articulation of the three-variable structure of natural law useful in framing the context of scientific practice. That is, Rasch’s models ought to be employed primarily in calibrating instruments quantitatively interpretable at the point of use in a mathematical language shared by a community of research and practice. To be shared in this way as a universally uniform coin of the realm, that language must be embodied in a consensus standard defining universally uniform units of comparison.

Rasch measurement offers the potential of shifting the focus of quantitative psychosocial research away from data analysis to integrated qualitative and quantitative methods enabling the definition of standard units and the calibration of instruments measuring in that unit. An intangible assets metric system will, in turn, support the emergence of new product- and performance-based standards, management system standards, and personnel certification standards. Reiterating once again Rasch’s (1960, p. xx) insight, we can acknowledge with him that “this is a huge challenge, but once the problem has been formulated it does seem possible to meet it.”

 References

Andrich, D. (1988). Rasch models for measurement. (Vols. series no. 07-068). Sage University Paper Series on Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications.

Fisher, W. P.. Jr. (2009). Metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (NIST Critical National Need Idea White Paper Series, Retrieved 25 October 2011 from http://www.nist.gov/tip/wp/pswp/upload/202_metrological_infrastructure_for_human_social_natural.pdf). Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011a, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences (Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences White Paper Series). Retrieved 25 October 2011 from http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/sbe_2020/submission_detail.cfm?upld_id=36. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011b). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO), Jena, Germany, August 31 to September 2.

Hussenot, A., & Missonier, S. (2010). A deeper understanding of evolution of the role of the object in organizational process. The concept of ‘mediation object.’ Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(3), 269-286.

Miller, P., & O’Leary, T. (2007, October/November). Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations, and Society, 32(7-8), 701-34.

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.

Wright, B. D. (1997, Winter). A history of social science measurement. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 16(4), 33-45, 52 [http://www.rasch.org/memo62.htm].

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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.
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Question Authority: Queries In the Back of the Wall Street Demonstrators’ Minds

October 2, 2011

I think the Wall Street demonstrators’ lack of goals and the admission of not having a solution is very important. All solutions offered so far are band-aids at best, and most are likely to do more harm than good.

I think I have an innovative way of articulating the questions people have on their minds. I thought of scattering small pieces of paper anywhere there are these demonstrations going on, with questions like these on them:

Feeling robbed of the trust, loyalty, and commitment you invested?

Unable to get a good return on your investment in your education?

Feeling robbed of your share of the world’s natural resources?

How many shares of social capital do you own?

How many shares of literacy capital do you have on the market?

How many shares of health capital do you own?

How many shares of natural capital do you own?

Wishing there was an easy way to know what return rate you get on your health investments?

Wishing there was an easy way to know what return rate you get on your education investments?

Why don’t you have legal title to your literacy capital shares?

Why don’t you have legal title to your social capital shares?

Why don’t you have legal title to your health capital shares?

Why don’t you have legal title to your natural capital shares?

Why don’t you know how many literacy capital shares are rightfully yours?

Why don’t you know how many social capital shares are rightfully yours?

Why don’t you know how many health capital shares are rightfully yours?

Why don’t you know how many natural capital shares are rightfully yours?

Why is there no common currency for trading on your literacy capital?

Why is there no common currency for trading on your health capital?

Why is there no common currency for trading on your social capital?

Why is there no common currency for trading on your natural capital?

Why aren’t corporations accountable for their impacts on your literacy capital investments?

Why aren’t corporations accountable for their impacts on your natural capital investments?

Why aren’t corporations accountable for their impacts on your social capital investments?

Why aren’t corporations accountable for their impacts on your health capital investments?

Why aren’t governments accountable for their impacts on your literacy capital investments?

Why aren’t governments accountable for their impacts on your natural capital investments?

Why aren’t governments accountable for their impacts on your social capital investments?

Why aren’t governments accountable for their impacts on your health capital investments?

Why are educational outcomes not comparable in a common metric?

Why are health care outcomes not comparable in a common metric?

Why are social program outcomes not comparable in a common metric?

Why are natural resource management program outcomes not comparable in a common metric?

Why do accounting and economics focus on land, labor, and manufactured capital instead of putting the value of ecosystem services, and health, literacy, and social capital, on the books and in the models, along with property and manufactured capital?

If we truly do manage what we measure, why don’t we have a metric system for literacy capital?

Can we effectively manage literacy capital if we don’t have a universally recognized and accepted metric for it?

If we truly do manage what we measure, why don’t we have a metric system for health capital?

Can we effectively manage health capital if we don’t have a universally recognized and accepted metric for it?

If we truly do manage what we measure, why don’t we have a metric system for social capital?

Can we effectively manage social capital if we don’t have a universally recognized and accepted metric for it?

If we truly do manage what we measure, why don’t we have a metric system for natural capital?

Can we effectively manage natural capital if we don’t have a universally recognized and accepted metric for it?

How is our collective imagination being stifled by the lack of a common language for literacy capital?

How is our collective imagination being stifled by the lack of a common language for health capital?

How is our collective imagination being stifled by the lack of a common language for social capital?

How is our collective imagination being stifled by the lack of a common language for natural capital?

How can the voice of the people be heard without common languages for things that are important to us?

How do we know where we stand as individuals and as a society if we can’t track the value and volume of our literacy, health, social, and natural capital shares?

Why don’t NIST and NSF fund new research into literacy, health, social, and natural capital metrics?

Why aren’t banks required to offer literacy, health, social, and natural capital accounts?

If we want to harmonize relationships between people, within and between societies, and between culture and nature, why don’t we tune the instruments on which we play the music of our lives?

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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.
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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part III: Reflections on Greider’s “Bold Ideas” in The Nation

September 10, 2011

And so, The Nation’s “Bold Ideas for a New Economy” is disappointing for not doing more to start from the beginning identified by its own writer, William Greider. The soul of capitalism needs to be celebrated and nourished, if we are to make our economy “less destructive and domineering,” and “more focused on what people really need for fulfilling lives.” The only real alternative to celebrating and nourishing the soul of capitalism is to kill it, in the manner of the Soviet Union’s failed experiments in socialism and communism.

The article speaks the truth, though, when it says there is no point in trying to persuade the powers that be to make the needed changes. Republicans see the market as it exists as a one-size-fits-all economic panacea, when all it can accomplish in its current incomplete state is the continuing externalization of anything and everything important about human, social, and environmental decency. For their part, Democrats do indeed “insist that regulation will somehow fix whatever is broken,” in an ever-expanding socialistic micromanagement of every possible exception to the rules that emerges.

To date, the president’s efforts at a nonpartisan third way amount only to vacillations between these opposing poles. The leadership that is needed, however, is something else altogether. Yes, as The Nation article says, capitalism needs to be made to serve the interests of society, and this will require deep structural change, not just new policies. But none of the contributors of the “bold ideas” presented propose deep structural changes of a kind that actually gets at the soul of capitalism. All of the suggestions are ultimately just new policies tweaking superficial aspects of the economy in mechanical, static, and very limited ways.

The article calls for “Democratizing reforms that will compel business and finance to share decision-making and distribute rewards more fairly.” It says the vision has different names but “the essence is a fundamental redistribution of power and money.” But corporate distortions of liability law, the introduction of boardroom watchdogs, and a tax on financial speculation do not by any stretch of the imagination address the root causes of social and environmental irresponsibility in business. They “sound like obscure technical fixes” because that’s what they are. The same thing goes for low-cost lending from public banks, the double or triple bottom lines of Benefit Corporations, new anti-trust laws, calls for “open information” policies, added personal stakes for big-time CEOs, employee ownership plans, the elimination of tax subsidies for, new standards for sound investing, new measures of GDP, and government guarantees of full employment.

All of these proposals sound like what ought to be the effects and outcomes of efforts addressing the root causes of capitalisms’ shortcomings. Instead, they are band aids applied to scratched fingers and arms when multiple by-pass surgery is called for. That is, what we need is to understand how to bring the spirit of capitalism to life in the new domains of human, social, and environmental interests, but what we’re getting are nothing but more of the same piecemeal ways of moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic.

There is some truth in the assertion that what really needs reinventing is our moral and spiritual imagination. As someone (Einstein or Edison?) is supposed to have put it, originality is simply a matter of having a source for an analogy no one else has considered. Ironically, the best model is often the one most taken for granted and nearest to hand. Such is the case with the two-sided scientific and economic effects of standardized units of measurement. The fundamental moral aspect here is nothing other than the Golden Rule, independently derived and offered in cultures throughout history, globally. Individualized social measurement is nothing if not a matter of determining whether others are being treated in the way you yourself would want to be treated.

And so, yes, to stress the major point of agreement with The Nation, “the new politics does not start in Washington.” Historically, at their best, governments work to keep pace with the social and technical innovations introduced by their peoples. Margaret Mead said it well a long time ago when she asserted that small groups of committed citizens are the only sources of real social change.

Not to be just one of many “advocates with bold imaginations” who wind up marginalized by the constraints of status quo politics, I claim my personal role in imagining a new economic future by tapping as deeply as I can into the positive, pre-existing structures needed for a transition into a new democratic capitalism. We learn through what we already know. Standards are well established as essential to commerce and innovation, but 90% of the capital under management in our economy—the human, social, and natural capital—lacks the standards needed for optimal market efficiency and effectiveness. An intangible assets metric system will be a vitally important way in which we extend what is right and good in the world today into new domains.

To conclude, what sets this proposal apart from those offered by The Nation and its readers hinges on our common agreement that “the most threatening challenge to capitalism is arguably the finite carrying capacity of the natural world.” The bold ideas proposed by The Nation’s readers respond to this challenge in ways that share an important feature in common: people have to understand the message and act on it. That fact dooms all of these ideas from the start. If we have to articulate and communicate a message that people then have to act on, we remain a part of the problem and not part of the solution.

As I argue in my “The Problem is the Problem” blog post of some months ago, this way of defining problems is itself the problem. That is, we can no longer think of ourselves as separate from the challenges we face. If we think we are not all implicated through and through as participants in the construction and maintenance of the problem, then we have not understood it. The bold ideas offered to date are all responses to the state of a broken system that seek to reform one or another element in the system when what we need is a whole new system.

What we need is a system that so fully embodies nature’s own ecological wisdom that the medium becomes the message. When the ground rules for economic success are put in place such that it is impossible to earn a profit without increasing stocks of human, social, and natural capital, there will be no need to spell out the details of a microregulatory structure of controlling new anti-trust laws, “open information” policies, personal stakes for big-time CEOs, employee ownership plans, the elimination of tax subsidies, etc. What we need is precisely what Greider reported from Innovest in his book: reliable, high quality information that makes human, social, and environmental issues matter financially. Situated in a context like that described by Bernstein in his 2004 The Birth of Plenty, with the relevant property rights, rule of law, scientific rationality, capital markets, and communications networks in place, it will be impossible to stop a new economic expansion of historic proportions.

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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.
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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part II: Scientific Credibility in Improving Information Quality

September 10, 2011

The previous posting here concluded with two questions provoked by a close consideration of a key passage in William Greider’s 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism. First, how do we create the high quality, solid information markets need to punish and reward relative to ethical and sustainable human, social, and environmental values? Second, what can we learn from the way we created that kind of information for property and manufactured capital? There are good answers to these questions, answers that point in productive directions in need of wide exploration and analysis.

The short answer to both questions is that better, more scientifically rigorous measurement at the local level needs to be implemented in a context of traceability to universally uniform standards. To think global and act local simultaneously, we need an efficient and transparent way of seeing where we stand in the world relative to everyone else. Having measures expressed in comparable and meaningful units is an important part of how we think global while acting local.

So, for markets to punish and reward businesses in ways able to build human, social, and environmental value, we need to be able to price that value, to track returns on investments in it, and to own shares of it. To do that, we need a new intangible assets metric system that functions in a manner analogous to the existing metric system and other weights and measures standards. In the same way these standards guarantee high quality information on volume, weight, thermal units, and volts in grocery stores and construction sites, we need a new set of standards for human abilities, performances, and health; for social trust, commitment, and loyalty; and for the environment’s air and water processing services, fisheries, gene pools, etc.

Each industry needs an instrumentarium of tools and metrics that mediate relationships universally within its entire sphere of production and/or service. The obvious and immediate reaction to this proposal will likely be that this is impossible, that it would have been done by now if it was possible, and that anyone who proposes something like this is simply unrealistic, perhaps dangerously so. So, here we have another reason to add to those given in the June 8, 2011 issue of The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/161267/reimagining-capitalism-bold-ideas-new-economy) as to why bold ideas for a new economy cannot gain any traction in today’s political discourse.

So what basis in scientific authority might be found for this audacious goal of an intangible assets metric system? This blog’s postings offer multiple varieties of evidence and argument in this regard, so I’ll stick to more recent developments, namely, last week’s meeting of the International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) in Jena, Germany. Membership in IMEKO is dominated by physicists, engineers, chemists, and clinical laboratorians who work in private industry, academia, and government weights and measures standards institutes.

Several IMEKO members past and present are involved with one or more of the seven or eight major international standards organizations responsible for maintaining and improving the metric system (the Systeme Internationale des Unites). Two initiatives undertaken by IMEKO and these standards organizations take up the matter at issue here concerning the audacious goal of standard units for human, social, and natural capital.

First, the recently released third edition of the International Vocabulary of Measurement (VIM, 2008) expands the range of the concepts and terms included to encompass measurement in the human and social sciences. This first effort was not well informed as to the nature of widely realized state of the art developments in measurement in education, health care, and the social sciences. What is important is that an invitation to further dialogue has been extended from the natural to the social sciences.

That invitation was unintentionally accepted and a second initiative advanced just as the new edition of the VIM was being released, in 2008. Members of three IMEKO technical committees (TC 1-7-13; those on Measurement Science, Metrology Education, and Health Care) cultivate a special interest in ideas on the human and social value of measurement. At their 2008 meeting in Annecy, France, I presented a paper (later published in revised form as Fisher, 2009) illustrating how, over the previous 50 years and more, the theory and practice of measurement in the social sciences had developed in ways capable of supporting convenient and useful universally uniform units for human, social, and natural capital.

The same argument was then advanced by my fellow University of Chicago alum, Nikolaus Bezruczko, at the 2009 IMEKO World Congress in Lisbon. Bezruczko and I both spoke at the 2010 TC 1-7-13 meeting in London, and last week our papers were joined by presentations from six of our colleagues at the 2011 IMEKO TC 1-7-13 meeting in Jena, Germany. Another fellow U Chicagoan, Mark Wilson, a long time professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, gave an invited address contrasting four basic approaches to measurement in psychometrics, and emphasizing the value of methods that integrate substantive meaning with mathematical rigor.

Examples from education, health care, and business were then elucidated at this year’s meeting in Jena by myself, Bezruczko, Stefan Cano (University of Plymouth, England), Carl Granger (SUNY, Buffalo; paper presented by Bezruczko, a co-author), Thomas Salzberger (University of Vienna, Austria), Jack Stenner (MetaMetrics, Inc., Durham, NC, USA), and Gordon Cooper (University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA, Australia; paper presented by Fisher, a co-author).

The contrast between these presentations and those made by the existing IMEKO membership hinges on two primary differences in focus. The physicists and engineers take it for granted that all instrument calibration involves traceability to metrological reference standards. Dealing as they are with existing standards and physical or chemical materials that usually possess deterministically structured properties, issues of how to construct linear measures from ordinal observations never come up.

Conversely, the social scientists and psychometricians take it for granted that all instrument calibration involves evaluations of the capacity of ordinal observations to support the construction of linear measures. Dealing as they are with data from tests, surveys, and rating scale assessments, issues of how to relate a given instrument’s unit to a reference standard never come up.

Thus there is significant potential for mutually instructive dialogue between natural and social scientists in this context. Many areas of investigation in the natural sciences have benefited from the introduction of probabilistic concepts in recent decades, but there are perhaps important unexplored opportunities for the application of probabilistic measurement, as opposed to statistical, models. By taking advantage of probabilistic models’ special features, measurement in education and health care has begun to realize the benefit of broad generalizations of comparable units across grades, schools, tests, and curricula.

Though the focus of my interest here is in the capacity of better measurement to improve the efficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets, it may turn out that as many or more benefits will accrue in the natural sciences’ side of the conversation as in the social sciences’ side. The important thing for the time being is that the dialogue is started. New and irreversible mutual understandings between natural and social scientists have already been put on the record. It may happen that the introduction of a new supply of improved human, social, and natural capital metrics will help articulate the largely, as yet, unstated but nonetheless urgent demand for them.

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

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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.
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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part I: Reflections on Greider’s Soul of Capitalism

September 10, 2011

In his 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism, William Greider wrote, “If capitalism were someday found to have a soul, it would probably be located in the mystic qualities of capital itself” (p. 94). The recurring theme in the book is that the resolution of capitalism’s deep conflicts must grow out as organic changes from the roots of capitalism itself.

In the book, Greider quotes Innovest’s Michael Kiernan as suggesting that the goal has to be re-engineering the DNA of Wall Street (p. 119). He says the key to doing this is good reliable information that has heretofore been unavailable but which will make social and environmental issues matter financially. The underlying problems of exactly what solid, high quality information looks like, where it comes from, and how it is created are not stated or examined, but the point, as Kiernan says, is that “the markets are pretty good at punishing and rewarding.” The objective is to use “the financial markets as an engine of reform and positive change rather than destruction.”

This objective is, of course, the focus of multiple postings in this blog (see especially this one and this one). From my point of view, capitalism indeed does have a soul and it is actually located in the qualities of capital itself. Think about it: if a soul is a spirit of something that exists independent of its physical manifestation, then the soul of capitalism is the fungibility of capital. Now, this fungibility is complex and ambiguous. It takes its strength and practical value from the way market exchange are represented in terms of currencies, monetary units that, within some limits, provide an objective basis of comparison useful for rewarding those capable of matching supply with demand.

But the fungibility of capital can also be dangerously misconceived when the rich complexity and diversity of human capital is unjustifiably reduced to labor, when the irreplaceable value of natural capital is unjustifiably reduced to land, and when the trust, loyalty, and commitment of social capital is completely ignored in financial accounting and economic models. As I’ve previously said in this blog, the concept of human capital is inherently immoral so far as it reduces real human beings to interchangeable parts in an economic machine.

So how could it ever be possible to justify any reduction of human, social, and natural value to a mere number? Isn’t this the ultimate in the despicable inhumanity of economic logic, corporate decision making, and, ultimately, the justification of greed? Many among us who profess liberal and progressive perspectives seem to have an automatic and reactionary prejudice of this kind. This makes these well-intentioned souls as much a part of the problem as those among us with sometimes just as well-intentioned perspectives that accept such reductionism as the price of entry into the game.

There is another way. Human, social, and natural value can be measured and made manageable in ways that do not necessitate totalizing reduction to a mere number. The problem is not reduction itself, but unjustified, totalizing reduction. Referring to all people as “man” or “men” is an unjustified reduction dangerous in the way it focuses attention only on males. The tendency to think and act in ways privileging males over females that is fostered by this sense of “man” shortchanges us all, and has happily been largely eliminated from discourse.

Making language more inclusive does not, however, mean that words lose the singular specificity they need to be able to refer to things in the world. Any given word represents an infinite population of possible members of a class of things, actions, and forms of life. Any simple sentence combining words into a coherent utterance then multiplies infinities upon infinities. Discourse inherently reduces multiplicities into texts of limited lengths.

Like any tool, reduction has its uses. Also like any tool, problems arise when the tool is allowed to occupy some hidden and unexamined blind spot from which it can dominate and control the way we think about everything. Critical thinking is most difficult in those instances in which the tools of thinking themselves need to be critically evaluated. To reject reduction uncritically as inherently unjustified is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, it is impossible to formulate a statement of the rejection without simultaneously enacting exactly what is supposed to be rejected.

We have numerous ready-to-hand examples of how all reduction has been unjustifiably reduced to one homogenized evil. But one of the results of experiments in communal living in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as of the fall of the Soviet Union, was the realization that the centralized command and control of collectively owned community property cannot compete with the creativity engendered when individuals hold legal title to the fruits of their labors. If individuals cannot own the results of the investments they make, no one makes any investments.

In other words, if everything is owned collectively and is never reduced to individually possessed shares that can be creatively invested for profitable returns, then the system is structured so as to punish innovation and reward doing as little as possible. But there’s another way of thinking about the relation of the collective to the individual. The living soul of capitalism shows itself in the way high quality information makes it possible for markets to efficiently coordinate and align individual producers’ and consumers’ collective behaviors and decisions. What would happen if we could do that for human, social, and natural capital markets? What if “social capitalism” is more than an empty metaphor? What if capital institutions can be configured so that individual profit really does become the driver of socially responsible, sustainable economics?

And here we arrive at the crux of the problem. How do we create the high quality, solid information markets need to punish and reward relative to ethical and sustainable human, social, and environmental values? Well, what can we learn from the way we created that kind of information for property and manufactured capital? These are the questions taken up and explored in the postings in this blog, and in my scientific research publications and meeting presentations. In the near future, I’ll push my reflection on these questions further, and will explore some other possible answers to the questions offered by Greider and his readers in a recent issue of The Nation.

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New Opportunities for Job Creation and Prosperity

August 17, 2011

What can be done to create jobs and revive the economy? There is no simple, easy answer to this question. Creating busywork is nonsense. We need fulfilling occupations that meet the world’s demand for products and services. It is not easy to see how meaningful work can be systematically created on a broad scale. New energy efficiencies may lead to the cultivation of significant job growth, but it may be unwise to put all of our eggs in this one basket.

So how are we to solve this puzzle? What other areas in the economy might be ripe for the introduction of a new technology capable of supporting a wave of new productivity, like computers did in the 1980s, or the Internet in the 1990s? In trying to answer this question, simplicity and elegance are key factors in keeping things at a practical level.

For instance, we know we accomplish more working together as a team than as disconnected individuals. New jobs, especially new kinds of jobs, will have to be created via innovation. Innovation in science and industry is a team sport. So the first order of business in teaming up for job creation is to know the rules of the game. The economic game is played according to the rules of law embodied in property rights, scientific rationality, capital markets, and transportation/communications networks (see William Bernstein’s 2004 book, The Birth of Plenty). When these conditions are met, as they were in Europe and North America at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the stage is set for long term innovation and growth on a broad scale.

The second order of business is to identify areas in the economy that lack one or more of these four conditions, and that could reasonably be expected to benefit from their introduction. Education, health care, social services, and environmental management come immediately to mind. These industries are plagued with seemingly interminable inflationary spirals, which, no doubt, are at least in part caused by the inability of investors to distinguish between high and low performers. Money cannot flow to and reward programs producing superior results in these industries because they lack common product definitions and comparable measures of their results.

The problems these industries are experiencing are not specific to each of them in particular. Rather, the problem is a general one applicable across all industries, not just these. Traditionally, economic thinking focuses on three main forms of capital: land, labor, and manufactured products (including everything from machines, roads, and buildings to food, clothing, and appliances). Cash and credit are often thought of as liquid capital, but their economic value stems entirely from the access they provide to land, labor, and manufactured products.

Economic activity is not really, however, restricted to these three forms of capital. Land is far more than a piece of ground. What are actually at stake are the earth’s regenerative ecosystems, with the resources and services they provide. And labor is far more than a pair of skilled hands; people bring a complex mix of abilities, motivations, and health to bear in their work. Finally, this scheme lacks an essential element: the trust, loyalty, and commitment required for even the smallest economic exchange to take place. Without social capital, all the other forms of capital (human, natural, and manufactured, including property) are worthless. Consistent, sustainable, and socially responsible economic growth requires that all four forms of capital be made accountable in financial spreadsheets and economic models.

The third order of business, then, is to ask if the four conditions laying out the rules for the economic game are met in each of the four capital domains. The table below suggests that all four conditions are fully met only for manufactured products. They are partially met for natural resources, such as minerals, timber, fisheries, etc., but not at all for nature’s air and water purification systems or broader genetic ecosystem services.

 Table

Existing Conditions Relevant to Conceiving a New Birth of Plenty, by Capital Domains

Human

Social

Natural

Manufactured

Property rights

No

No

Partial

Yes

Scientific rationality

Partial

Partial

Partial

Yes

Capital markets

Partial

Partial

Partial

Yes

Transportation & communication networks

Partial

Partial

Partial

Yes

That is, no provisions exist for individual ownership of shares in the total available stock of air and water, or of forest, watershed, estuary, and other ecosystem service outcomes. Nor do any individuals have free and clear title to their most personal properties, the intangible abilities, motivations, health, and trust most essential to their economic productivity. Aggregate statistics are indeed commonly used to provide a basis for policy and research in human, social, and natural capital markets, but falsifiable models of individually applicable unit quantities are not widely applied. Scientifically rational measures of our individual stocks of intangible asset value will require extensive use of these falsifiable models in calibrating the relevant instrumentation.

Without such measures, we cannot know how many shares of stock in these forms of capital we own, or what they are worth in dollar terms. We lack these measures, even though decades have passed since researchers first established firm theoretical and practical foundations for them. And more importantly, even when scientifically rational individual measures can be obtained, they are never expressed in terms of a unit standardized for use within a given market’s communications network.

So what are the consequences for teams playing the economic game? High performance teams’ individual decisions and behaviors are harmonized in ways that cannot otherwise be achieved only when unit amounts, prices, and costs are universally comparable and publicly available. This is why standard currencies and exchange rates are so important.

And right here we have an insight into what we can do to create jobs. New jobs are likely going to have to be new kinds of jobs resulting from innovations. As has been detailed at length in recent works such as Surowiecki’s 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds, innovation in science and industry depends on standards. Standards are common languages that enable us to multiply our individual cognitive powers into new levels of collective productivity. Weights and measures standards are like monetary currencies; they coordinate the exchange of value in laboratories and businesses in the same way that dollars do in the US economy.

Applying Bernstein’s four conditions for economic growth to intangible assets, we see that a long term program for job creation then requires

  1. legislation establishing human, social, and natural capital property rights, and an Intangible Assets Metrology System;
  2. scientific research into consensus standards for measuring human, social, and natural capital;
  3. venture capital educational and marketing programs; and
  4. distributed information networks and computer applications through which investments in human, social, and natural capital can be tracked and traded in accord with the rule of law governing property rights and in accord with established consensus standards.

Of these four conditions, Bernstein (p. 383) points to property rights as being the most difficult to establish, and the most important for prosperity. Scientific results are widely available in online libraries. Capital can be obtained from investors anywhere. Transportation and communications services are available commercially.

But valid and verifiable means of representing legal title to privately owned property is a problem often not yet solved even for real estate in many Third World and former communist countries (see De Soto’s 2000 book, The Mystery of Capital). Creating systems for knowing the quality and quantity of educational, health care, social, and environmental service outcomes is going to be a very difficult process. It will not be impossible, however, and having the problem identified advances us significantly towards new economic possibilities.

We need leaders able and willing to formulate audacious goals for new economic growth from ideas such as these. We need enlightened visionaries able to see our potentials from a new perspective, and who can reflect our new self-image back at us. When these leaders emerge—and they will, somewhere, somehow—the imaginations of millions of entrepreneurial thinkers and actors will be fired, and new possibilities will unfold.

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Enchantment, Organizations, and Mediating Instruments: Potential for a New Consensus?

August 3, 2011

I just came across something that could be helpful in regaining some forward momentum and expanding the frame of reference for the research on caring in nursing with Jane Sumner (Sumner & Fisher, 2008). We have yet to really work in the failure of Habermas’ hermeneutic objectivism (Kim, 2002; Thompson, 1984) and we haven’t connected what we’ve done with (a) Ricoeur’s (1984, 1985, 1990, 1995) sense of narrative as describing the past en route to prescribing the future (prefiguring, configuring, and refiguring the creation of meaning in discourse) and with (b) Wright’s (1999) sense of learning from past data to efficiently and effectively anticipate new data within a stable inferential frame of reference.

Now I’ve found a recent publication that resonates well with this goal, and includes examples from nursing to boot. Boje and Baskin (2010; see especially pp. 12-17 in the manuscript available at http://peaceaware.com/vita/paper_pdfs/JOCM_Never_Disenchanted.pdf) cite only secondary literature but do a good job of articulating where the field is at conceptually and in tracing the sources of that articulation.  So they make no mention of Ricoeur on narrative (1984, 1985, 1990) and on play and the heuristic fiction (1981, pp. 185-187), and they make no mention of Gadamer on play as the most important clue to methodological authenticity (1989, pp. 101-134). It follows that they then also do not make any use of the considerable volume of other available and relevant work on the metaphysics of allure, captivation, enthrallment, rapture, beauty, or eros.

This is all very important because these issues are highly salient markers of the distinction between a modern, Cartesian, and mechanical worldview destructive of enchantment and play, and the amodern, nonCartesian, and organic worldview in tune with enchantment and play. As I have stressed repeatedly in these posts, the way we frame problems is now the primary problem, in opposition to those who think identifying and applying resources, techniques, or will power is the problem. It is essential that we learn to frame problems in a way that begins from requirements of subject-object interdependence instead of from assumptions of subject-object independence. Previous posts here explore in greater detail how we are all captivated by the desire for meaning. Any time we choose negotiation or patient waiting over violence, we express faith in the ultimate value of trusting our words. So though Boje and Baskin do not document this larger context, they still effectively show exactly where and how work in the nonCartesian paradigm of enchantment connects up with what’s going on in organizational change management theory.

The paper’s focus on narrative as facilitating enchantment and disenchantment speaks to our fundamental absorption into the play of language. Enchantment is described on page 2 as involving positive connection with existence, of being enthralled with the wonder of being endowed with natural and cultural gifts.  Though not described as such, this hermeneutics of restoration, as Ricoeur (1967) calls it, focuses on the way symbols give rise to thought in an unasked-for assertion of meaningfulness. The structure we see emerge of its own accord across multiple different data sets from tests, surveys, and assessments is an important example of this gift through which previously identified meanings re-assert themselves anew (see my published philosophical work, such as Fisher, 2004). The contrast with disenchantment of course arises as a function of the dead and one-sided modern Cartesian effort aimed at controlling the environment, which effectively eliminates wonder and meaning via a hermeneutics of suspicion.

In accord with the work done to date with Sumner on caring in nursing, the Boje and Baskin paper describes people’s variable willingness to accept disenchantment or demand enchantment (p. 13) in terms that look quite like preconventional and postconventional Kohlbergian stages. A nurse’s need to shift from one dominant narrative form to another is described as very difficult because of the way she had used the one to which she was accustomed to construct her identity as a nurse (p. 15). Bi-directionality between nurses and patients is implied in another example of a narrative shift in a hospital (p. 16). Both identity and bi-directionality are central issues in the research with Sumner.

The paper also touches on the conceptual domain of instrumental realism, as this is developed in the works of Ihde, Latour, Heelan and others (on p. 6; again, without citing them), and emphasizes a nonCartesian subject-object unity and belongingness, which is described at length in Ricoeur’s work. At the bottom of page 7 and top of 8, storytelling is theorized in terms of retrospection, presentness, and a bet on future meaning, which precisely echoes Ricoeur’s (1984, 1985, 1990) sense of narrative refiguration, configuration, and prefiguration. A connection with measurement comes here, in that what we want is to:

“reach beyond the data in hand to what these data might imply about future data, still unmet, but urgent to foresee. The first problem is how to predict values for these future data, which, by the meaning of inference, are necessarily missing. This meaning of missing must include not only the future data to be inferred but also all possible past data that were lost or never collected” (Wright, 1999, p. 76).

Properly understood and implemented (see previous posts in this blog), measurement based in models of individual behavior provides a way to systematically create an atmosphere of emergent enchantment. Having developmentally sound narratives rooted in individual measures on multiple dimensions over time gives us a shared written history that we can all find ourselves in, and that we can then use to project a vision of a shared future that has reasonable expectations for what’s possible.

This mediation of past and future by means of technical instruments is being described in a way (Miller & O’Leary, 2007) that to me (Fisher & Stenner, 2011) denotes a vital distinction not just between the social and natural sciences, but between economically moribund and inflationary industries such as education, health care, and social services, on the one hand, and economically vibrant and deflationary industries such as microprocessors, on the other.

It is here, and I say this out loud for the first time here, even to myself, that I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to see a way that I might find a sense of closure and resolution in the project I took up over 30 years ago. My puzzle has been one of understanding in theory and practice how it is that measurement and mathematical thinking are nothing but refinements of the logic used in everyday conversation. It only occurs to me now that, if we can focus the conversations that we are in ways that balance meaningfulness and precision, that situate each of us as individuals relative to the larger wholes of who we have been and who we might be, that encompasses both the welcoming Socratic midwife and the annoying Socratic gadfly as different facets of the same framework, and that enable us to properly coordinate and align technical projects involving investments in intangible capital, well, then, we’ll be in a position to more productively engage with the challenges of the day.

There won’t be any panacea but there will be a new consensus and a new infrastructure that, however new they may seem, will enact yet again, in a positive way, the truth of the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As I’ve repeatedly argued, the changes we need to implement are nothing but extensions of age-old principles into areas in which they have not yet been applied. We should take some satisfaction from this, as what else could possibly work? The originality of the application does not change the fact that it is rooted in appropriating, via a refiguration, to be sure, a model created for other purposes that works in relation to new purposes.

Another way of putting the question is in terms of that “permanent arbitration between technical universalism and the personality constituted on the ethico-political plane” characteristic of the need to enter into the global technical society while still retaining our roots in our cultural past (Ricoeur, 1974, p. 291). What is needed is the capacity to mediate each individual’s retelling of the grand narrative so that each of us sees ourselves in everyone else, and everyone else in ourselves. Though I am sure the meaning of this is less than completely transparent right now, putting it in writing is enormously satisfying, and I will continue to work on telling the tale as it needs to be told.

 References

Boje, D., & Baskin, K. (2010). Our organizations were never disenchanted: Enchantment by design narratives vs. enchantment by emergence. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(4), 411-426.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO). Jena, Germany.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Second revised edition). New York: Crossroad.

Kim, K.-M. (2002, May). On the failure of Habermas’s hermeneutic objectivism. Cultural Studies <–> Critical Methodologies, 2(2), 270-98.

Miller, P., & O’Leary, T. (2007, October/November). Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations, and Society, 32(7-8), 701-34.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Conclusion: The symbol gives rise to thought. In R. N. Anshen (Ed.), The symbolism of evil (pp. 347-57). Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Political and social essays (D. Stewart & J. Bien, Eds.). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1981). Hermeneutics and the human sciences: Essays on language, action and interpretation (J. B. Thompson, Ed.) (J. B. Thompson, Trans.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1984, 1985, 1990). Time and Narrative, Vols. 1-3 (K. McLaughlin (Blamey) & D. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1995). Reply to Peter Kemp. In L. E. Hahn (Ed.), The philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (pp. 395-398). Chicago, Illinois: Open Court.

Sumner, J., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2008). The moral construct of caring in nursing as communicative action: The theory and practice of a caring science. Advances in Nursing Science, 31(4), E19-E36.

Thompson, J. B. (1981). Critical hermeneutics: A study in the thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wright, B. D. (1999). Fundamental measurement for psychology. In S. E. Embretson & S. L. Hershberger (Eds.), The new rules of measurement: What every educator and psychologist should know (pp. 65-104 [http://www.rasch.org/memo64.htm]). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Debt, Revenue, and Changing the Way Washington Works: The Greatest Entrepreneurial Opportunity of Our Time

July 30, 2011

“Holding the line” on spending and taxes does not make for a fundamental transformation of the way Washington works. Simply doing less of one thing is just a small quantitative change that does nothing to build positive results or set a new direction. What we need is a qualitative metamorphosis akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. In contrast with this beautiful image of natural processes, the arguments and so-called principles being invoked in the sham debate that’s going on are nothing more than fights over where to put deck chairs on the Titanic.

What sort of transformation is possible? What kind of a metamorphosis will start from who and where we are, but redefine us sustainably and responsibly? As I have repeatedly explained in this blog, my conference presentations, and my publications, with numerous citations of authoritative references, we already possess all of the elements of the transformation. We have only to organize and deploy them. Of course, discerning what the resources are and how to put them together is not obvious. And though I believe we will do what needs to be done when we are ready, it never hurts to prepare for that moment. So here’s another take on the situation.

Infrastructure that supports lean thinking is the name of the game. Lean thinking focuses on identifying and removing waste. Anything that consumes resources but does not contribute to the quality of the end product is waste. We have enormous amounts of wasteful inefficiency in many areas of our economy. These inefficiencies are concentrated in areas in which management is hobbled by low quality information, where we lack the infrastructure we need.

Providing and capitalizing on this infrastructure is The Greatest Entrepreneurial Opportunity of Our Time. Changing the way Washington (ha! I just typed “Wastington”!) works is the same thing as mitigating the sources of risk that caused the current economic situation. Making government behave more like a business requires making the human, social, and natural capital markets more efficient. Making those markets more efficient requires reducing the costs of transactions. Those costs are determined in large part by information quality, which is a function of measurement.

It is often said that the best way to reduce the size of government is to move the functions of government into the marketplace. But this proposal has never been associated with any sense of the infrastructural components needed to really make the idea work. Simply reducing government without an alternative way of performing its functions is irresponsible and destructive. And many of those who rail on and on about how bad or inefficient government is fail to recognize that the government is us. We get the government we deserve. The government we get follows directly from the kind of people we are. Government embodies our image of ourselves as a people. In the US, this is what having a representative form of government means. “We the people” participate in our society’s self-governance not just by voting, writing letters to congress, or demonstrating, but in the way we spend our money, where we choose to live, work, and go to school, and in every decision we make. No one can take a breath of air, a drink of water, or a bite of food without trusting everyone else to not carelessly or maliciously poison them. No one can buy anything or drive down the street without expecting others to behave in predictable ways that ensure order and safety.

But we don’t just trust blindly. We have systems in place to guard against those who would ruthlessly seek to gain at everyone else’s expense. And systems are the point. No individual person or firm, no matter how rich, could afford to set up and maintain the systems needed for checking and enforcing air, water, food, and workplace safety measures. Society as a whole invests in the infrastructure of measures created, maintained, and regulated by the government’s Department of Commerce and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The moral importance and the economic value of measurement standards has been stressed historically over many millennia, from the Bible and the Quran to the Magna Carta and the French Revolution to the US Constitution. Uniform weights and measures are universally recognized and accepted as essential to fair trade.

So how is it that we nonetheless apparently expect individuals and local organizations like schools, businesses, and hospitals to measure and monitor students’ abilities; employees’ skills and engagement; patients’ health status, functioning, and quality of care; etc.? Why do we not demand common currencies for the exchange of value in human, social, and natural capital markets? Why don’t we as a society compel our representatives in government to institute the will of the people and create new standards for fair trade in education, health care, social services, and environmental management?

Measuring better is not just a local issue! It is a systemic issue! When measurement is objective and when we all think together in the common language of a shared metric (like hours, volts, inches or centimeters, ounces or grams, degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius, etc.), then and only then do we have the means we need to implement lean strategies and create new efficiencies systematically. We need an Intangible Assets Metric System.

The current recession in large part was caused by failures in measuring and managing trust, responsibility, loyalty, and commitment. Similar problems in measuring and managing human, social, and natural capital have led to endlessly spiraling costs in education, health care, social services, and environmental management. The problems we’re experiencing in these areas are intimately tied up with the way we formulate and implement group level decision making processes and policies based in statistics when what we need is to empower individuals with the tools and information they need to make their own decisions and policies. We will not and cannot metamorphose from caterpillar to butterfly until we create the infrastructure through which we each can take full ownership and control of our individual shares of the human, social, and natural capital stock that is rightfully ours.

We well know that we manage what we measure. What counts gets counted. Attention tends to be focused on what we’re accountable for. But–and this is vitally important–many of the numbers called measures do not provide the information we need for management. And not only are lots of numbers giving us low quality information, there are far too many of them! We could have better and more information from far fewer numbers.

Previous postings in this blog document the fact that we have the intellectual, political, scientific, and economic resources we need to measure and manage human, social, and natural capital for authentic wealth. And the issue is not a matter of marshaling the will. It is hard to imagine how there could be more demand for better management of intangible assets than there is right now. The problem in meeting that demand is a matter of imagining how to start the ball rolling. What configuration of investments and resources will start the process of bursting open the chrysalis? How will the demand for meaningful mediating instruments be met in a way that leads to the spreading of the butterfly’s wings? It is an exciting time to be alive.

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A Framework for Competitive Advantage in Managing Intangible Assets

July 26, 2011

It has long been recognized that externalities like social costs could be brought into the market should ways of measuring them objectively be devised. Markets, however, do not emerge spontaneously from the mere desire to be able to buy and sell; they are, rather, the products of actors and agencies that define the rules, roles, and relationships within which transaction costs are reduced and from which value, profits, and authentic wealth may be extracted. Objective measurement is necessary to reduced transaction costs but is by itself insufficient to the making of markets. Thus, markets for intangible assets, such as human, social, and natural capital, remain inefficient and undeveloped even though scientific theories, models, methods, and results demonstrating their objective measurability have been available for over 80 years.

Why has the science of objectively measured intangible assets not yet led to efficient markets for those assets? The crux of the problem, the pivot point at which an economic Archimedes could move the world of business, has to do with verifiable trust. It may seem like stating the obvious, but there is much to be learned from recognizing that shared narratives of past performance and a shared vision of the future are essential to the atmosphere of trust and verifiability needed for the making of markets. The key factor is the level of detail reliably tapped by such narratives.

For instance, some markets seem to have the weight of an immovable mass when the dominant narrative describes a static past and future with no clearly defined trajectory of leverageable development. But when a path of increasing technical capacity or precision over time can be articulated, entrepreneurs have the time frames they need to be able to coordinate, align, and manage budgeting decisions vis a vis investments, suppliers, manufacturers, marketing, sales, and customers. For example, the building out of the infrastructure of highways, electrical power, and water and sewer services assured manufacturers of automobiles, appliances, and homes that they could develop products for which there would be ready customers. Similarly, the mapping out of a path of steady increases in technical precision at no additional cost in Moore’s Law has been a key factor enabling the microprocessor industry’s ongoing history of success.

Of course, as has been the theme of this blog since day one, similar paths for the development of new infrastructural capacities could be vital factors for making new markets for human, social, and natural capital. I’ll be speaking on this topic at the forthcoming IMEKO meeting in Jena, Germany, August 31 to September 2. Watch this spot for more on this theme in the near future.

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Subjectivity, Objectivity, Performance Measurement and Markets

April 23, 2011

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.

References

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. http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherNISTWhitePaper2.pdf). New Orleans: LivingCapitalMetrics.com.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010, 22 November). Meaningfulness, measurement, value seeking, and the corporate objective function: An introduction to new possibilities. Available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1713467.

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 http://ssrn.com/abstract=1729388.

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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