Posts Tagged ‘Business’

New Ideas on How to Realize the Purpose of Capital

September 20, 2018

I’d like to offer the following in reply to James Militzer, at https://nextbillion.net/deciphering-emersons-tears-time-impact-investing-lower-expectations/.

Rapid advances toward impact investing’s highest goals of social transformation are underway in quiet technical work being done in places no one is looking. That work shares Jed Emerson’s sentiments expressed at the 2017 Social Capital Markets conference, as he is quoted in Militzer’s NextBillion.net posting, that “The purpose of capital is to advance a more progressively free and just experience of life for all.” And he is correct in what Militzer reported he said the year before, that we need a “real, profound critique of current practices within financial capitalism,” one that would “require real change in our own behavior aside from adding a few funds to our portfolios here or augmenting a reporting process there.”

But the efforts he and others are making toward fulfilling that purpose and articulating that critique are incomplete, insufficient, and inadequate. Why? How? Language is the crux of the matter, and the issues involved are complex and technical. The challenge, which may initially seem simplistic or naive, is how to bring human, social, and environmental values into words. Not just any words, but meaningful words in a common language. What is most challenging is that this language, like any everyday language, has to span the range from abstract theoretical ideals to concrete local improvisations.

That means it cannot be like our current languages for expressing human, social, and environmental value. If we are going to succeed in aligning those forms of value with financial value, we have a lot of work to do.

Though there is endless talk of metrics for managing sustainable impacts, and though the importance of these metrics for making sustainability manageable is also a topic of infinite discussion, almost no one takes the trouble to seek out and implement the state of the art in measurement science. This is a crucial way, perhaps the most essential way, in which we need to criticize current practices within financial capitalism and change our behaviors. Oddly, almost no one seems to have thought of that.

That is, one of the most universally unexamined assumptions of our culture is that numbers automatically stand for quantities. People who analyze numeric data are called quants, and all numeric data analysis is referred to as quantitative. That is the case, but almost none of these quants and quantitative methods involve actually defining, modeling, identifying, evaluating, or applying an substantive unit of something real in the world that can be meaningfully represented by numbers.

There is, of course, an extensive and longstanding literature on exactly this science of measurement. It has been a topic of research, philosophy, and practical applications for at least 90 years, going back to the work of Thurstone at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. That work continued at the University of Chicago with Rasch’s visit there in 1960, with Wright’s adoption and expansion of Rasch’s theory and methods, and with the further work done by Wright’s students and colleagues in the years since.

Most importantly, over the last ten years, metrologists, the physicists and engineers who maintain and improve the SI units, the metric system, have taken note of what’s been going on in research and practice involving the approaches to measurement developed by Rasch, Wright, and their students and colleagues (for just two of many articles in this area, see here and here). The most recent developments in this new metrology include

(a) initiatives at national metrology institutes globally (Sweden and the UK, Portugal, Ukraine, among others) to investigate potentials for a new class of unit standards;

(b) a special session on this topic at the International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) World Congress in Belfast on 5 September 2018;

(c) the Journal of Physics Conference Series proceedings of the 2016 IMEKO Joint Symposium hosted by Mark Wilson and myself at UC Berkeley;

(d) the publication of a 2017 book on Ben Wright edited by Mark Wilson and myself in Springer’s Series on Measurement Science and Technology; and

(e) the forthcoming October 2018 special issue of Elsevier’s Measurement journal edited by Wilson and myself, and a second one currently in development.

There are profound differences between today’s assumptions about measurement and how a meaningful art and science of precision measurement proceeds. What passes for measurement in today’s sustainability economics and accounting are counts, percentages, and ratings. These merely numeric metrics do not stand for anything that adds up the way they do. In fact, it’s been repeatedly demonstrated over many years that these kinds of metrics measure in a unit that changes size depending on who or what is measured, who is measuring, and what tool is used to measure. What makes matters even worse is that the numbers are usually taken to be perfectly precise, as uncertainty ranges, error terms, and confidence intervals are only sporadically provided and are usually omitted.

Measurement is not primarily a matter of data analysis. Measurement requires calibrated instruments that can be read as standing for a given amount of something that stays the same, within the uncertainty range, no matter who is measuring, no matter what or who is measured, and no matter what tool is used. This is, of course, quite an accomplishment when it can be achieved, but it is not impossible and has been put to use in large scale practical ways for several decades (for instance, see here, here, and here). Universally accessible instruments calibrated to common unit standards are what make society in general, and markets in particular, efficient in the way of projecting distributed network effects, turning communities into massively parallel stochastic computers (as W. Brian Arthur put it on p. 6 of his 2014 book, Complexity Economics).

These are not unexamined assumptions or overly ideal theoretical demands. They are pragmatic ways of adapting to emergent patterns in various kinds of data that have repeatedly been showing themselves around the world for decades. Our task is to literally capitalize on these nonhuman forms of life by creating multilevel, complex ecosystems of relationships with them, letting them be what they are in ways that also let us represent ourselves to each other. (Emerson quotes Bruno Latour to this effect on page 136 in his new book, The Purpose of Capital; those familiar with my work will know I’ve been reading and citing Latour since the early 1980s).

So it seems to me that, however well-intentioned those promoting impact investing may be, there is little awareness of just how profound and sweeping the critique of current practices needs to be, or of just how much our own behaviors are going to have to change. There are, however, truly significant reasons to be optimistic and hopeful. The technical work being done in measurement and metrology points toward possibilities for extending everyday language into a pragmatic idealism that does not require caving in to either varying local circumstances or to authoritarian dictates.

The upside of the situation is that, as so often happens in the course of human history, this critique and the associated changes are likely to have that peculiar quality captured in the French expression, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same). The changes in process are transformative, but will also be recognizable repetitions of human scale patterns.

In sum, what we are doing is tuning the instruments of the human, social, and environmental sciences to better harmonize relationships. Just as jazz, folk, and world music show that creative improvisation is not constrained by–but is facilitated by–tuning standards and high tech solutions, so, too, can we make that the case in other areas.

For instance, in my presentation at the IMEKO World Congress in Belfast on 5 September, I showed that the integration of beauty and meaning we have within our grasp reiterates principles that date back to Plato. The aesthetics complement the mathematics, with variations on the same equations being traceable from the Pythagorean theorem to Newton’s laws to Rasch’s models for measurement (see, for instance, Fisher & Stenner, 2013). In many ways, the history of science and philosophy continues to be a footnote to Plato.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
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Self-Sustaining Sustainability, Once Again, Already

August 12, 2018

The urgent need for massive global implementations of sustainability policies and practices oddly and counterproductively has not yet led to systematic investments in state of the art sustainability metric standards. My personal mission is to contribute to meeting this need. Longstanding, proven resources in the art and science of precision instrumentation calibration and explanatory theory are available to address these problems. In the same way technical standards for measuring length, mass, volume, time, energy, light, etc. enable the coordination of science and commerce for manufactured capital and property, so, too, will a new class of standards for measuring human, social, and natural capital.

This new art and science contradicts common assumptions in three ways. First, contrary to popular opinion that measuring these things is impossible, over 90 years of research and practice support a growing consensus among weights and measures standards engineers (metrologists) and social and psychological measurement experts that relevant unit standards are viable, feasible, and desirable.

Common perceptions are contradicted in a second way in that measurement of this kind does not require reducing human individuality to homogenized uniform sameness. Instead of a mechanical metaphor of cogs in a machine, the relevant perspective is an organic or musical one. The goal is to ensure that local uniqueness and creative improvisations are freely expressed in a context informed by shared standards (like DNA, or a musical instrument tuning system).

The third way in which much of what we think we know is mistaken concerns how to motivate adoption of sustainability policies and practices. Many among us are fearful that neither the general population nor its leaders in government and business care enough about sustainability to focus on implementing solutions. But finding the will to act is not the issue. The problem is how to create environments in which new sustainable forms of life multiply and proliferate of their own accord. To do this, people need means for satisfying their own interests in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The goal, therefore, is to organize knowledge infrastructures capable of informing and channeling the power of individual self-interest. The only way mass scale self-sustaining sustainable economies will ever happen is by tapping the entrepreneurial energy of the profit motive, where profit is defined not just in financial terms but in the quality of life and health terms of authentic wealth and genuine productivity.

We manage what we measure. If we are to collectively, fluidly, efficiently, and innovatively manage the living value of our human, social, and natural capital, we need, first, high quality information expressed in shared languages communicating that value. Second, we need, to begin with, new scientific, legal, economic, financial, and governmental institutions establishing individual rights to ownership of that value, metric units expressing amounts of that value, conformity audits for ascertaining the accuracy and precision of those units, financial alignments of the real value measured with bankable dollar amounts, and investment markets to support entrepreneurial innovations in creating that value.

The end result of these efforts will be a capacity for all of humanity to pull together in common cause to create a sustainable future. We will each be able to maximize our own personal potential at the same time we contribute to the greater good. We will not only be able to fulfill the potential of our species as stewards of the earth, we will have fun doing it! For technical information resources, see below. PDFs are available on request, and can often be found freely available online.

Self-Sustaining Sustainability

Relevant Information Resources

William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D.

Barney, M., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2016). Adaptive measurement and assessment. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 3, 469-490.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1997). Physical disability construct convergence across instruments: Towards a universal metric. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 1(2), 87-113.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1999). Foundations for health status metrology: The stability of MOS SF-36 PF-10 calibrations across samples. Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society, 151(11), 566-578.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003). The mathematical metaphysics of measurement and metrology: Towards meaningful quantification in the human sciences. In A. Morales (Ed.), Renascent pragmatism: Studies in law and social science (pp. 118-153). Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy & Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-454.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-1093 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt211.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November 19). Draft legislation on development and adoption of an intangible assets metric system. Living Capital Metrics blog: https://livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/draft-legislation/.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (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. (2010, 22 November). Meaningfulness, measurement, value seeking, and the corporate objective function: An introduction to new possibilities. LivingCapitalMetrics.com, Sausalito, California.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). Measurement, reduced transaction costs, and the ethics of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital. Bridge to Business Postdoctoral Certification, Freeman School of Business, Tulane University (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2340674).

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). The standard model in the history of the natural sciences, econometrics, and the social sciences. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 238(1), 012016.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. In N. Brown, B. Duckor, K. Draney & M. Wilson (Eds.), Advances in Rasch Measurement, Vol. 2 (pp. 1-27). Maple Grove, MN: JAM Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012). Measure and manage: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards [Third place, 2011 NIST/SES World Standards Day paper competition]. Standards Engineering, 64(3), 1 & 3-5 [http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083975].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). A probabilistic model of the law of supply and demand. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 29(1), 1508-1511 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt291.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). Rasch measurement as a basis for metrologically traceable standards. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 28(4), 1492-1493 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt284.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). Rasch metrology: How to expand measurement locally everywhere. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 29(2), 1521-1523.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2017, September). Metrology, psychometrics, and new horizons for innovation. 18th International Congress of Metrology, Paris, 10.1051/metrology/201709007.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2017). A practical approach to modeling complex adaptive flows in psychology and social science. Procedia Computer Science, 114, 165-174.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2018). How beauty teaches us to understand meaning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2018). Separation theorems in econometrics and psychometrics: Rasch, Frisch, two Fishers, and implications for measurement. Scandinavian Economic History Review, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., Harvey, R. F., & Kilgore, K. M. (1995). New developments in functional assessment: Probabilistic models for gold standards. NeuroRehabilitation, 5(1), 3-25.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., Harvey, R. F., Taylor, P., Kilgore, K. M., & Kelly, C. K. (1995). Rehabits: A common language of functional assessment. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 76(2), 113-122.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7-TC13 Joint Symposium, http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24493/ilm1-2011imeko-018.pdf, Jena, Germany.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2016). Theory-based metrological traceability in education: A reading measurement network. Measurement, 92, 489-496.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Wilson, M. (2015). Building a productive trading zone in educational assessment research and practice. Pensamiento Educativo: Revista de Investigacion Educacional Latinoamericana, 52(2), 55-78.

Pendrill, L., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2013). Quantifying human response: Linking metrological and psychometric characterisations of man as a measurement instrument. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 459, 012057.

Pendrill, L., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). Counting and quantification: Comparing psychometric and metrological perspectives on visual perceptions of number. Measurement, 71, 46-55.

 

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

Self-Sustaining Sustainability

August 6, 2018

After decades of efforts and massive resources expended in trying to create a self-sustaining sustainable economy, perhaps it is time to wonder if we are going about it the wrong way. There seems to be truly significant and widespread desire for change, but the often inspiring volumes of investments and ingenuity applied to the problem persistently prove insufficient to the task. Why?

I’ve previously and repeatedly explained how finding the will to change is not the issue. This time I’ll approach my proposed solution in a different way.

Q: How do we create a self-sustaining sustainable economy?

A: By making sustainability profitable in monetary terms as well as in the substantive real terms of the relationships we live out with each other and the earth. Current efforts in this regard focus solely on reducing energy costs enough to compensate for investments in advancing the organizational mission. We need far more comprehensively designed solutions than that.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By financially rewarding improved sustainability at every level of innovation, from the individual to the community to the firm.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By instituting rights to the ownership of human, social, and natural capital properties, and by matching the demand for sustainability with the supply of it in a way that will inform arbitrage and pricing.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By lowering the cost of the information needed to be able to know how many shares of human, social, and natural capital stocks are owned, and to match demand with supply.

Q: How could that be done?

A: By investing as a society in improving the quality and distribution of the available information.

Q: What does that take?

A: Creating dependable and meaningful tools for ascertaining the quantity, quality, and type of sustainability impacts on human, social, and natural capital being offered.

Q: Can that be done?

A: The technical art and science of measurement needed for creating these tools is well established, having been in development for almost 100 years.

Q: How do we start?

A: An important lesson of history is that building the infrastructure and its array of applications follows in the wake of, and cannot precede, the institution of the constitutional ideals. We must know what the infrastructure and applications will look like in their general features, but nothing will ever be done if we think we have to have them in place before instantiating the general frame of reference. The most general right to own legal title to human, social, and natural capital can be instituted, and the legal status of new metric system units can be established, before efforts are put into unit standards, traceability processes, protocols for intralaboratory ruggedness tests and interlaboratory round robin trials, conformity assessments, etc.

Q: It sounds like an iterative process.

A: Yes, one that must attend from the start to the fundamental issues of information coherence and complexity, as is laid out in my recent work with Emily Oon, Spencer Benson, Jack Stenner, and others.

Q: This sounds highly technical, utilitarian, and efficient. But all the talk of infrastructure, standards, science, and laboratories sounds excessively technological. Is there any place in this scheme for ecological values, ethics, and aesthetics? And how are risk and uncertainty dealt with?

A: We can take up each of these in turn.

Ecological values: To use an organic metaphor, we know the DNA of the various human, social, and natural capital forms of life, or species, and we know their reproductive and life cycles, and their ecosystem requirements. What we have not done is to partner with each of these species in relationships that focus on maximizing the quality of their habitats, their maturation, and the growth of their populations. Social, psychological, and environmental relationships are best conceived as ecosystems of mutual interdependencies. Being able to separate and balance within-individual, between-individual, and collective levels of complexity in these interdependencies will be essential to the kinds of steward leadership needed for creating and maintaining new sociocognitive ecosystems. Our goal here is to become the change we want to institute, since caterpillar to butterfly metamorphoses come about only via transformations from within.

Ethics: The motivating intention is to care simultaneously and equally effectively for both individual uniqueness and global humanity. In accord with the most fundamental ethical decision, we choose discourse over violence, and we do so by taking language as the model for how things come into words. Language is itself alive in the sense of the collective processes by which new meanings come into it. Language moreover has the remarkable capacity of supporting local concrete improvisations and creativity at the same time that it provides navigable continuity and formal ideals. Care for the unity and sameness of meaning demands a combination of rigorous conceptual determinations embodied in well-defined words with practical applications of those words in local improvisations. That is how we support the need to make decisions with inevitably incomplete and inconsistent information while not committing the violence of the premature conclusion. The challenge is one of finding a balance between openness and boundaries that allows language and our organizational cultures to be stable while also evolving. Our technical grasp of complex adaptive systems, autopoiesis, and stochastic measurement information models is advanced enough to meet these ethical requirements of caring for ourselves, each other, and the earth.

Aesthetics: An aesthetic desire for and love of beauty roots the various forms of life inhabiting diverse niches in the proposed knowledge ecosystem and information infrastructure, and does so in the ground of the ethical choice of discourse and meaning over violence. The experience of beauty teaches us how to understand meaning. The attraction to beauty is a unique human phenomenon because it combines apparent opposites into a single complex feeling. Even when the object of desire is possessed as fully as possible, desire is not eliminated, and even when one feels the object of desire to be lost or completely out of touch, its presence and reality is still felt. So, too, with meaning: no actual instance of anything in the world ever embodies the fullness of an abstract conceptual ideal. This lesson of beauty is perhaps most plainly conveyed in music, where artists deliberately violate the standards of instrument tuning to create fascinating and absorbing combinations of harmony and dissonance from endlessly diverse ensembles. Some tunings persist beyond specific compositions to become immediately identifiable trademark sounds. In taking language as a model, the aesthetic combination of desire and possession informs the ethics of care for the unity and sameness of meaning, and vice versa. And ecological values, ethics, and aesthetics stand on par with the technical concerns of calibration and measurement.

Risk and uncertainty: Calibrating a tool relative to a unit standard is by itself already a big step toward reducing uncertainty and risk. Instead of the chaos of dozens of disconnected sustainability indicators, or the cacophony of hundreds or thousands of different tests, assessments, or surveys measuring the same things, we will have data and theory supporting interpretation of reproducible patterns. These patterns will be, and in many cases already are, embodied in instruments that further reduce risk by defining an invariant unit of comparison, simplifying interpretation, reducing opportunities for mistakes, by quantifying uncertainty, and by qualifying it in terms of the anomalous exceptions that depart from expectations. Each of these is a special feature of rigorously defined measurement that will eventually become the expected norm for information on sustainability.

For more on these themes, see my other blog posts here, my various publications, and my SSRN page.

 

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

What is the point of sustainability impact investing?

June 10, 2018

What if the sustainability impact investing problem is not just a matter of judiciously supporting business policies and practices likely to enhance the long term viability of life on earth? What if the sustainability impact investing problem is better conceived in terms of how to create markets that function as self-sustaining ecosystems of diverse forms of economic life?

The crux of the sustainability problem from this living capital metrics point of view is how to create efficient markets for virtuous cycles of productive value creation in the domains of human, social, and natural capital. Mainstream economics deems this an impossible task because its definition of measurement makes trade in these forms of capital unethical and immoral forms of slavery.

But what if there is another approach to measurement? What if this alternative approach is scientific in ways unimagined in mainstream economics? What if this alternative approach has been developing in research and practice in education, psychology, health care, sociology, and other fields for over 90 years? What if there are thousands of peer-reviewed publications supporting its validity and reliability? What if a wide range of commercial firms have been successfully employing this alternative approach to measurement for decades? What if this alternative approach has been found legally and scientifically defensible in ways other approaches have not? What if this alternative approach enables us to be better stewards of our lives together than is otherwise possible?

Put another way, measuring and managing sustainability is fundamentally a problem of harmonizing relationships. What do we need to harmonize our relationships with each other, between our communities and nations, and with the earth? How can we achieve harmonization without forcing conformity to one particular scale? How can we tune the instruments of a sustainability art and science to support as wide a range of diverse ensembles and harmonies as exists in music?

Positive and hopeful answers to these questions follow from the fact that we have at our disposal a longstanding, proven, and advanced art and science of qualitatively rich measurement and instrument calibration. The crux of the message is that this art and science is poised to be the medium in which sustainability impact investing and management fulfills its potential and transforms humanity’s capacities to care for itself and the earth.

The differences between the quality of information that is available, and the quality of information currently in use in sustainability impact investing, are of such huge magnitudes that they can only be called transformative. Love and care are the power behind these transformative differences. Choosing discourse over violence, considerateness for the vulnerabilities we share with others, and care for the unity and sameness of meaning in dialogue are all essential to learning the lesson Diotima taught Socrates in Plato’s Symposium. These lessons can all be brought to bear in creating the information and communications systems we need for sustainable economies.

The current world of sustainability impact investing’s so-called metrics lead to widespread complaints of increased administrative and technical burdens, and resulting distractions that lead away from pursuit of the core social mission. The maxim, “you manage what you measure,” becomes a cynical commentary on red tape and bureaucracy instead of a commendable use of tools fit for purpose.

In contrast with the cumbersome and uninterpretable masses of data that pass for sustainability metrics today, the art and science of measurement establishes the viability and feasibility of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital. Instead of counting paper clips in mindless accounting exercises, we can instead be learning what comes next in the formative development of a student, a patient, an employee, a firm, a community, or the ecosystem services of watersheds, forests, and fisheries.

And we can moreover support success in those developments by means of information flows that indicate where the biggest per-dollar human, social, and natural capital value returns accrue. Rigorous measurability of those returns will make it possible to price them, to own them, to make property rights legally enforceable, and to thereby align financial profits with the creation of social value. In fact, we could and should set things up so that it will be impossible to financially profit without creating social value. When that kind of system of incentives and rewards is instituted, then the self-sustaining virtuous cycle of a new ecological economy will come to life.

Though the value and originality of the innovations making this new medium possible are huge, in the end there’s really nothing new under the sun. As the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or, as Whitehead put it, philosophically, the innovations in measurement taking hold in the world today are nothing more than additional footnotes to Plato. Contrary to both popular and most expert opinion, it turns out that not only is a moral and scientific art of human measurement possible, Plato’s lessons on how experiences of beauty teach us about meaning provide what may well turn out to be the only way today’s problems of human suffering, social discontent, and environmental degradation will be successfully addressed.

We are faced with a kind of Chinese finger-puzzle: the more we struggle, the more trapped we become. Relaxing into the problem and seeing the historical roots of scientific reasoning in everyday thinking opens our eyes to a new path. Originality is primarily a matter of finding a useful model no one else has considered. A long history of innovations come together to point in a new direction plainly recognizable as a variation on an old theme.

Instead of a modern focus on data and evidence, then, and instead of the postmodern focus on the theory-dependence of data, we are free to take an unmodern focus on how things come into language. The chaotic complexity of that process becomes manageable as we learn to go with the flow of adaptive evolving processes stable enough to support meaningful communication. Information infrastructures in this linguistic context are conceived as ecosystems alive to changeable local situations at the same time they do not compromise continuity and navigability.

We all learn through what we already know, so it is essential that we begin from where we are at. Our first lessons will then be drawn from existing sustainability impact data, using the UN SDG 17 as a guide. These data were not designed from the principles of scientifically rigorous measurement, but instead assume that separately aggregated counts of events, percentages, and physical measures of volume, mass, or time will suffice as measures of sustainability. Things that are easy to count are not, however, likely to work as satisfactory measures. We need to learn from the available data to think again about what data are necessary and sufficient to the task.

The lessons we will learn from the data available today will lead to more meaningful and rigorous measures of sustainability. Connecting these instruments together by making them metrologically traceable to standard units, while also illuminating local unique data patterns, in widely accessible multilevel information infrastructures is the way in which we will together work the ground, plant the seeds, and cultivate new diverse natural settings for innovating sustainable relationships.

 

Differences between today’s sustainability metrics and the ones needed for low cost social value transactions and efficient markets for intangible assets

November 16, 2017

Measurement is such a confusing topic! Everyone proclaims how important it is, but almost no one ever seeks out and implements the state of the art, despite the enormous advantages to be gained from doing so.

A key metric quality issue concerns the cumbersome and uninterpretable masses of data that well-intentioned people can hobble themselves with when they are interested in improving their business processes and outcomes. They focus on what they can easily count, and then they wrongly (at great but unrecognized cost) misinterpret the counts and percentages as measures.

For instance, today’s sustainability and social value indicators are each expressed in a different unit (dollars, hours, tons, joules, kilowatt hours, survey ratings, category percentages, etc.; see below for a sample list). Some of them may indeed be scientific measures of that individual aspect of the business. The problem is they are all being interpreted in an undefined and chaotic aggregate as a measure of something else (social value, sustainability, etc.). Technically speaking, if we want a scientific measure of that higher order construct, we need to model it, estimate it, calibrate it, and deploy it as a common language in a network of instruments all traceable to a common unit standard.

All of this is strictly parallel with what we do to make markets in bushels of corn, barrels of oil, and kilowatts of electricity. We don’t buy produce by count in the grocery store because unscrupulous merchants would charge the same amount for small fruits as for large. All of the scales in grocery store produce markets measure in the same unit, and all of the packages of food are similarly marked in standard units of weight and volume so we can compare prices and value.

There are a lot of advantages to taking the trouble to extend this system to social value. I suppose every one of these points could be a chapter in a book:

  • First, investing in scientific measurement reduces data volume to a tiny fraction of what we start with, not only with no loss of information but with the introduction of additional information telling us how confident we can be in the data and exactly what the data specifically mean (see below). That is, all the original information is recoverable from the calibrated measure, which is also qualified with an uncertainty range and a consistency statistic. Inconsistencies can be readily identified and acted on at individual levels.
  • Now the numbers represent something that adds up the way they do, instead of standing for the unknown, differing, and uncontrolled units used in the original counts and percentages.
  • We can take missing data into account, which means we can adapt the indicators used in different situations to specific circumstances without compromising comparability.
  • We know how to gauge the dependability of the data better, meaning that we will not be over-confident about unreliable data, and we won’t waste our time and resources obtaining data of greater precision than we actually need.
  • Furthermore, the indicators themselves are now scaled into a hierarchy that maps the continuum from low to high performance. This map points the way to improvement. The order of things on the scale shows what comes first and how more complex and difficult goals build on simpler and easier ones. The position of a measure on the scale shows what’s been accomplished, what remains to be done, and what to do next.
  • Finally, we have a single metric we can use to price value across the local particulars of individual providers. This is where it becomes possible to see who gives the most bang for the buck, to reward them, to scale up an expanded market for the product, and to monetize returns on investment.

The revolutionary network effects of efficient markets are produced by the common currencies for the exchange of value that emerge out of this context. Improvements rebalancing cost and quality foster deflationary economies that drive more profit from lower costs (think Moore’s law). We gain the efficiency of dramatic reductions in data volume, and the meaningfulness of numbers that stand for something substantively real in the world that we can act on. These combine to lower the cost of transactions, as it now becomes vastly less expensive to find out how much of the social good is available, and what quality it is. Instead of dozens or hundreds of indicators repeated for each company in an industry, and repeated for each division in each company, and all of these repeated for each year or quarter, we have access to all of that information properly contextualized in a succinct, meaningful, and interpretable format for different applications at individual, organizational, industry-wide, national, regional, or global levels of complexity.

That’s likely way too much to digest at once! But it seemed worth saying it all at once in one place, in case anyone might be motivated to get in touch or start efforts in this direction on their own.

Examples of the variety of units in a handy sustainability metrics spreadsheet can be found at the Hess web site (http://www.hess.com/sustainability/performance-data/key-sustainability-metrics): freshwater use in millions or thousands of cubic meters, solid waste and carbon emissions in thousands of tons, natural gas consumption in thousands of gigajoules, electricity consumption in thousands of kilowatt hours; employee union members, layoffs, and turnover as percentages; employee lost time incident rates in hundreds of thousands of hours worked, percentages of female or minority board members, dollars for business performance.

These indicators are chosen with good reasons for use within each specific area of interest. They comprise an intuitive observation model that has face validity. But this is only the start of the work that needs to be done to create the metrics we need if we are to radically multiply the efficiency of social value markets. For an example of how to work from today’s diverse arrays of social value indicators (where each one is presented in its own spreadsheet) toward more meaningful, adaptable, and precise measures, see:

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Measuring genuine progress by scaling economic indicators to think global & act local: An example from the UN Millennium Development Goals project. LivingCapitalMetrics.com. Social Science Research Network: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1739386 .

An Entrepreneurial Investment Model Alternative to Picketty’s Taxation Approach to Eliminating Wealth Disparities

May 14, 2014

Is taxation the only or the best solution to inequality? The way discussions of wealth disparities inevitably focus on variations in how, whom or what to tax, it is easy to assume there are no viable alternatives to taxation. But if the point is to invest in those with the most potential for making significant gains in productivity, so as to maximize the returns we realize, do we not wrongly constrain the domain of possible solutions when we misconceive an entrepreneurial problem in welfare terms?

Why can’t we require minimum levels of investment in social capital stocks and bonds offered by schools, hospitals, NGOs, etc? In human capital instruments offered by individuals? Why should not we expect those investments to be used to create new value? What supposed law of nature says it is impossible to associate new human, social and environmental value with stable and meaningful prices? And if there is such a law (such as Kenneth Arrow (1963) proposed), how can we break it? Why can’t we reconceive human and social capital stocks and flows in new ways?

There is one very good reason why we cannot now make such requirements, and it is the same reason why liberals (including me) had better become accustomed to accepting the failure of their agenda. That reason is this: social and environmental externalities. Inequality is inevitable only as long as we do not change the ways we deal with externalities. They can no longer be measured and managed in the same ways. They must be put on the books, brought into the models, measured scientifically, and traded in efficient markets. We have to invent accountability and accounting systems that harness the energy of the profit motive for the greater good—that actually grow authentic wealth and not mere money—and we have to do this far more effectively than has ever been done before.

It’s a tall order. But there are resources available to us that have not yet been introduced into the larger conversation. There are options to consider that need close study and creative experimentation. Proceeding toward the twin futilities of premature despair or unrealistic taxation will only set up another round of self-fulfilling prophecies inexorably grinding to yet another unforeseen but fully foretold disaster. Conversations about how to shape the roles, rules and institutions that make markets what they are (Miller and O’Leary, 2007) need to take place for human, social, and natural capital (Fisher and Stenner, 2011b). Indeed, those conversations are already well underway, as can be seen in the prior entries in this blog and in the sources listed below.

Arrow, K. J. (1963). Uncertainty and the welfare economics of medical care. American Economic Review, 53, 941-973.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-1093 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt211.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009a). 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 (http://www.nist.gov/tip/wp/pswp/upload/202_metrological_infrastructure_for_human_social_natural.pdf). Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology (11 pages).

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

Fisher, W. P. J. (2010b). Measurement, reduced transaction costs, and the ethics of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital (http://ssrn.com/abstract=2340674). Bridge to Business Postdoctoral Certification, Freeman School of Business: Tulane University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010c, June 13-16). Rasch, Maxwell’s method of analogy, and the Chicago tradition. In G. Cooper (Ed.), https://conference.cbs.dk/index.php/rasch/Rasch2010/paper/view/824. Probabilistic models for measurement in education, psychology, social science and health: Celebrating 50 years since the publication of Rasch’s Probabilistic Models. FUHU Conference Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark: University of Copenhagen School of Business.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 12(1), 49-66.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011b, Thursday, September 1). Measurement, metrology and the coordination of sociotechnical networks. In S. Bercea (Ed.), New Education and Training Methods. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO). Jena, Germany: http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24491/ilm1-2011imeko-017.pdf.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012a). Measure and manage: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012b, May/June). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards [Third place, 2011 NIST/SES World Standards Day paper competition]. Standards Engineering, 64(3), 1 & 3-5 [http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083975].

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011a, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/sbe_2020/submission_detail.cfm?upld_id=36.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011b, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7-TC13 Joint Symposium. Jena, Germany: http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24493/ilm1-2011imeko-018.pdf.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2013a). On the potential for improved measurement in the human and social sciences. In Q. Zhang & H. Yang (Eds.), Pacific Rim Objective Measurement Symposium 2012 Conference Proceedings (pp. 1-11). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2013b). Overcoming the invisibility of metrology: A reading measurement network for education and the social sciences. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 459(012024), http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/459/1/012024.

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), 701-734.

The New Information Platform No One Sees Coming

December 6, 2012

I’d like to draw your attention to a fundamentally important area of disruptive innovations no one seems to see coming. The biggest thing rising in the world of science today that does not appear to be on anyone’s radar is measurement. Transformative potential beyond that of the Internet itself is available.

Realizing that potential will require an Intangible Assets Metric System. This system will connect together all the different ways any one thing is measured, bringing common languages for representing human, social, and economic value into play everywhere. We need these metrics on the front lines of education, health care, social services, and in human, reputation, and natural resource management, as well as in the economic models and financial spreadsheets informing policy, and in the scientific research conducted in dozens of fields.

All reading ability measures, for instance, should be transparently, inexpensively, and effortlessly expressed in a universally uniform metric, in the same way that standardized measures of weight and volume inform grocery store purchasing decisions. We have made starts at such systems for reading, writing, and math ability measures, and for health status, functionality, and chronic disease management measures. There oddly seems to be, however, little awareness of the full value that stands to be gained from uniform metrics in these areas, despite the overwhelming human, economic, and scientific value derived from standardized units in the existing economy. There has accordingly been virtually no leadership or investment in this area.

Measurement practice in business is woefully out of touch with the true paradigm shift that has been underway in psychometrics for years, even though the mantra “you manage what you measure” is repeated far and wide. In a fascinating twist, practically the only ones who notice the business world’s conceptual shortfall in measurement practice are the contrarians who observe that quantification can often be more of a distraction from management than the medium of its execution—but this is true only when measures are poorly conceived, designed, and implemented.

Demand for better measurement—measurement that reduces data volume not only with no loss of information but with the addition of otherwise unavailable interstitial information; that supports mass customized comparability for informed purchasing and quality improvement decisions; and that enables common product definitions for outcomes-based budgeting—is growing hand in hand with the spread of resilient, nimble, lean, and adaptive business models, and with the ongoing geometrical growth in data volume.

An even bigger source of demand for the features of advanced measurement is the increasing dependence of the economy on intangible assets, those forms of human, social, and natural capital that comprise 90% or more of the total capital under management. We will bring these now economically dead forms of capital to life by systematically standardizing representations of their quality and quantity. The Internet is the planetary nervous system through which basic information travels, and the Intangible Assets Metric System will be the global cerebrum, where higher order thinking takes place.

It will not be possible to realize the full potential of lean thinking in the information- and service-based economy without an Intangible Assets Metric System. Given the long-proven business value of standards and the role of measurement in management, it seems self-evident that our ongoing economic difficulties stem largely from our failure to develop and deploy an Intangible Assets Metric System providing common currencies for the exchange of authentic wealth. The future of sustainable and socially responsible business practices must surely depend extensively on universal access to flexible and practical uniform metrics for intangible assets.

Of course, for global intangible assets standards to be viable, they must be adaptable to local business demands and conditions without compromising their comparability. And that is just what is most powerfully disruptive about contemporary measurement methods: they make mass customization a reality. They’ve been doing so in computerized testing since the 1970s. Isn’t it time we started putting this technology to systematic use in a wide range of applications, from human and environmental resource management to education, health care, and social services?

What the Economy Needs?

September 5, 2012

Expanding on remarks made by Thomas Friedman in the course of an interview with Charlie Rose broadcast on August 31, 2012…

Friedman broke the problem down to three key points. We have to have 1) a plan, 2) a fair tax contribution from the rich, and 3) aspirations for improving the overall quality of life, economically and  democratically.

The plan outlined from various points of view in this blog is to create a scientific and market infrastructure for intangible assets (human, social and natural capital), assets amounting to at least 90%of the capital under management.

The plan is fair in its advancement of equal opportunity to invest in and realize returns from one’s skills, motivations, health and trustworthiness. Everyone will be able to invest in, and receive their share of the profits from, the human, social, and natural capital stocks of individuals, communities, schools, hospitals, social service agencies, firms, etc. The rich will then both contribute to the advancement of the greater good at the same time they are able to profit from the growth in the authentic wealth created by improvements to human, community, and environmental value.

The plan aspires to great accomplishments in the depth and breadth of the innovation it will facilitate, its fulfillment of democratic principles, and the new economic growth it promises.

And so I would now like to raise a couple of sets of questions. What if all the money put into Medicare, Medicaid, education, HUD, food stamps, the EPA, etc. was instead invested in an infrastructure for intangible assets metrology and HSN capital stocks (individual, organizational–school, hospital, nonprofit, NGO, firm–and community)? Usually, talk of letting the market solve social and environmental problems is nothing but a self-serving excuse for allowing greed to rule at the expense of the greater good. Those so-called market solutions do nothing to actually shape the institutions, rules, and roles by which markets are created, and so the end result would be catastrophic. But there is an essential and unnoticed inconsistency in previously proposed approaches that involves the double standards used in defining and actualizing the various forms of capital.

As previous posts (like this one or this one) in this blog, and several of my publications, have argued, manufactured capital and property have long since been brought to life by transferable representations (titles, deeds, precision quantity measures, etc.) and the various legal, financial, educational, and scientific institutions built up around them. Human, social, and natural capital have not been brought to life and so we remain unable to take proper possession of our own properties, the ones that we most value and on which life, liberty, and happiness are most dependent.

But what if we created the needed market institutions, rules, and roles? What if everyone knew how many shares of community capital they owned, and what the current price of those shares in the market was? What if tuition for an advanced degree was denominated in the shares of literacy capital one obtained, as evident in the increased literacy measures achieved? What if taxes were abolished and minimum investments in human, social, and natural capital stocks were required? What if real, efficient, functional markets in intangible assets were created, and the associated governmental programs and departments were abolished? How much would the federal budget decrease? How much would government shrink? How much might the economy grow if that much money was invested in human, social, and natural capital stocks paying even a minimal reasonable profit?

Another round of questions asks whether we have the optimal social safety net in the current institutional context, or if perhaps that safety net could be significantly improved by following through on the concepts of impact investing and outcome-based budgeting to create a truly sustainable and socially responsible economic system? What if everyone held known numbers of tradable shares of their intangible assets (their skills, motivation, health, trust)? What if the value of those shares was common public knowledge? What if the investment paths to increasing the number and value of shares held were all well known? What if monetary profit could be derived–and could only be derived–by increasing the value of human, social, and natural capital shares? What if groups of people joined together in various kinds of organizations (schools, hospitals, businesses) to collectively grow the value of their authentic wealth? What if lean thinking was applied to the 90% of the capital under management (the human, social, and natural capital) that is currently nearly unmanageable because it is not measured in universally uniform scientific units?

The balance scale is a common symbol of justice. We do not usually aspire to take that symbol as seriously as we could. We ought to have a plan for economic justice that does not have to coerce anyone to acknowledge, pay back, and re-invest in the broad support they received en route to becoming successful. And we ought to have a plan that reinvigorates the aspirations for equal opportunity and freedom that have become a model for people all over the world. Friedman got the broad strokes right. Now’s the time to start filling in the details.

Measuring/Managing Social Value

August 28, 2012

From my December 1, 2008 personal journal, written not long after the October 2008 SoCap conference. I’ve updated a few things that have changed in the intervening years.

Over the last month, I’ve been digesting what I learned at the Social Capital Markets conference at Fort Mason in San Francisco, and at the conference I attended just afterward, Bioneers, in Marin county. Bioneers (www.Bioneers.org) could be called Natural Capital Markets. It was quite like the Social Capital Markets conference with only a slight shift in emphasis, and lots of discussion of social value.

The main thing that impressed me at both of these conferences, apart from what I already knew about the caring passion I share with so many, is the huge contrast between that passion and the quality of the data that so many are basing major decisions on. Seeing this made me step back and think harder about how to shape my message.

First, though it may not seem like it initially, there is incredible practical value to be gained from taking the trouble to construct good measures. We do indeed manage what we measure. So whatever we measure becomes what we manage. If we’re not measuring anything that has anything to do with our mission, vision, or values, then what we’re managing won’t have anything to do with those, either. And when the numbers we use as measures do not actually represent a constant unit amount that adds up the way the numbers do, then we don’t have a clue what we’re measuring and we could be managing just about anything.

This is not the way to proceed. First take-away: ask for more from your data. Don’t let it mislead you with superficial appearances. Dig deeper.

Second, to put it a little differently, percentages, scores, and counts per capita, etc. are not measures that have the same meaning or quality that measures of height, weight, time, temperature, or volts have. However, for over 50 years, we have been constructing measures mathematically equivalent to physical measures from ability tests, surveys, assessments, checklists, etc. The technical literature on this is widely available. The methods have been mainstream at ETS, ACT, state and national departments of education globally, etc for decades.

Second take-away: did I say you should ask for more from your data? You can get it. A lot of people already are, though I don’t think they’re asking for nearly as much as they could get.

Third, though the massive numbers of percentages, scores, and counts per capita are not the measures we seek, they are indeed exactly the right place to start. I have seen over and over again, in education, health care, sociology, human resource management, and most recently in the UN Millennium Development Goals data, that people do know exactly what data will form a proper basis for the measurement systems they need.

Third take-away: (one more time!) ask for more from your data. It may conceal a wealth beyond what you ever guessed.

So what are we talking about? There are methods for creating measures that give you numbers that verifiably stand for a substantive unit amount that adds up in the same way one-inch blocks do (probabilistically, and within a range of error). If the instrument is properly calibrated and administered, the unit size and meaning will not change across individuals or samples measured. You can reduce data volume dramatically, not only with no loss of information but also with false appearances of information either indicated as error or flagged for further attention. You can calibrate a continuum of less to more that is reliably and reproducibly associated with, annotated by, and interpreted through your own indicators. You can equate different collections of indicators that measure the same thing so that they do so in the same unit.

Different agencies using the same, different, or mixed collections of indicators in different countries or regions could assess their measures for comparability, and if they are of satisfactory quality, equate them so they measure in the same unit. That is, well-designed instruments written and administered in different languages routinely have their items calibrate in the same order and positions, giving the same meaning to the same unit of measurement. For instance, see the recent issue of the Journal of Applied Measurement ([link]) devoted to reports on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.

This is not a data analysis strategy. It is an instrument calibration strategy. Once calibrated, the instrument can be deployed. We need to monitor its structure, but the point is to create a tool people can take out into the world and use like a thermometer or clock.

I’ve just been looking at the Charity Navigator (for instance, [link]) and the UN’s Millenium Development Goals ([link]), and the databases that have been assembled as measures of progress toward these goals ([link]). I would suppose these web sites show data in forms that people are generally familiar with, so I’m working up analyses to use as teaching tools from the UN data.

You don’t have to take any of this at my word. It’s been documented ad nauseum in the academic literature for decades. Those interested can find out more than they ever wanted to know at http://www.Rasch.org, in the Wikipedia Rasch entry, in the articles and books at JAMPress.com, or in dozens of academic journals and hundreds of books. Though I’ve done my share of it, I’m less interested in continuing to add to that than I am in making a tangible contribution to improving people’s lives.

Sorry to go on like this. I meant to keep this short. Anyway, there it is.

PS, for real geeks: For those of you serious about learning about measurement as it is rigorously and mathematically defined, look into taking Everett Smith’s measurement course at Statistics.com ([link]) or David Andrich’s academic units at the University of Western Australia ([link]). Available software includes Mike Linacre’s Winsteps, Andrich’s RUMM, and Mark Wilson’s, at UC Berkeley, Conquest.

The methods Ev, Mike, David, and Mark teach have repeatedly been proven, both in mathematical theory and in real life, to be both necessary and sufficient in the construction of meaningful, practical measurement. Any number of ways of defining objectivity in measurement have been shown to reduce to the mathematical models they use. Why all the Chicago stuff? Because of Ben Wright. I’m helping (again) to organize a conference in his honor, to be held in Chicago next March. His work won him a Career Achievement Award from the Association of Test Publishers, and the coming conference will celebrate his foundational contributions to computerized measurement in health care.

As a final note, for those of you fearing reductionistic meaninglessness, look into my philosophical work.  But enough…

Review of “Advancing Social Impact Investments Through Measurement”

August 24, 2012

Over the last few days, I have been reading several of the most recent issues of the Community Development Investment Review, especially volume 7, number 2, edited by David Erickson of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, reporting the proceedings of the March 21, 2011 conference in Washington, DC on advancing social impact investments through measurement. I am so excited to see this work that I am (truly) fairly trembling with excitement. I feel as though I’ve finally made my way home. There are so many points of contact, it’s hard to know where to start. After several days of concentrated deep breathing and close study of the CDIR, it’s now possible to formulate some coherent thoughts to share.

The CDIR papers start to sort out the complex issues involved in clarifying how measurement might contribute to the integration of impact investing and community development finance. I am heartened by the statement that “The goal of the Review is to bridge the gap between theory and practice and to enlist as many viewpoints as possible—government, nonprofits, financial institutions, and beneficiaries.” On the other hand, the omission of measurement scientists from that list of viewpoints adds another question to my long list of questions as to why measurement science is so routinely ignored by the very people who proclaim its importance. The situation is quite analogous to demanding more frequent conversational interactions from colleagues while ignoring the invention of the telephone and not providing them with the tools and network connections.

The aims shared by the CDIR contributors and myself are evident in the fact that David Erickson opens his summary of the March 21, 2011 conference with the same quote from Robert Kennedy that I placed at the end of my 2009 article in Measurement (see references below; all papers referenced are available by request if they are not already online). In that 2009 paper, in others I’ve published over the last several years, in presentations I’ve made to my measurement colleagues abroad and at home, and in various entries in my blog, I take up virtually all of the major themes that arose in the DC conference: how better measurement can attract capital to needed areas, how the cost of measurement repels many investors, how government can help by means of standard setting and regulation, how diverse and ambiguous investor and stakeholder interests can be reconciled and/or clarified, etc.

The difference, of course, is that I present these issues from the technical perspective of measurement and cannot speak authoritatively or specifically from the perspectives represented by the community development finance and impact investing fields. The bottom line take-away message for these fields from my perspective is this: unexamined assumptions may unnecessarily restrict assessments of problems and their potential solutions. As Salamon put it in his remarks in the CDIR proceedings from the Washington meeting (p. 43), “uncoordinated innovation not guided by a clear strategic concept can do more than lose its way: it can do actual harm.”

A clear strategic concept capable of coordinating innovations in social impact measurement is readily available. Multiple, highly valuable, and eminently practical measurement technologies have proven themselves in real world applications over the last 50 years. These technologies are well documented in the educational, psychological, sociological, and health care research literatures, as well as in the practical experience of high stakes testing for professional licensure and certification, for graduation, and for admissions.

Numerous reports show how to approach problems of quantification and standards with new degrees of rigor, transparency, meaningfulness, and flexibility. When measurement problems are not defined in terms of these technologies, solutions that may offer highly advantageous features are not considered. When the area of application is as far reaching and fundamental as social impact measurement, not taking new technologies into account is nothing short of tragic. I describe some of the new opportunities for you in a Technical Postscript, below.

In his Foreword to the CDIR proceedings issue, John Moon mentions having been at the 2009 SoCap event bringing together stakeholders from across the various social capital markets arenas. I was at the 2008 SoCap, and I came away from it with much the same impression as Moon, feeling that the palpable excitement in the air was more than tempered by the evident fact that people were often speaking at cross purposes, and that there did not seem to be a common object to the conversation. Moon, Erickson, and their colleagues have been in one position to sort out the issues involved, and I have been in another, but we are plainly on converging courses.

Though the science is in place and has been for decades, it will not and cannot amount to anything until the people who can best make use of it do so. The community development finance and impact investing fields are those people. Anyone interested in getting together for an informal conversation on topics of mutual interest should feel free to contact me.

Technical Postscript

There are at least six areas in efforts to advance social impact investments via measurement that will be most affected by contemporary methods. The first has to do with scale quality. I won’t go into the technical details, but numbers do not automatically stand for something that adds up the way they do. Mapping a substantive construct onto a number line requires specific technical expertise; there is no evidence of that expertise in any of the literature I’ve seen on social impact investing, or on measuring intangible assets. This is not an arbitrary bit of philosophical esoterica or technical nicety. This is one of those areas where the practical value of scientific rigor and precision comes into its own. It makes all the difference in being able to realize goals for measurement, investment, and redefining profit in terms of social impacts.

A second area in which thinking on social impact measurement will be profoundly altered by current scaling methods concerns the capacity to reduce data volume with no loss of information. In current systems, each indicator has its own separate metric. Data volume quickly multiplies when tracking separate organizations for each of several time periods in various locales. Given sufficient adherence to data quality and meaningfulness requirements, today’s scaling methods allow these indicators to be combined into a single composite measure—from which each individual observation can be inferred.

Elaborating this second point a bit further, I noted that some speakers at the 2011 conference in Washington thought reducing data volume is a matter of limiting the number of indicators that are tracked. This strategy is self-defeating, however, as having fewer independent observations increases uncertainty and risk. It would be far better to set up systems in which the metrics are designed so as to incorporate the amount of uncertainty that can be tolerated in any given decision support application.

The third area I have in mind deals with the diverse spectrum of varying interests and preferences brought to the table by investors, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders. Contemporary approaches in measurement make it possible to adapt the content of the particular indicators (counts or frequencies of events, or responses to survey questions or test items) to the needs of the user, without compromising the comparability of the resulting quantitative measure. This feature makes it possible to mass customize the content of the metrics employed depending on the substantive nature of the needs at that time and place.

Fourth, it is well known that different people judging performances or assigning numbers to observations bring different personal standards to bear as they make their ratings. Contemporary measurement methods enable the evaluation and scaling of raters and judges relative to one another, when data are gathered in a manner facilitating such comparisons. The end result is a basis for fair comparisons, instead of scores that vary depending more on which rater is observing than on the quality of the performance.

Fifth, much of the discussion at the conference in Washington last year emphasized the need for shared data formatting and reporting standards. As might be guessed from the prior four areas I’ve described, significant advances have occurred in standard setting methods. It is suggested in the CDIR proceedings that the Treasury Department should be the home to a new institute for social impact measurement standards. In a series of publications over the last few years, I have suggested a need for an Intangible Assets Metric System to NIST and NSF (see below for references and links; all papers are available on request). That suggestion comes up again in my third-prize winning entry in the 2011 World Standards Day paper competition, sponsored by NIST and SES (the Society for Standards Professionals), entitled “What the World Needs Now: A Bold Plan for New Standards.” (See below for link.)

Sixth, as noted by Salamon (p. 43), “metrics are not neutral. They not only measure impact, they can also shape it.” Though this is not likely exactly what Salamon meant, one of the most exciting areas in measurement applications in education in recent years, one led in many ways by my colleague, Mark Wilson, and his group at UC Berkeley, concerns exactly this feedback loop between measurement and impact. In education, it has become apparent that test scaling reveals the order in which lessons are learned. Difficult problems that require mastery of easier problems are necessarily answered correctly less often than the easier problems. When the difficulty order of test questions in a given subject remains constant over time and across thousands of students, one may infer that the scale reveals the path of least resistance. Individualizing instruction by targeting lessons at the student’s measure has given rise to a concept of formative assessment, distinct from the summative assessment of accountability applications. I suspect this kind of a distinction may also prove of value in social impact applications.

Relevant Publications and Presentations

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, Thursday, January 22). Bringing capital to life via measurement: A contribution to the new economics. In  R. Smith (Chair), Session 3.3B. Rasch Models in Economics and Marketing. Second International Conference on Measurement in Health, Education, Psychology, and Marketing: Developments with Rasch Models, The International Laboratory for Measurement in the Social Sciences, School of Education, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005, August 1-3). Data standards for living human, social, and natural capital. In Session G: Concluding Discussion, Future Plans, Policy, etc. Conference on Entrepreneurship and Human Rights [http://www.fordham.edu/economics/vinod/ehr05.htm], Pope Auditorium, Lowenstein Bldg, Fordham University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007, Summer). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-3 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt211.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2008, 3-5 September). New metrological horizons: Invariant reference standards for instruments measuring human, social, and natural capital. Presented at the 12th International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7 Joint Symposium on Man, Science, and Measurement, Annecy, France: University of Savoie.

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.

Fisher, W. P.. Jr. (2009). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: Metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (Tech. Rep., 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. (2010). The standard model in the history of the natural sciences, econometrics, and the social sciences. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 238(1), http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/238/1/012016/pdf/1742-6596_238_1_012016.pdf.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. In N. Brown, B. Duckor, K. Draney & M. Wilson (Eds.), Advances in Rasch Measurement, Vol. 2 (pp. 1-27). Maple Grove, MN: JAM Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Measuring genuine progress by scaling economic indicators to think global & act local: An example from the UN Millennium Development Goals project. LivingCapitalMetrics.com. Retrieved 18 January 2011, from Social Science Research Network: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1739386.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012). Measure and manage: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012, May/June). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards. Standards Engineering, 64(3), 1 & 3-5 [http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083975].

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7-TC13 Joint Symposium, http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24493/ilm1-2011imeko-018.pdf, Jena, Germany.

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