The Role of Qualitative Information in Productivity Measurement

By Smith, Elizabeth A. | Industrial Management, March/April 1991 | Go to article overview

The Role of Qualitative Information in Productivity Measurement


Smith, Elizabeth A., Industrial Management


Systematic quantitative and qualitative measurement brings order, structure, and meaning to a mass of collected data. For instance, managers, training directors, and suppliers use quantitative and qualitative information every day. Managers use results to plan, make decisions, monitor, allocate. coordinate, and control financial, human, and material resources. Training directors identify ways to determine the impact and improve the delivery or quality of educational programs or organizational change efforts. Suppliers get information about the specific quality requirements of customers and vendors.

Qualitative measurement is not a circular definition; it is not "everything but quantitative measurement." Qualitative measurement provides a basic direction or common integrated purpose. These broad, open-ended methods address verbal and non-verbal behavior. Qualitative (descriptive) information and quantitative (numerical) data supplement each other.

Figure 1 (page 21) illustrates the shift from quantitative measurement to qualitative assessment as the task varies from simple to complex, from repetitive to unique, and from well-defined to abstract. Knowing where you are on the dimension helps you decide in which direction you need to go for more information. We seldom have enough good information when we need to make decisions.

Robert Ranftl gives a comprehensive definition of productivity: "The ratio of valuable output to input, i.e., the efficiency and effectiveness with which resources -- personnel, machines, materials, facilities, capital, time -- are utilized to produce a valuable output." The same definition is shared among various disciplines, namely, engineering, management, accounting, and economics.

The trend toward employee participation in general (including involvement, empowerment, self-managed work teams, and employee-centered work redesign), is growing. When employees have more control over their jobs and the workplace, existing standards and measurement methods must be revised and updated to reflect current trends and anticipate the future.

Example 1: Operational level employees who "get the job done" are core change agents. If they are asked, they can provide genuine first-hand descriptive information on ways to be more efficient in their jobs.

Example 2: The service sector represents over 70 percent of the nation's employment, However, there are few reliable, valid ways to measure the quality of specific people-oriented factors and processes, such as customer/client services and good will.

Some major advantages of qualitative measures are:

* Qualitative measures are sensitive to unique and specific environmental (organizational structure, government intervention, economy) and interpersonal factors (coordination, communication, cooperation) overlooked by quantitative measures.

* Qualitative measures focus on specific problem areas where it is difficult or impossible to obtain detailed information by any other means, such as the effect of high quality, comprehensive orientation programs on long-term employee satisfaction and productivity.

* Qualitative measures incorporate new and promising sources of valuable information often unexamined, or considered unimportant, such as employee commitment and loyalty.

* Qualitative measures identify, describe, document, and measure more subtle "process," or throughput variables, such as the effectiveness of knowledge workers who coordinate the work efforts of others.

* Qualitative measures examine and assess the impact of personal issues, such as quality of work life (QWL) and employee assistance programs.

* Qualitative measures supplement or validate existing quantitative productivity measures of output, such as hours worked or customers served.

A caution is that some qualitative measures, like observation, can be unobtrusive or "invisible," as they may be obtained without the cooperation of people being observed. …

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