Book Review: ‘The Tyranny of Metrics’

“There are things that can be measured. There are things that are worth measuring. But what can be measured is not always what is worth measuring; what gets measured may have no relationship to what we really want to know.”

This statement, and the subsequent arguments presented by Jerry Muller in his book ‘The Tyranny of Metrics’ (2018, Princeton University Press), were initially a challenge for me, with my background as an accountant. But I warmed to his argument and grew to appreciate what he was presenting.

Muller is a professor of History at Catholic University of America and the author of numerous books on markets and capitalism. He draws on publically available information, numerous research and reports to substantiate his position, and provides a number of supporting examples that are easy to relate to.

A central theme of the book is that ‘many matters of importance are too subject to judgement and interpretation to be solved by standardized metrics. Ultimately, the issue is not one of metrics versus judgement, but metrics informing judgement…” (p. 183).

I felt it was a very convincing argument which has caused me to consider the metrics I use and am exposed to. Being very well organized, with logical arguments and ample evidences, the book is easy to read over a relatively short space of time. It would appeal to anyone involved in developing or using performance metrics.

Overall, this book is a balanced and worthwhile read, and as noted, is not about the evils of measuring. Muller’s summary would be captured by this statement from page 4 of the book: “The problem is not measurement, but excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement – not metrics, but metric fixation”.

Reviewed by Warrick long, Lecturer, Avondale Business School

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