But what is a KPI? We all know the dictionary definition. But why do KPI’s exist? What function do they play in the reproduction of the economy?
I think it’s quite wrong to think of the KPI as relatively new. If you manage a widget producing plant, KPI’s are something so fundamental that you don’t even have to think about them. “1. How many widgets are you producing? 2. With how many staff? 3. Are the bloody things breaking all the time?”
In such a context the KPI is basically a real abstraction, a convention of quantification which will function automatically, even if the idea of KPI’s is never articulated. The manager of plant will still be disciplined, and in turn discipline his employees on the basis of what are essentially KPI’s, even if no one ever says anything about them.
The KPI only becomes something visible to us when it’s out of place. Think of the old proverb, the fish only starts thinking about water when it’s dumped on the land. Conventions are most visible when they have begun to break down.
A larger and larger portion of the economy is made up of things which, either because of their inherently qualitative nature, or because of methodological difficulties, can’t be quantified very easily. Universities, the NGO sector and even medicine are a smattering of examples.
But quantification is almost essential. At the margins it can fail to exist, among privileged layers of the working class in academia for example, or among not-for-profits, especially the smaller ones. But as the size and importance of these enterprises grow, and as more and more of the economy is turned into commodities (an ongoing process that didn’t end in the 19th century) these things must be quantified!
Trouble is, as the critics of KPI’s have pointed out, these things can’t be quantified, at least not really. The measurement never quite captures what is to be measured, and is inevitably “gamed”. For example, “teaching to the test” or reducing the administration budget by firing one’s admin workers and making non-admin workers spend hours on self-admin.
The idea of gaming KPI’s has been around before anyone thought of the word, consider the ancient Greek hospital that “never lost a patient” by expelling any patient who looked like they were going to die!
What the critics usually fail to see though is that while these KPI’s can’t work, in order for capitalism to be reproduced in a state of affairs where larger and larger portions of the economy aren’t really quantifiable, They Must Be Made To Work. Thus the real “contradictions” of the system intensify.
Merely pointing to the absurdity of trying to measure the success of, say, an education, misses the point. In their heart of hearts everyone knows such things cannot be measured, but nonetheless it “Must” happen.
In reality the KPI is rarely exactly deployed. A subjective assesment is made of whether not something is working, and the KPI’s are then filled out accordingly, sometimes KPI’s are even made up post-hoc to justify a decision. In other cases the KPI’s are so vague that they can and are made to mean anything.
Thus the KPI becomes a fetish, something we regard as imbued with power in itself, but which merely shrouds the discretionary actions and choices of managers. What seems like the domination of numbers and rules remains simply the domination of indviduals. The desperate tail eating of a system in decadence.
Thanks to Gabriel for suggesting the title.