How do you measure organizational success?

A student recently asked me this question, so I thought I’d share my answer with you.

Her question: “I have a quick question. Does Organizational Behavior theory address how you measure success? For instance, when HR implements new strategies to align its people with culture and business strategy; what are some ways they measure the success of these initiatives?”

My answer: Oh boy, big question. And great question. Answering it requires more background information, so I’ll let you know what you should find out about before deciding how to measure success.

There are two questions you’d always want to ask before you measure something as vague as “success”:
1. what kind of success is important to the organization or the work unit?
2. what were the aims of the new strategies?

Constructing the definition of success itself could actually take months; then deciding on how to measure that kind of success can take another few months. Begin by finding out which metrics are
(1) readily available
(2) reliably measured (without bias; measuring what they say they measure)
(3) valid (the observables measured do in fact predict the thing you really would love to measure but can’t because it’s invisible)
(4) relevant (commonly used in the industry, the company, and the relevant departments & other stakeholders)

Finally, you want to make sure that you’re measuring the thing that will actually show the effects the strategy is supposed to produce. Usually these are specified before the strategy is even implemented – if the HR group didn’t know they wanted something to change then presumably they shouldn’t have / wouldn’t have done something new anyway!

A relevant article (Sutton & Hargadon, 1996, Brainstorming Groups in Context, ASQ) says:

“…These writings conclude that if effectiveness can be defined and measured at all, it is a multidimensional construct, because social systems produce many consequences and have multiple participants with inconsistent preferences. Researchers must ask “effectiveness at what?” and “effectiveness for whom?” to assess effectiveness in social systems.”