The Atlantic has a piece describing how the standards of the machine have wrongly been applied to human performances.

It’s time to rethink productivity. More output, produced faster may be great metrics for machines, but for homo sapiens, the most powerful metric is engagement. Engagement is about process, outcomes, and quality. Engagement values the methods and the results versus focusing completely on the output.

The vascular surgeon who “slows down to speed up,” operates on patients with engaged attention. He’s in a flow state. When you’re doing your best at a sport, like skiing, and you have that feeling of mind and body being in the same place at the same time, you’re in a flow state. You can witness engaged attention when you watch children at play.

What if schools evaluated students and teachers on engagement versus today’s standardized tests? Research indicates that engaged teachers are effective teachers. Engaged students aren’t likely to drop out. They’re likely to be cultivating every quality we could hope for: curiosity, initiative, resourcefulness, and mastery of material.

What if, at work, employees were measured on engagement? The most cutting-edge companies do this. and train telephone support personnel to engage with customers. This results in job satisfaction for the employee and increased customer loyalty and trust — a desirable outcome. Companies that measure phone support staff on older productivity metrics look primarily at number of minutes on the phone and effectiveness at upselling customers — measures of output.

What if we rethink productivity? Today, we define productivity for humans the same way we do for machines. What if we create metrics around engagement, for schools, for the workplace, and for our lives? Instead of evaluating output, we could evaluate process, outcomes, and quality.

What difference would these changes make? What systemic and attitudinal changes would have to occur to make such changes possible?

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell is the co-founder of Front Porch Republic. He is the Dean of Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry College and the author of several books including Plutocratic Socialism, Power and Purity, The Limits of Liberalism, The Politics of Gratitude, and Localism in Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (co-editor).


  1. Get rid of those ficticious “people” known as corporations.

    @John: I think you missed the first sentence.


  2. “What if, at work, employees were measured on engagement? ”

    Mindless drone repetitious work can’t really be measured except by means not unlike a machine. But most men work jobs where production is less knowable than driving a truck for here to there. Most men work jobs that are problem solving.

    Most men are paid for a competence which goes beyond mere rote machine production, they are paid to think through the process with all its variations problem solving it correctly.

  3. @Jon I read the 1st sentence. That’s why I wrote what I wrote.

    The author must be under the illusion that there is some difference between results and output. If she had wanted to compare quantity vs quality, she should have said so. But there is nothing new about humans having to make that tradeoff.

  4. Having worked too long in the corporate world, I think you are spot on. The thing though is that upper level management want numbers and complex breakdowns, and so what we see is an efficiency metric because it “looks” scientific and lends itself well to cost accounting. A more holistic approach may well beat it but it doesn’t give the managers and accountants the confidence in the numbers that the current approach does. This is one reason why I think that corporations above a certain size effectively ossify as human judgement, checked by cost accounting, is gradually replaced by impersonal arguments regarding abstract cost accounting itself.

    The problem is, I think, with the typical corporation itself. Corporations are typically designed to be “social machines” which produce profit. I say typical corporation because there are some alternative models out there.

    W. L. Gore has nearly 10000 employees and gets by with no management except for a CEO. Management, and judgement, is fully distributed through the organization. It is no surprise then that the company bought back all their stock and is now 100% employee owned. If you haven’t heard of them, they make Gore-TEX among other things.

    Some newer companies, like GitHub and Valve (a video games firm) have also adopted a management-less model. In these organizations (as in Gore), employees more or less choose what they will work on and what teams they will work with (if the team accepts them). Valve even issues desks with wheels so programmers can scoot them between teams. What is interesting is that GitHub and Valve are effectively Capitalist firms in that they are venture-capital backed and owned by investors. However the work done is effectively controlled by the workers (though in Valve’s case, the results are officially owned by Valve. GitHub does release a lot to the public as open source, however).

    The answers you are looking for then would be that businesses would have to distribute management power through their organizations. Management would be a thing of the past, and corporations would have to flourish from their floor workers on up.

    Such models can work. Such models do work. Such models are downright terrifying to MBA’s…..

  5. As far as education goes, measuring something other than the learning that you believe is important is a distraction–which is why most educational research doesn’t matter very much and doesn’t help in any grand way. There is no real science of education, and if there were, it would be evil–but talking about measuring education is quite tedious. The thing perhaps is to eat flowers and not to be afraid.

    The school administrators I have known all believe engagement is highest the farther kids get from reading or writing or thinking. Engagement, in practice, is a euphemism for “not studying and not thinking.” I’ve become adept at ignoring educational researchers since I discovered this amazing thing: they haven’t a clue what I’m thinking.

    Did I forget to mention that the only effective learning strategy is thinking?

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