“Statistics are the triumph of the quantitative method, and the quantitative method is the victory of sterility and death.” Hilaire Belloc
WARNING – A small rant here because 140 characters on Twitter was ineffectual for the purpose.
Last week, Personnel Today published an article headlined “A quarter of HR directors say their own HR function is ineffective”. What troubles me most about the article is not it’s central theme, although having spent the better part of the last six months listening to the discourse of a broad network of HR professionals, I sense an enormous amount of effectiveness along with a passionate desire for improvement.
No, what provoked my ire was the way in which data was used to support the assertion. The survey from which the data is taken was of 67 HR leaders from some of the UK’s biggest organisations, with a combined total of 1.1 million employees, in both public and private sectors.
Most of the useful data wasn’t provided so we’ll make some hefty assumptions of our own. As at June 2011 the constituents of the FTSE All-Share Index totalled 627 companies. We’ll assume all of the private sector leaders were in this group. Let’s assume that the public/private sector split was 50/50 for balance (33.5 persons). That means that 5.34% of the All-Share Index businesses are represented. A quarter of these folks (8.4 persons) thought their HR function was ineffective. That’s 1.34% of All-Share Index companies with a problem. And a markedly different headline:
“98.66% of FTSE All-Share Index Businesses Have Effective HR Functions”
There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics
Data and metrics are incredibly important and powerful. They also provoke a great degree of scepticism, much of it justified. Scientific data and research is subjected to the most rigourous (and often rancourous) of peer review processes. That used for marketing or business propaganda rarely is (unless there is sufficient public interest). Articles such as the one in Personnel Today, do nothing to convert the sceptics and unhelpfully paint entire professions in a very poor light.
Right. Rant over. Want to be inspired by a story about statistics? Try “The Median Isn’t The Message“, by influential evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould
I am indebted to David Goddin (@ChangeContinuum over on Twitter) for sharing the article that prompted this post and for tolerating the minor rant that it set off.