Is comparison with another organisation ever worthwhile? I am not so sure. Every now and then the question of benchmarking raises its ugly head. Ugly to me that is. Tom and I have ended up having a conversation over its merits.
Benchmarking in itself is not bad. It is what is done in the name of benchmarking that bothers me. It is not the tool per se but how it is abused. We agree with those indicators that we like, or suit our impression and argue the toss over those we don’t.
There are two points I want to raise. Firstly, the boiling down of an organisation into a set of simple indicators belies the levels of complexity they have. All organisations are different. I have often heard it said that all councils are the same but this is so far from the truth. Yes, we all have the same basic objectives but we have different geographies, different socio-economic factors, different employees and different political makeup. Comparison only makes sense if you’re trying to achieve the same thing, to win the Football League for example.
The second point is that we measure ourselves by quartiles. Local Government is fixated by them. Being in the top quartile is great, the second is could do better, the third is must try harder while the fourth is oh dear, you are going to get a kicking. It is a simple issue of mathematics however that not everyone can be in the top half of the table. This is what average means, some are better and some are worse. Organisations should focus on what is important to them and be less concerned about what others are doing.
That reminds me of the old chestnut that comes up in so many meetings I attend. When facing a problem someone invariably asks ‘what do other councils do?’ They solve their own problems – that is what they do. Benchmarking leads you into a trap that problem solving is a simple matter of taking someone else’s solution and applying it to your own. In the end comparison can be of benefit but only when it is used to learn and to change rather than to defend or accuse.
Tom came up with a great idea of having comparison with seemingly random industries unlike our own. What could we learn from a Grand Prix racing team, a biscuit manufacturer, a DIY warehouse or an estate agent? Now that would be interesting. That would get the juices flowing. That is the kind of benchmarking I would like.