Revisiting and revising KPIs

Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Opinion - The New Strait Time
December 16, 2018


Civil servants at a public policy forum at the National Institute of Public Administration in Bukit Kiara. Reviewing the role and relevance of KPIs is necessary to ensure the civil service has ethics and integrity. FILE PIC

SF: It must be better balanced at the level of the individuals, institutions and nation with some semblance of Key Intangible Performances infused in. LIFE in the age of robotics (read automation and autonomous devices), unlike some would argue, is not about living at “the speed ‎of light”. We draw this lesson from the current age of “fast” movement, notably that of “fast food”, where we are supposed to gobble up our food quickly even while walking (on the pretext of being busy or important) — all in the belief that things must be carried out “faster”, emulating a machine and forgetting that it has no need for food.

Conventional wisdom, however, tells us that only animals “feed” as they move around (think of cattle grazing and poultry pecking). This says volumes about the “disruption” of adab (manners) that the machines cause, making us less human. We have not even broached the value that they introduce — the fact that “fast food” is considered junk. Worst, it is now well-linked to many life-threatening diseases that are ever on the rise. These are not limited to major killers like obesity, diabetes and heart complications that have been shown to prematurely shorten our lifespan like a lightning flash. While the new era speaks about ageing society, the “shortening” of lifespan seems to stand in stark contradiction due to some form of aberrant human behaviour.

Why aberrant? Precisely because humans are not machines and that human life cannot be automated like we do robots. Artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence are two very distinctive make-ups and creations. When that distinction is blurred it becomes not just an aberration but seriously problematic.

The former after all is man-made; the latter is divine-inspired which demands different obligatory roles in the search for a deeper meaning of “life”. Similarly, its interpretation of success both here and in the hereafter going beyond bottom lines, and acronyms like GDPs (gross domestic product) and KPIs
(key performace indicators) as dictated by the AI logic of economics.

In addition, it knows of no higher purpose that is a disconnect to the mechanised activities of human capital, if not posing as counter-purposes in realising the “true” meaning of life. What is sure is that it impinges on the quest for success, turning it more into some numbers game.

So today, success is periodically (mis)measured in numerical terms (including the number of “likes” or “followers” on social media); otherwise reduced to percentages and figures to be ranked coming out of the management clichés viz., “what gets measured, gets done”, which we have swallowed whole unthinkingly (think Pemandu).

Contrast this with the profound observation made by Einstein: “All that counts cannot be counted. Not all that can be counted counts.” No wonder Einstein is recognised as a genius surpassing the best of all management gurus to date given their narrow preoccupation and obsession with bean-counting even as the disparities get wider over the years.

Ironically still, this gets to set the rules that by and large pushes the world to be out of balance. At the same time, rendering “life” to machine-like routines by discounting “all that counts” just because they cannot be counted “managerially”. In other words, ethics, integrity, morality, collegiality, hi-touch, and being human are relegated to the back- burner, if not thrown out of
the window together with its numerous socio-ethical ramifications.

It is not surprising, therefore, to note that even at a very tender age, preschoolers are fed with activities spurred by numeracy and literacy, instead of nurturing and strengthening aspects of civility and accountability as the roots to educating a holistic human person.

All these are done in imagery of machines that humans are supposed to eventually emulate as education loses its soul. Meaning, they are potential citizens of the world of instant gratification who appreciate successes and excellence by the price tags (read commodatised knowledge) they carry. Rather than the inherent human (if not divine) values closely interwoven into it. In short, what is vital is the achievements of the extrinsic KPIs; falling short of the intrinsic Key Intangible Performances (KIPs) of ethics, integrity and morality to name a few. Succinctly, it is about the ends justifying the means.

So when the announcement to review the role and relevance of KPIs was made by the chief secretary to the government recently, it brought a huge sigh of relief. For instance, in the academic world, KPIs have virtually no place unless it is deemed as a factory that produces standardised “products” (like how graduates are now labelled) lending support to the proliferation of league tables sans the KIPs. As its unintended consequences the number of “dishonest” academic activities begin to mount simultaneously ranging from plagiarism to downright unethical behaviours of corruption and abuse of power. This can only worsen if nothing drastic is done.

Therefore, moving forward, the notion of KPIs must be revisited and revised. It is our ardent hope that the new and bold steps taken will inspire fresh mindsets and behaviours that could save the existing situation from being hijacked, and corrupted.

In summary, it must be better balanced at the level of the individuals, institutions and nation with some semblance of KIPs infused into it. In its present form it is conceptually inadequate as a measure without bringing in the intangibles (those not easily measured) that are innate to human beings. A good place to start is the National Education Philosophy (NEP) because education underlines it all. As it stands the NEP is 360 degrees — because it advocates a “balanced and harmonious person” that is rarely seen in other policy documents, including those pertaining to the civil services that hinge mostly on human capital, theory intentionally or otherwise.

‎The writer is a honorary fellow of CenPRIS, and the Rector of IIUM