from the forthcoming book, Work Learning...
Why You Should Avoid Benchmarking Against Other Companies
This section is inserted because when companies think of evaluation, they often first think of benchmarking their performance against other companies. There are important reasons to be skeptical of this type of approach, especially as a sole source of direction.
Two forms of benchmarking are common, (1) idea-generation, and (2) comparison. Idea-generation involves looking at other company’s methodologies and then assessing whether particular methods would work well at our company. This is a reasonable procedure only to the extent that we can tell whether the other companies have similar situations to ours and whether the methodologies have really been successful at those other companies.
Comparison benchmarking for training and development looks further at a multitude of learning methods and results and specifically attempts to find a wide range of other companies to benchmark against. This approach requires stringent attempts to create valid comparisons. This type of benchmarking is valuable only to the extent that we can determine whether we are comparing our results to good companies or bad and whether the comparison metrics are important in the first place.
Both types of benchmarking require exhaustive efforts and suffer from validity problems. It is just too easy to latch on to other company’s phantom results (i.e., results that seem impressive but evaporate upon close examination). Picking the right metrics are difficult (i.e., a business can be judged on its stock price, its revenues, profits, market share, etc.). Comparing companies between industries presents the proverbial apple-to-orange problem. It’s not always clear why one business is better than another (e.g., It is hard to know what really drives Apple Computer’s current success: its brand image, its products, its positioning versus its competitors, its leaders, its financial savvy, its customer service, its manufacturing, its project management, its sourcing, its hiring, or something else). Finally, and most pertinent here, it is extremely difficult to determine which companies are really using best practices (e.g., see Phil Rosenweig’s highly regarded book on The Halo Effect) because companies’ overall results usually cloud and obscure the on-the-job realities of what’s happening.
The difficulty of assessing best practices in general pales in comparison to the difficulties of assessing its training-and-development practices. The problem is that there just aren’t universally accepted and comparable metrics to utilize for training and development. Where baseball teams have wins and losses, runs scored, and such; and businesses have revenues and profits and the like; training and development efforts produce more fuzzy numbers—certainly ones that aren’t comparable from company to company. As mentioned above, reviews of the research literature on training evaluation have found very low levels of correlation (usually below .20) between different types of learning assessments (e.g., Alliger, Tannenbaum, Bennett, Traver, & Shotland, 1997; Sitzmann, Brown, Casper, Ely, & Zimmerman, 2008).
Of course, we shouldn’t dismiss all benchmarking efforts. Rigorous benchmarking efforts understood with a clear perspective can have value. Idea-generation brainstorming is probably more viable than a focus on comparison. By looking to other companies’ practices, we can gain insights and consider new ideas. Of course, we will want to be careful not to move toward the mediocre average instead of looking to excel.
The bottom line on benchmarking from other companies is: be careful, be willing to spend lots of time and money, and don’t rely on cross-company comparisons as your only indicator.
Finally, any results generated by brainstorming with other companies should be carefully considered and pilot-tested before too much investment is made.
Alliger, Tannenbaum, Bennett, Traver, & Shotland (1997). A meta-analysis of the relations among training criteria. Personnel Psychology, 50, 341-357.
Sitzmann, T., Brown, K. G., Casper, W. J., Ely, K., & Zimmerman, R. D. (2008). A review and meta-analysis of the nomological network of trainee reactions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 280-295.