Putting the value back in evaluation

How many of you have been asked to fill out an evaluation of a program, course, or training? In all likelihood, it was not a positive experience. For one, you probably felt that you were wasting your time as you either filled out bubbles or quickly jotted down a sentence or two of comments. If you put some thought into it, you might have wondered just how the results would be used, and perhaps doubted they would be used at all. Further still, you might have challenged the validity of the questions being asked. Are these even the right questions to improve this program?

I teach evaluation in human resource development at LSU and previously taught a master’s level course on assessing the impact of organizational change at the George Washington University. Both courses look at how to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of training programs and organizational change initiatives. It can be a difficult set of ideas to understand and see value in. Why spend so much time and resources evaluating what happened in the past? My students often have the tendency to want to diagnose organizational inefficiencies and offer recommendations for improvement without putting in the hard work of collecting and analyzing evaluative data.

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We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Evaluation has a lot going against it. For one, we live in a progress-oriented culture that sees more promise in the future than in understanding the past. We ask, “shouldn’t we be innovating instead of spending time reflecting?” Yet, we fail to see how they are connected. We love the trial-and-error way of decision-making where we believe it’s more effective to try our next idea than it is to spend time and money learning about what went wrong with the first idea. We would rather rely on our intuition for the next best thing than on data about the past.

On the other hand, we’ve also seen plenty of downside to evaluation. Many of us have experience with so-called quality assurance and accountability measures with overly taxing paperwork and quickly corrupted metrics. Evaluations are often poorly-designed, not statistically meaningful, and/or distracting from one’s work. I short, evaluation is both completely neglected in some contexts and outright abused in others.

It’s my hope in my courses and this blog to put the value back in evaluation. I want to unpack some of the ways our culture seems to reject the role of evaluation on both a personal and organizational level. I also want to demonstrate ways in which evaluation is being misused and how those misuses can be remedied.

I want to build a movement that promotes an evaluation mindset. A mindset that includes qualities like curiosity, reflection, patience, and rigor. One with a series of habits and skills that one can build oneself and in one’s organization to unleash the positive power of evaluation.

Onward.

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