Evaluating Outcomes, Not Outputs

By Lindsay Northon, M.A., SHRM-SCP Dec 8, 2016
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​To make business decisions or to provide sound advice to leadership requires proficiency in Critical Evaluation. Key to exhibiting that competency is gathering information, including conducting analyses, recalling prior experiences and reviewing best practices. Not only do HR professionals collect data, they must illustrate its meaning. How is this accomplished? 

Consider the HR metric of time-to-fill (TTF). TTF reflects the total number of days that lapse before an open position is filled. Generally, organizational leaders want TTF to be low. High TTF is associated with higher costs, overworked employees and decreased morale, which leadership may interpret as HR inefficiency. But TTF doesn't always tell the full HR story: The pool of candidates may not have the skill set required for the position, or an individual candidate may turn out to be a poor organizational fit. 

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While TTF is a useful metric, it is a single, independent data point; additional data should be considered to provide an overall context for what is happening in the organization. HR professionals must dig beyond the output to get to the outcome by using Critical Evaluation effectively. 

An output is tangible—a product, a status report, the completion of a project, a new service or training program. In the TTF example above, the output could be when a new hire starts and HR closes the requisition after, say, 26 days. 

An outcome tends to be subjective and trickier to measure—it involves evaluating actions taken, changes in behavior or knowledge transfer. In the TTF example, outcomes could be the quality of hire, an increase in morale, or higher turnover as a result of cutting corners in the recruiting process. 

What are some ways for HR professionals to focus more on evaluating outcomes rather than simply measuring outputs? 

  • Define the challenge. HR needs to understand both cause and effect. Work backward to determine the root of a problem. If turnover is increasing year to year, for instance, examine exit interviews for patterns—a critical step that will help you identify desired outcomes.
  • Work with a team to brainstorm solutions. On your own, it can be difficult to consistently offer solutions to business leaders that result in desired outcomes. Kick your thinking into gear by listening to others' ideas. Teamwork can lead to greater innovation, among other benefits. Even as an HR department of one, strive for synergy among stakeholders. If you still aren't getting enough input, reach out for help from colleagues, your HR network or HR communities.
  • Don't confuse the outputs for the goal. People sometimes believe they're concentrating on a goal, but they're really focusing on the output. For example, say you're developing a training course for a new technology system that will be rolled out to employees. The goal is to improve employee performance by utilizing technology. But a looming deadline has become the main motivator for completion of the training module. Stop and regroup: Creating a quality training program is more important than meeting the deadline. Ask for more time to develop the training. Just remember to give leadership a status update.
  • Change the course of action when necessary. If your action plan isn't working, you need to know when to hit pause. Evaluate your alternative solutions and approach the problem from another angle. Be sure to refine accountability to ensure the best outcomes.
  • Embrace "incrementalism," or change by degrees. There are usually multiple challenges facing a business at any given time, and solving them all isn't going to happen overnight. So don't be overwhelmed by pressure to fix everything and achieve all desired outcomes at once. If you're implementing changes, remember to move gradually. People are typically resistant to change.
  • Learn from your mistakes. We are human, which means we are imperfect. Pay close attention to decisions you've made in the past and how they have affected your organization. Lessons learned give you the best chance for avoiding negative outcomes in the future. 

To sum up: The next time leadership urges you to have a new talent management system in place by the end of the quarter, with X and Y capabilities, or asks you why cost-per-hire increased from last year, invoke your Critical Evaluation competency. Identify leading indicators of outcomes. Advocate for quality outcomes over abundant output. Build your goal-setting strategy; base it on appropriate actions, timelines and responsible parties.

Lindsay Northon, M.A., SHRM-SCP (@SHRMLindsay), is HR competencies specialist at SHRM.  

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