The messy business of impact

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In pretty much every workplace and beyond people are always concerned with impact.

What impact is the government reforms having? What impact is the new Tesco advert having on sales? What impact is my parenting having on my children? Etc etc

Just behind impact is its smaller yet more important siblings measurement and proof. When you talk about impact you can help but also talk about measuring it. As a society and a human being we are concerned to the point of obsession with measuring impact. It makes sense though, if you’re going to talk about impact and it’s important to you then you need to think about how you’re going to measure it so you can prove it.

How do Tesco measure the impact of their new advert – sales figures most likely, focus groups potentially, surveys etc. what about the government then? Maybe opinion polls, votes at local/general elections? And the parent? Well maybe how your child acts in relation to the moral code you’ve tried to instil, how they grow up as a human being maybe?

There’s something each of these have in common and probably akin to any way of measuring and proving impact. It is by looking at the outcomes. If the outcomes are what you had hoped them to be then you have been a success. If the government puts austerity cuts in place to save money then they’ll look at how much money has been saved – the outcome. If Tesco wants to measure and prove their new advert again it’s the outcome, sales figures etc and a parent? Well no surprise it’s again the outcome – how close to my ideals of a success have they grown up to be?

The only problem, and the messy part of impact and measuring impact is that you cannot categorically prove impact. It may seem strange but in most cases it’s either impossible or very difficult to say definitively that the outcome has been defined by the action.

Let’s look at Tesco and their new advert. They release their new advert and then look at sales. Sales are up on last year and the advert is a success (ok there’s probably a little more to it than this but just go with it). We can assume that the advert has had a positive effect on sales. But do we know that categorically? Yes it seems the most likely answer but how about any other things that may have occurred?

A national press article slamming another supermarket for their food containing non traditional meat? Or a link to a sweat shop in India? Or how about the advert coinciding with the closure of another local store?

Ok some of this may seem far fetched but the point is there, you cannot definitively pin the outcome on the action.

How about the government then and their austerity cuts? They are saving money so things must be working? Maybe or maybe it’s because we’re taking more care of finances all over the place and being less frivolous , accounting for everything so that money is being saved? Maybe, maybe not?

How about the parent? Well you only need to think nature vs nurture for there to be many variables. And that’s the real point in each of these issues there are too many variables to be able to measure with any kind of certainty what impact your action has had.

How about in education then does this happen there? You bet it does!

In fact it happens on daily, neigh hourly basis! We are forced to think exactly that, what impact is my teaching etc having on the learning of the children. Importantly it’s also part, or should be part of a library. What impact is the library having on teaching and learning, students, the school?

But let’s think a little about the implications in a school and the classroom.

First let’s think about a history teacher in the classroom who teaches a terms worth of the Romans. A student takes an assessment at the end and the student passes.

How about a student who is failing in their English GCSE? A teacher runs some extra intervention, 3 months later the student is back on track. Excellent in both examples, you may think.

But maybe in the first example the student’s dad is a historian specialising in the Romans? Maybe. And in the second example the student’s parents pays for some extra tuition from an external tutor. Maybe.

The thing that makes impact so messy is the variables. It’s due to these variables there is no way to actually prove impact.

It may be a shock but I’m afraid it is the simple truth. You cannot prove impact.

So the question is if you can’t prove impact then what’s the point and what have we been doing all this time?

Although it seems silly it is vitally important that we do this. We need to put all our cards on table and be as explicit as possible as to what we have done.

We need to do this because instead of trying to prove impact what we’re really saying is, it’s started here, I’ve done this and the outcome is this. Prove that I haven’t had an impact.

And that’s really what it is. Doing everything you can to have an impact, being explicit about it and noting the outcome. If the outcome is positive then it’s very difficult to say you haven’t had an impact.

It’s very hard to prove impact but even harder to disprove it too.

So what does this mean then? What it means is that we need to be explicit about the things we are doing, we need to rate start and end points, we need to measure and track progress and lay it all out.

So how about a library then?

What are you doing to improve reading in your school? Where did your students start, what did you do with them and where did they finish? If it was a positive outcome then challenge someone to prove from your tracking that you didn’t have an impact.

The tracking part is vitally important too. If you can’t show all the things you have done then there is no way your argument can hold up.

So the real answer to proving impact is to ask someone to disprove it!

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