Rethinking The Use of KPIs In The Digital Era




Most companies do not deploy Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) rigorously for review or as drivers of change. This is the overall finding from a recent survey report, Leading With Next Generation Key Performance Indicators, published by MIT Sloan Management Review. The report is biased towards Sales and Marketing functions.

Changes in the business environment such as accelerating technological innovation, intensifying competitive pressure, significant emerging risks, increasing customer expectations, and complex regulations are influencing business models and causing tremendous shifts in the strategic direction of the company.

As a result, executives are struggling to balance tactical and strategic KPIs, including operational and financial KPIs that effectively capture the moment while anticipating the future.

Part of the survey findings include:

  • KPIs are not enjoying special status as either enablers or drivers of change in many companies. Instead of providing value added insight to guide and drive performance improvements, KPIs are more about “tick-box” compliance. Either that gives you a sense of the scale of key decisions made on intuition versus data-driven or it makes you realize that despite the critical role of KPIs in enabling informed decisions, many executives are still not aware of this.
  • Lack of alignment of KPIs with strategic objectives. Only 26% of the survey respondents agreed that their functional KPIs are aligned with the organization’s stated goals and strategic priorities. Such a huge disconnect explains why many companies are struggling to execute their strategy more effectively.
  • Customer-focused KPIs are increasingly becoming more important. Many companies are taking a more customer-centric approach to spur growth. As a result, they are seeking to understand customers in more holistic ways. 63% of respondents say they are now using KPIs (such as NPS, customer segmentation, customer lifetime value, brand equity, churn) to develop a single integrated view of the customer and understand the customer’s experience at each touch point including the aggregated journey.

Based on respondents’ answers to a specific set of questions on how well a company has aligned its use of KPIs, the report authors were able to categorize the companies into three – Measurement Leaders, Measurement Capable and Measurement Challenged.

According to the study findings, six behaviors are common to Measurement Leaders:

  1. Use KPIs to lead, as well manage, the business. Companies falling into this category treat their KPIs not simply as “numbers to hit” but as tools of transformation. KPIs are used to effectively align the organization (people and processes) and also provide predictive insight that help frame strategy and lead the company into the future.
  2. Develop an integrated view of the customer: Respondents falling into this category have shifted their focus beyond traditional financial and customer satisfaction metrics to including externally focused KPIs that enable them to better segment and engage customers. Such measures complement and build upon more internally focused process KPIs. However, an integrated customer view remains an aspiration for many businesses. For example, 41% of survey respondents are still managing digital customers separately from physical customers. Companies that are making progress in this space are experimenting with automation and machine learning technologies to develop a 360-degree view of their customers.
  3. See KPIs as data sets for machine learning: Nearly 75% of executives surveyed expect that ML/AI technologies will help them achieve strategic goals. Instead of viewing KPIs just as analytic outputs for business performance review and planning, organizations can take advantage of ML which empowers software and systems to learn from data-driven experience. This creates opportunities to use KPIs (individually and collectively) and their underlying data to teach ML algorithms to improve and optimize their performance and drive marketing activities. However, care must be taken that the KPIs used as data inputs for ML actually reflect business reality, otherwise the systems will learn from wrong inputs leading to garbage in, garbage out.
  4. Drill Down into KPI Components: Drilling down to a KPIs components is critical for effective KPIs. It helps executives see the underlying data or analytic components that are aggregated into KPIs, determine why specific KPIs have over or under-achieved and prioritize critical business issues. For example, the drilling down can be done according to different customers, segments, channels or different products. Legacy organizations with legacy IT systems and legacy financial reporting processes, however, generally lack this capability
  5. Share trusted KPI data: While it is true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, having shared KPIs facilitates effective cross-functional collaboration because managers can see the positive or negative impact of their own KPIs on others. This cause-and-effect relationship also enables opportunistic efficiencies and outcomes. Although transparent, shareable KPIs can create new dynamics, in some cases, conflict may arise within the organization due to overstepping of boundaries in turn affecting accountability.
  6. Aim for KPI Parsimony: There is no magic number of desirable effective KPIs for an organization. However, too many KPIs easily become unwieldy, unmanageable, and create unrealistic expectations. Too few might result in the neglect of critical business issues. In today’s digital world characterized by data proliferation, it is much easier to get carried away and succumb to “KPI creep”. Measurement leaders know what to focus on – a balanced set of vital and valuable KPIs that have massive potential to make a huge difference to their businesses. Instead of wasting resources on ordinary metrics or measures that promote bad behaviours and fail to influence the strategic priorities of the business, they understand that to be effective and account for business success, KPIs must truly be “key” performance indicators.

To obtain greater value and returns from their KPIs, the report recommends companies to identify their top 3 enterprise and top 3 functional KPIs, create a process for ongoing enterprise-wide discussion of KPIs, and treat KPIs as a special class of data asset.

Additionally, I believe company leadership should also:

  • Acknowledge that effective performance measurement requires a cultural shift. The fish rots from the head. If there is no executive sponsorship, chances are high that the use of KPIs to drive growth will remain relegated to the lower rungs of the ladder.
  • Integrate performance management with risk management. The former looks at KPIs and the latter looks at Key Risk Indicators (KRIs). Business success is also a result of making informed and intelligent risk decisions
  • Start with the WHY of data collection. While it may be true to say that data and analytics are the raw ingredients of KPIs, a company’s data needs must be supported by the key performance questions raised. It is therefore imperative to ask critical questions before accessing any new data.
  • Understand that technology is just a means to an end and not the end itself. A company does not necessarily need to invest in new technology to reap returns from its KPIs. Just because “experts” are preaching the gospel of ML/AI as the solution to modern business problems, first evaluate if your business is in dire need of such technology and cannot survive without it.

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