Goal Hierarchies are critical if you want to understand how institutions change, and why analytics need to respond to those changes.

The origins of the work on goal hierarchies goes back to 2005. I worked with Dr. Perl on the first look at road safety public policy in years. We produced the first published paper linking institutional strength with a goal typology. Then we observed common sense – strong institutions set concrete goals…weaker institutions set abstract goals (or no goals!). We got it published in 2007.

I took this thread and applied it in the thesis. I went further, noting that most institutions have a broad set of goals, but they almost always fall into some sort of hierarchy – when push comes to shove. In aviation security policy, I noted, either effective security is the top goal, or efficient security. Goal hierarchies are implicitly linked to paradigms. It’s that pervasive, because goals directly impact the way that institutions enforce and make up new rules. It even impacts the common vocabulary people use.

Governments are like (slightly less well-functioning) corporations. (Really – think about it. 🙂 ). Given the additional regulations and public scrutiny laws, it’s rather amazing that our public sector gets anything done!

It follows that what applies to government institutions easily applies to corporate institutions. I’m sure many marketing and business folk might want to argue that point…but having been on both sides of the fence, institutions are institutions. Whether it’s a government department or a fiefdom, the basic ways that human organically organize themselves into complex inter-personal systems are essentially universal. Sometimes people like to take all the factors we can’t explain and dump them into a black box called “culture” and shove it off to the corner.

I’m of the opinion that “culture” is a critical aspect of goal hierarchies.

They have a reinforcing impact on each other. When goals are reorganized, one can’t assume that the underlining culture won’t change. If somebody’s incentive structure is altered, their behavior certainly changes. Isn’t culture just a function of behavior? (Maybe my anthropologist friends are nodding? 🙂 ).

Strong organizations have strong concrete goals. Weak organizations have abstract goals. The establishment of strong concrete goals impact culture. Culture impacts the shifting from abstract goals to concrete. I don’t think I can ever establish a direct arrow of causality (as much as that drives me up the wall). But, I think there’s positive and negative feedback between the two.

I’m just focusing on the delta here. Do individual goals matter? Absolutely. That’s part of the wonderful complexity we get in human systems. How individual goals interface with organizational goals is also very important.

What we measure and how we measure it – changes when a goal hierarchy changes. The two have to work in tandem.

This can be particularly tough for analytics folken. After all, as I’m reminded so often – it’s called web trends, not web facts. (lol). If an organizations goal hierarchy changes frequently, it makes meaningful analytics that much more difficult.

The takeaway: Goals matter. When goals change, what you measure needs to change. Watch out if the goals are shifting from abstract ones to relative ones, through to concrete ones. Are you driving that change? What impact are you having on the vocabulary of your organization? Are there negative externalities? What are the positive ones?

Things to think about.