2007 – The silent monitor
On a shelf by my desk I have a small rectangular block
of wood painted on four sides – black, white, yellow
and blue. The block is a replica of what Robert Owen, the
19th century textile entrepreneur and social reformer called
a “silent monitor”.
Originally the silent monitor was used to remind the spinning
mule operators in Owen’s New Lanark factories about
their behaviour. If people were working well and diligently
then the monitor was turned to its white side indicating
The yellow side pointed to reasonably good behaviour, the
blue side, a “moderate state of morals” and
the black side “excessive naughtiness.”
It should be pointed out that many of Owen’s workers
were young children and teenagers although, unlike other
mill owners at the time, he did introduce lower age restrictions
and schooling for the workers.
The wooden block in my office changes colour all the time.
It is moved by my teenage son to reflect his assessment
of my parenting at various junctures. It works too. When
the black side is showing it reminds me that we need to
work on our relationship. Just now it is white so I must
be doing something right.
I much prefer this kind of signalling – which is
revised constantly – to the idea of an annual appraisal
that goes in to too much unnecessary detail. The silent
monitor provides honest and up-to-the-minute, if subjective,
feedback. It reflects the kind of monitoring, consciously
or otherwise, that each of us makes of our bosses and colleagues
It’s rather like a ship’s compass because it
tells you when you are heading off course. Some web site
forums have similar moderating systems where penalty points
are awarded against transgressors but those are often abused
Everyone needs some kind of performance indicator, however
crude. Playwrites and actors take heed of critical reviews
and audience enthusiasm. Increasingly shareholders are seeking
similar reviews in annual reports.
Unfortunately there remains no co-ordinated approach to
the use of metrics in corporate reporting in spite of the
appearance of the new business reviews in the UK.
In the US, where much of the early academic work on human
capital theory was undertaken, it is arguable that the reporting
of metrics is even less sophisticated than it is in the
The second edition of Reporting on Human Capital, What
the Fortune 100 tells Wall Street About Human Capital Management*,
published by Creelman Research in association with the Results-Based
Leadership Group, has assessed the human capital reporting
output of America’s biggest companies.
For the Fortune 50 it counts the words devoted to a series
of important employee-related practices within annual reports
and corporate responsibility reports, another favourite
repository for human capital statements.
*Reporting on Human Capital, What the Fortune 100 tells
Wall Street About Human Capital Management, price $1,500,