This was attributed to Peter Drucker and W Edwards Deming, both incorrectly. And it’s passed into business folklore, together with a lot of other nonsense. Deming’s real quote is more helpful “the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable (Lloyd S. Nelson, director of statistical studies for the Nashua corporation), but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.

In a recent New York Times article, Amazon were criticised for the manner in which they managed their employees. This is also reflected in a BBC documentary in 2013, in which distribution staff were measured to the second on how many items they correctly picked and dispatched. It’s obviously vital for Amazon’s bottom line that this is done efficiently, but transgressions were brought to the attention of a supervisor, and the three strikes and you’re out rule was enforced. The New York Times article painted a similar picture for their white-collar workers. The founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, doesn’t believe it reflects Amazon’s corporate ethos as a caring inclusive enterprise and he discounts the examples of bullying, regular 80 hour weeks, no time off for sickness or bereavements or other “trivial matters”.

Amazon is taking measurement to the furthest extremes it can. It measures every aspect of employee performance, allows anonymous 360 feedback daily, and claims that it does not have a rank and yank policy, yet also claims that it only employs the best and most able, who perform consistently well, and that everyone gets graded annually.  Which means some losses, regrettably.

If this is true, is Amazon unique? A recent BBC report suggests not. It indicates that most Americans do not take all their holiday entitlement, the main reason being their fear for their jobs if they do. There is apparently an expectation in Amazon and elsewhere that work comes first. This translates across the Atlantic to at least one American company here. At JP Morgan Chase’s European headquarters in Bournemouth, it is common for employees to wait until the managers leave before they go home, and they try to get in before the manager in the morning. It is even expected by employees (although not by the company) that subcontractors working at the company’s offices do the same.

Other studies give more credence to this view. A recent Harvard Business School Gender & Work study on a global mid-size consulting firm had these chilling quotes: “The general problem these employees face is the demand that they have no identity other than as a labor commodity” and..These other identities—being a good parent, life-partner, citizen—are contingent and expendable for the ideal worker. Yet for real people, these identities—particularly the parent one—are compelling.”

Does the digital age give us the ability to measure more, and in doing so does this take us past a reasonable boundary of employee engagement as managers become transfixed by their (illusory) ability to control more of their environment? Or does it give us the opportunity for more personal freedom? Does the digital age neatly digitise the experience of dark satanic Victorian mills?

Sometimes it might, but even in Victorian times, not all factory owners treated their people as human machines. There are plenty of examples of enlightened owners who set up whole communities to benefit their employees. Lord Lever at Port Sunlight (Lever Bros, now Unilever) is one, as is the Cadbury family’s village at Bournville. They thought that by giving their employees decent conditions to live and work, and opportunities for improvement, a stable, more engaged, better informed workforce would result, and also better profits, almost as a by-product. That in itself is interesting – the concept of profits as a measurement, not just a goal.

In modern times, Dan Pontefract’s recent blog shows us that TELUS has the ability to use measurement to enhance employee engagement both for its customers and itself. He shows that TELUS have installed systems for a client that have upskilled jobs, rather than losing them. Also internally TELUS call agents have better interactions with customers using automatic logic systems, to give better customer service and higher agent job satisfaction.

It’s possible to use digital, or any system, in any way you wish. Surely it’s all about management intent? Taking Jeff Bezos’s statements at face value, perhaps the intent was right but the constant drive for more measurement has subsumed that, to the extent that the machine is driving the business.  Another example of the natural human wish to control as much of our environment as possible, without recognising the usefulness or otherwise of those actions.

Intent is age irrelevant – whether digital or mechanical, its only intent that drives leadership and management style. Management wants team members to bring the whole experience of life to work, yet if work subsumes so much of their time, their experience will be limited. To quote an Amazon employee in the New York Times piece, “the joke in office was that when it came to work/life balance, work first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last”. If you treat people like fungible assets, you cannot expect to get the best out of them. Using systems -digital or otherwise-to measure the correct things, and only those things, is a management skill in itself. As usual, it is very easy to be overtaken by the seeming benefits without seeing the pitfalls.

Managers need to be alive to managing elements that they can’t measure, and spend less time finding ever more measurement methods. The last word is Peter Drucker’s “Your first role . . . is the personal one,” Drucker told Bob Buford, in 1990. “It is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the identification of people, the creation of a community. This is something only you can do.” Drucker went on: “It cannot be measured or easily defined. But it is not only a key function. It is one only you can perform.”