Why Medians May Not be the Message – for Talent Data

I was reading a piece in the Journal this morning on a scientific debate regarding an Alzheimer’s study. The debate centers around the use of the median as a descriptive summary statistic. The article brought me to my own recollection of Nassim Taleb’s own objections to some types of quantitative analysis in The Black Swan, and then to an article Stephen Jay Gould wrote in the 80’s that I had never read, and felt ashamed I hadn’t since I was a huge fan of his.

The article was called, “The Median Isn’t the Message”, a nod to Marshall McLuhan, and is a personal story of his own diagnosis with a deadly cancer. The median survival rate of the cancer was 8 months… but being an evolutionary biologist, he knew to dig into the research properly to understand what was really going on. One quote:

But all evolutionary biologists know that variation itself is nature’s only irreducible essence. Variation is the hard reality, not a set of imperfect measures for a central tendency. Means and
medians are the abstractions. Therefore, I looked at the mesothelioma statistics quite differently – and not only because I am an optimist who tends to see the doughnut instead of the hole, but primarily because I know that variation itself is the reality. I had to place myself amidst the variation.

It’s that variation I worry about as we think about talent analytics. The essence of innovation, high performers, and more are not from a central tendency – they lie in the extremes.  I’m still forming my own outlook on this topic, and welcome everyone’s thoughts.

Here’s Stephen’s article in full : http://people.umass.edu/biep540w/pdf/Stephen%20Jay%20Gould.pdf


Jeremy Shapiro is an executive in HR at a leading financial services firm, working on talent analytics. Formerly a Senior Vice President of the Hodes iQ Talent Management Suite at Bernard Hodes Group and is a co-author of the HR metrics book Ultimate Performance. Jeremy has coached hundreds of companies in recruiting and HR technology solutions across industries and sizes. Jeremy is a frequent speaker and author on HR technology topics and HR Business Intelligence topics, such as SHRM, IHRIM, the Human Capital Institute, HR.com and more. He is a frequent contributor to articles and whitepapers on HR Business Intelligence. Jeremy holds a Masters of Science in Information Systems from NYU and a B.A in Economics from Rutgers University. Specific topics of research include HR metrics, talent management technology, and next generation recruiting technologies.

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2 comments on “Why Medians May Not be the Message – for Talent Data
  1. Lisa Youngdahl says:

    good point Jeremy. I think the median is best used to describe home sales or home values for example. It gets tricky when putting people and performance in that bucket; however organizations do this in order to support decisions on comp, incentives, promotions, engagements (assignments), and the overall health of its human capital.

  2. measuringtalent says:

    Thanks Lisa, hope you’re well!

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Talent metrics and human capital analytics galore.                                                                        

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Cornell ILR, Metrics that Matter: How HR Analytics Impact the Bottom Line, June 3-4, 2014 or November 13-14, New York, NY

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