Home Organizational Psychology Assessment / Process Observation Organizational Consultation XIV Generating Information from Outside the Organization: Appreciative Benchmarking

Organizational Consultation XIV Generating Information from Outside the Organization: Appreciative Benchmarking

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What Is Benchmarking?

Several different versions exist concerning the origins of the term “benchmarking.” Most of the experts in the field point to the original use of the term in the field of surveying. The Oxford English Dictionary seems to concur:

  1. A surveyor’s mark consisting of a broad arrow with a horizontal bar through its apex, cut in rock etc. to indicate a point whose position and height have been surveyed.
  2. A point of reference, a criterion.

While this definition bespeaks authenticity, I have heard a second version. Accordingly to my much less authoritative source, the term benchmark comes from the craft of woodwork. When a carpenter has to cut a large number of boards of the same length, the arduous task of individually measuring and marking each board can be avoided by placing a mark on the workbench. Each board is lined up with this mark and then cut the appropriate length. This second version does a better job of accounting for the use of the two terms bench and mark.

Regardless of its origins, the term benchmark refers, as the second Oxford definition suggests, to “a point of reference” that can be used for comparative purposes. A benchmark enables one to see how a specific product or process measures up against another product or process (Oxford’s reference to benchmark as “a criterion”). A common reference point is needed. The practice of benchmarking appears to be first engaged by Japanese businessmen following World War II, as they toured the world looking for best practices. Whether one wishes to label this practice “smart business,” or “copying,” or even “stealing,” the process of comparing one’s own organizational processes to those of other organizations engaged the attention of executives at two major American corporations (IBM and Xerox) during the 1960s and 1970s. Benchmarking became even more prominent with the rise of Total Quality Management and Continuous Quality Improvement programs during the 1980s and early 1990s. One could draw comparisons with other organizations or within one’s own organization as a means of defining and measuring quality. Organizations that wished to improve the quality of product or service they offered took a first step in this direction by comparing their product or service to those being offered by other organizations with strong reputations.

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