Organizations use their rankings primarily as public relations and marketing tools. As such, institutional efforts to improve rankings are often, but not always, made for their marketing impact. This opinion is based, in part, on my interpretation of countless billboards, newspaper advertisements, and TV and radio commercials across the country.
While rankings can function as organizational performance metrics, rankings are indirect measurements better suited to creating an immediate impression. They rarely provide the critical details necessary for iterative revision of tactics and strategies. While this is a disadvantage in their operational use as metrics, it is an advantage in marketing, where a ranking is often used to make the simple statement “We’re better than others.” Creating this impression through the aura of “ranking” adds an additional quasi-scientific credential to what is otherwise an advertisement.
The caveat emptor for intended audiences is that they be discerning about rankings. Consumers must understand that what appears to be a very straight-forward implication may in fact represent a successful organizational attempt to manipulate the underlying data.
How does the use of rankings involve leaders? Leaders are ultimately responsible for the use of rankings. They need to understand how rankings are employed in their institution and how they are generated. Most importantly, leaders must make decisions regarding the use of rankings that are aligned with the core values of their organization. If core values include honesty and integrity, then they need to ensure that data submitted for rankings is collected in an acceptable manner, one that matches that used by other institutions. Similarly, a leader needs to question the selected use of a ranking subset to create an overall positive perception of an institution, when in fact the entire set of rankings is much less complimentary. This is an area of leadership in which it is easy to succumb to the siren “but this is what everybody does, particularly our competitors.” It is adherence to institutional values that often best defines leadership with integrity.
-Daniel Sedmak, M.D.