Chris ConwayChris Conway
Chief Architect, Quantiv

There’s an old business management adage: ‘You can’t control what you can’t measure.’ And while the phrase might sound obvious, it isn’t just management speak. There’s some science to it, too:

  • Control theory is based on the principle of adjusting the operation of a system based on its inputs and outputs. And that only works if those inputs and outputs can be valued as operational metrics.
  • Machine learning works on the same principle.

But to be truly meaningful, the phrase could be followed by: ‘You can’t measure what you can’t describe.’

At first glance, my addition to the saying might seem less precise. Words are notoriously flexible, and disputes about their meaning can become heated.

But what’s useful here isn’t the flexibility of the words themselves but the formality of the grammar that governs their use.

This only requires a basic awareness of grammatical concepts, not a detailed understanding. And that’s just as well because I’m no grammar pedant or expert. In fact, much of my grammar knowledge stems from learning foreign languages and later studying computer science. I’ve only retrospectively applied these learnings to my native tongue.

An analytical starting point

A grammar, in whatever language – English, French, Latin, C++, SQL – offers a set of rules that define how ‘tokens’ (words) can be arranged into groups (sentences) to communicate information or instructions.

In the context of an organisation’s operation, those grammatical rules can be applied to a series of well-structured sentences to identify good operational metrics. In other words, to help provide a description of what to measure.

Operational events

Dynamic verbs are perhaps the most important component in describing an organisation’s operations:

  • In their continuous forms, they describe the processes and activities that are (or were) happening, such as: ‘Orders are/were being sent [verb] to customers.’
  • In their completed forms, they describe the events that happened because of those processes and activities, for example: ‘The order was sent [verb] to the customer.’

Seen in this way, the verbs associated with describing critical business processes and activities serve as the foundation for defining relevant metrics.

Process dimensions

But while verbs might indicate what is happening or has happened, and so suggest overall metrics, they only really become informative when the surrounding context is known.

In a sentence, the subject and object give that context.

For a sentence describing an organisation’s operations, the subjects and objects often represent the participants or roles associated with the activity:

  • The customer [subject] ordered from the supplier [object].

However, it can also be useful to reference one or more of the instructions that triggered or resulted from the event:

  • The customer [subject] placed an order [object].

And distinguishing the direct and indirect objects can add more detail:

  • The customer [subject] placed an order [direct object] with the supplier [indirect object].

Characteristic dimensions

But sentences aren’t just about actions and participants – they can add colour to a description using adverbs and adjectives.

And these extra elements can also be useful in helping to add information to operational metrics:

  • The new customer easily placed an online order with the preferred supplier.

Including adverbs and adjectives in business descriptions can capture the qualitative aspects of performance, such as efficiency, accuracy and reliability.

These qualities can then be included in operational metrics as extra ‘characteristic’ dimensions. And this then allows basic operational information to be viewed from different perspectives – but without the overhead of building a full-scale business analytics solution.


Taken together, these grammatical concepts can be used as the basis of a method to identify operational metrics from organisational descriptions.

Quantiv’s NumberWorks method is based on these principles. Its simple grammar defines and evaluates operational metrics based on the insights derived from natural language analysis.

NumberWorks establishes parameters and measurement criteria for each identified metric. And it aligns metric definitions with specific business goals and objectives to ensure relevance and applicability.

So, while a method might not write the sentences describing your organisation’s operation, it does provide hints as to how to write those descriptions.

To learn more, call us on 0161 927 4000 or email: