Larry Cipolla
February 27, 2014

When people evaluate your company, they're not going to do so in a vacuum. They're going to compare you to other businesses in your field, as well as their own personal estimations of how well they think you should perform certain tasks. Even if they don't use the particular word, they are subtly reinforcing the power of "norms." 

"Norm" describes two distinct but related concepts. It can be used to refer to the average score of every person who has taken a particular 360 degree assessment, or it can refer to just those scores from a particularly targeted population. In the latter case, it is the average score of the "norm group," or those that have been pre-selected for further analysis. For example, you might just be interested in the information concerning managerial personnel, and would then parse your database for respondents who fit that particular description. 

It's important to note that your organizations should not necessarily be striving to conform to a norm. A norm represents the average score of a population, rather than an excellent one. Say, for example, that you were taking a class in college. Would you rather have the mean score or the best possible one? Thus, while it is important to be aware of the normative data, it is equally important to understand that it often represents mediocrity, rather than something to actively strive for. Your company should be looking to exceed norms, rather than simply meet them. 

However, a general awareness of norms is an excellent baseline for industry awareness. It can let you know which areas your company is thriving in, and in which more improvement is needed. In addition, it will clue you in to how your potential customers might judge you, and better position you to meet and exceed their needs. 

There are some things to keep in mind when you start comparing your organization to industry norms. As you go through the process, you should be asking yourself these questions:

  • Who will consumers compare my business to?
  • Do I want to process data internally or externally? If it's the former, you will not have access to data outside of your organization. 
  • How old is the information that I'm receiving? Have standards recently changed, and am I going to be proceeding based on faulty assumptions if I trust it?
  • Is it worth purchasing a database for the purpose of benchmarking my own employees?
  • How segmented is the data that I'm receiving? Am I comparing the right groups of people?
  • What are my goals in obtaining this particular norms? Am I looking to promote certain candidates or simply strengthen my overall team? 

Normative data is a critical part of 360 degree feedback. It's important to be careful, though: you don't always know exactly who went into a particular sample. Even if you have demographic data, there is no substitute for a first-hand understanding of a particular employee's professional style. Thus, you should avoid taking any particular norms as gospel. What they can be, however, is an excellent starting point for figuring out where your organization stacks up within a greater context.