What is an indicator and how is it used?

Indicators are tools used to measure and describe a system. They help to paint an accurate snapshot of the system under study. Data derived from an indicator, or measurement tool, can be used to understand, compare, and improve a system.

Choosing relevant indicators is only the first step to understanding the system you are studying. Having valid data to feed into the indicator (or as we defined it, the “measurement tool”), is also very important.


There are four important things to understand about indicators before using them:

  1. Indicators are a measuring tool – and so they are used to indicate. Systems are complex with many components and no indicator can describe the entire truth. For example, you may select a few Dimensions (with link?) across a number of Domains (with link?) out of the Quality Framework to comprehensively understand an issue within your organization. It is important to take into account the context of what is being measured, and appreciate what the measure will tell you about the context.
  2. It is important to be explicit and clear about what you are measuring and the purpose of what you are trying to do. For example, what Domain and/or Dimension from the Quality Framework are you trying to understand?
  3. Some basic understanding of elementary statistics is needed to grasp what the data from the indicators show. An ability to understand the data will allow you to adjust, challenge, or change the indicator being used. For example, if you are measuring a Client Care Outcome, such as improved quality of life, from what population are you drawing your data and/or comparing it to?
  4. Indicators are not just used to find faults – their measurements are used to understand performance whether it’s good or bad.  A good indicator can either show excellent systems that we can learn from, or highlight those that need more adjustments and interventions. For example, measures of Team Functioning can help to hone in on areas where teams are functioning very well, as well as where more capacity- and team-building may be needed.