Using Key Performance Indicators for Business Success

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Stay competitive by unlocking the power of key performance indicators within your business. Learn what these indicators are, what differentiates them from other measurements, and how to define your own set of key performance indicators.

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Defining and measuring key performance indicators within your organization is an integral part of a successful business strategy. By taking time to learn more about these measures and how to maximize benefits from them, you can remain accountable for current performance and make strategic decisions about future directions. Uncover more about what makes these measures so important within organizations and how you can determine the right indicators for your team.

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What are key performance indicators (KPIs)?

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are metrics that provide your teams with clear insights into which aspects of your organization are performing well and which ones need improvement. KPIs need to be measurable, allowing you to clearly understand whether you are hitting target values and how your metrics are trending over time. 

Within your organization, you can choose different types of KPIs to monitor different areas of operation. Generally, you’ll want a mix of high- and low-level KPIs. High-level KPIs focus on how your business performs overall, creating a big picture. Low-level KPIs, on the other hand, focus on smaller goals and performance tracking, often looking at processes within specific departments.

KPIs vs. metrics

While you might hear the terms ‘KPI’ and ‘metric’ used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings. A metric is simply a measurement of business activity, such as how many products you sold in a given year or how much of a project is completed on a certain date. 

However, while all KPIs are metrics, not all metrics are KPIs. For a metric to qualify as a KPI, it must be a targeted metric designed to help you understand how your progression or numbers align with strategic goals. 

Why KPIs are important in your business strategy

When you're trying to monitor and improve business performance, KPIs provide a data-driven way to look closely at each organizational department, objective, and employee to carefully analyze where you are excelling or falling short as a team. Implementing KPIs into your business strategy can help: 

  • Align teams: You can use KPIs to align teams within your organization toward the same goal, ensuring the organization progresses in the direction intended.

  • Emphasize learning behavior: By motivating employees to expand their skill set to meet new objectives, you can cultivate an environment of continuous growth and learning.

  • Check the health of your organization: With measurable KPIs, nothing is left up to the imagination or guesswork. You can clearly see your organization’s current health and trends over time.

  • Foster company growth: You can use KPIs to design new initiatives that drive company growth.  

  • Hold teams accountable: Each team has clear indications of whether they are hitting their targets. This transparency helps maintain accountability within each department. 

  • Track your progress toward goals: You can quickly see whether you are moving in a positive or negative direction toward each goal. Analyzing these trends gives you a better idea of where to focus your efforts or realign your teams.

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Types of KPIs

Determining the right KPIs for your objectives takes time and effort to make sure you choose those that align with your goals and available resources. You can choose to measure several different types of indicators, each of which requires different types of reporting. Your KPIs can fall into several of the following areas, and knowing how to define your KPI can help you track it more effectively.

1. Quantitative KPI

Quantitative KPIs are metrics you can measure using numerical values. These KPIs are straightforward and provide objective data you can easily compare over time. 

Examples: Total sales in a given month, number of employees hired last year

2. Qualitative KPI

Qualitative KPIs measure qualities that are more descriptive, often assessing intangible aspects of business performance. You might measure these through surveys or other subjective feedback mechanisms.

Examples: Customer satisfaction, employee engagement, brand perception

3. Input KPI

Input KPIs represent things you put or bring into the organization, like money or people. This helps you track your resources and decide where to allocate different assets. You often input resources with a desired outcome in mind.

Examples: Number of people you hired, how much money you budgeted for a certain project 

4. Output KPI

Output KPIs are the results of what you input. For example, if your input was more call center employees, the output might be a shorter customer service wait time. 

Examples: Work performed in a certain amount of time, office efficiency, the number of customer requests employees handle each day

5. Leading KPI

These KPIs help you forecast what is to come in the future. By looking at leading indicators, you can build a picture of how your organization is likely to perform in the coming time period. 

Examples: Number of customers that renew their subscription early, how many Google searches people make about your product, social media engagement statistics  

6. Lagging KPI

Lagging KPIs help you assess the success of what you’ve already done. This informs strategies moving forward, including decisions about how to adjust or reroute initiatives. 

Examples: Number of sales made over the previous year, employee satisfaction over the previous quarter, number of clicks on an advertisement.

Types of measures

In the context of business performance and management, you can broadly classify KPIs into different types based on their focus area and the aspect of the organization they assess.


Strategic measures assess the effectiveness of key business strategies by aligning performance with the long-term goals of the organization. These measures are typically high-level and focus on overall organizational health and success. 


Operational measures focus on business processes. You can use these to track day-to-day operations. These measures are often more granular than strategic measures and may track trends over each time period for specific measures.


You can use project measures specifically within the context of project management to assess the performance, progress, and employee effectiveness. These measures help project managers ensure projects are completed by the deadline, only require allocated resources, and produce outcomes at the intended quality. 


You use risk measures to assess and quantify the levels of risk within various areas of your organization. Risks can be in several categories, including business (risk threatening organizational success), non-business (risk related to politics or public opinion), and financial (risk of monetary decline).

Example KPIs across different sectors

Depending on your sector, you may prioritize different KPIs based on your specific operational, financial, and strategic needs. For example, a few industry-specific KPIs you might see tracked include: 

  • Education: Gross tuition revenue, student fees, administrative costs per student

  • Finance: Total asset turnover, debt-to-equity ratio, return on equity

  • Information technology: Actual cost of work performance, percent of project complete

  • Sales: New qualified opportunities, average order value, total pipeline value

How to define a KPI

Accurately measuring and predicting business performance relies on accurately defining your KPIs. If you have inaccurate KPIs, you may misinterpret your company performance or allocate time and resources to areas that don’t need them. To begin defining the KPIs that are right for you, follow these steps:

1. Identify a goal.

Decide on your long-term business objectives. What are you working toward? How do you want your KPIs to help you achieve your goals? Think about what insights you hope to gain from your KPIs, and then work backward from here. Your goal can be granular or broad. For example, your goal might be to increase overall employee engagement, or it could be to increase sales by 1 percent in the coming month.

2. Determine indicators of success.

Once you have your goals, you’ll need to work backward to determine how to measure these goals. In some cases, it’s straightforward. For example, if you're tracking toward the goal of increasing your sales by 1 percent, you would record the number of sales you make over the next month and compare it to the previous month. 

For broader goals, such as employee engagement, you have to be more creative. You can choose the metrics that work for your workforce. For example, you could track the number of employees who participate in learning initiatives, distribute surveys quarterly, or have one-on-one conversations with employees.

3. Design your KPIs with a SMART framework.

The SMART framework is commonly used to help develop KPIs that are measurable and actionable. In the context of KPIs, SMART typically stands for specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related. By making sure your KPI fits into each category, you can avoid common pitfalls or obstacles in designing meaningful indicators.

A good KPI is one that you can clearly define, communicate to your team, measure within a specified timeframe, and adjust when needed.

4. Keep track.

While you may get everything right on the first try, this isn’t necessarily the norm. Plan to track your KPIs over specific time periods and then make adjustments based on your results. This helps you build an interactive and flexible process, allowing you to change your KPIs alongside workforce development and market changes. Explore tools and technologies designed to help track your KPIs, such as dashboard software to measure KPIs in real-time, data analytics software for monitoring and reporting, and cloud services for efficient storage and collaboration.

How to build a KPI-driven culture and overcome common challenges

Integrating KPIs into daily operations and decision-making has numerous benefits but can present you with some challenges, especially if it’s a brand-new concept in your organization. To overcome this, you can foster a KPI-driven culture by consistently communicating the importance of KPIs in achieving business success and leading by example by using KPIs in strategic discussions and decisions. 

You can help employees feel connected to the mission by providing training to all employees on the importance of KPIs and how they relate to overall business performance. During this process, clearly communicating individual roles in influencing KPI outcomes. 

A common pitfall organizations fall into is trying to track too many KPIs at once. Make sure you focus on specific KPIs, taking time to determine key measurements you can track easily and that make sense for your overall goals.

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Key performance indicators help you manage personnel, projects, and risk. Not only can you analyze past trends, but you can also use KPIs to predict future outcomes, helping you make informed decisions.

Enable your employees to analyze and interpret data to achieve their KPIs and drive faster, better business decisions with the Data & Analytics Academy from Coursera. Offering hands-on learning and expert instruction from leading organizations like Stanford, Google, Microsoft, Meta, the University of Michigan, and more, Coursera’s Data & Analytics Academy empowers employees at every level to build foundational data literacy while also equipping existing data teams with expert-level training in machine learning, AI, and other emergent fields.

Explore Coursera for Business to learn how we can work together to build data proficiency across your organization.

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Written by Coursera • Updated on

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