Drawing on data from workplace and learning studies that we have conducted over the past 20 years, we propose to rethink assessment by developing a three-part framework that puts assessments into a broader social context. The framework identifies inherent assessments as happening informally and nonverbally in all social situations; discursive assessments as occurring when members of a social group talk about what they are doing in an evaluative way; and documentary assessments as coming about when activities are evaluated according to a scheme that produces numbers and symbols. Formal, documentary assessments are ubiquitous in all arenas of modern life, from production work to corporate strategy, governmental resource allocation, and educational policy. However, they frequently have negative consequences which remain largely unexamined, in the literature as well as in the daily practice of managers and decision makers. We show that an overreliance on documentary assessments can lead to far-reaching dysfunctional effects on work practices, on corporate decision making, and on the structure and culture of an organization. In the final part of the paper, we apply our three-part assessment framework to propose a set of recommendations for managers and researchers that promise to lead to the improvement of assessment practice.

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