If there is a downside to the success of research in helping organizations make smarter decisions, it is the belief among some business colleagues that research is needed all the time, everywhere, and for everything. It is manifest in an obsessive focus on dashboards, KPIs, analytics, customer satisfaction surveys, pop-up website surveys, net promoter scores, and one of our personal favorites (not really!), metrics.
“Metrics” is the buzzword for measures or measurements. And the problem with focusing so much on measurement is that we lose sight of what we are measuring. We were reminded of this in a recent New York Times essay by Robert Crease, a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University. Crease argues that in obsessively focusing on measurement:
We look away from what we are measuring, and why we are measuring, and fixate on the measuring itself. We are tempted to seek all meaning in ontic measuring — and it’s no surprise that this ultimately leaves us disappointed and frustrated, drowned in carefully calibrated details. . . .
[We need] to ask ourselves what is missing from our measurements. Are the tests administered by schools making students smarter and more educated, or just making us think we know how to evaluate education? Is the ability to measure tiny levels of toxins making us safer, or leading us to spend enormous sums of money unnecessarily to eliminate toxins just to make us feel safer?
Alas, this sounds a lot like market research. We argue over which scales are best. We jump on the latest metric bandwagon that promises to magically predict profitability. We drown in a sea of data, charts, tables, and automated actionable dashboards.
Crease correctly points out that what we need is a more sober assessment of “where and how our measurements fail to deliver.” In market research that requires going back to the beginning, asking the right questions, and understanding how the answers from research will be used. Research can be amazingly powerful, illuminating, and useful. If yours is not, it may be time for a little therapeutic effort that will focus less on the metrics and more on the what those metrics can deliver. Start here.
–Joe Hopper, Ph.D.