Quantitative Woes, Continued (Today\’s Comment)

Here’s another installment on my Comment Week theme. This morning, I saw a trackback from the weblog Scale | Free to my posting Regarding the Quest for Communication Statistics.

In a response post, Research and Stats: practically useless? Anu Gupta wrote:

“We’re not the only community that needs to value the intangible – economists do it when valuing goodwill, marketeers do it when valuing brands. In most cases, these numbers just serve as a starting point for an argument, but at least there’s a point of reference.”

That’s a good point. I replied in a comment to Anu’s posting. Here’s what I said…

My comment to Anu’s posting was:

…That’s a great point. I understand and agree with the logic of it. I’m not completely denying or resisting the natural business urge to translate all relationships into numbers.

That said, why does this have to be so hard? It seems like an unnecessary level of complexity. It seems (to me, at least) to be common sense that when you need to communicate with a particular group/audience/market, the easier it is for them to understand and interact with you, the better that is for your business. Why must all permutations of that basic aspect of communication be “proven” numerically, especially when such “proof” is often far more specious than that principle of communication? In my experience and observation, that contradiction hinders a lot of communication efforts.

Again, communication is a human function. Human beings are not calculators. Trying to reduce the principles of good communication to numbers, rather than understanding and applying them, will only take you so far — probably to the wrong destination.

Yes, I think creative communicators could find ways to jump through the numerical hoops to satisfy the basically irrational faith that so many in business cling to which says that numbers are the only truth. I can understand why that may be necessary.

I still think it’s a shame, and generally wasted effort that could be put toward communicating better.

– Amy Gahran

I must admit, I have mixed feelings on this topic – which is probably why I experience so much frustration over it. Believe it or not, I am strongly scientific by nature. It’s probably because of my understanding of and respect for science that I have a hard time with the sloppy, “religious” use of quantitative research (numbers for the sake of numbers).

On the one hand, I realize that numbers are, in a sense, the language (or at least the “credibility currency”) of business. I realize that in order to convince most businesspeople of the value of good communication practices, you need to speak in their preferred language – numbers.

On the other hand, not everything from the real world of human experience and behavior translates well into the language of numbers and statistics. Trying to force those principles into that language can cause considerable “translation errors” – which means the ultimate point can get lost easily.

I don’t doubt that there are better ways to translate good communication principles into numbers and statistics that would be digestible for businesspeople. However, as Anu notes, that’ll be pretty hard, and will require considerable time and effort. If that’s what it takes, so be it. However, I could think of many other ways to put all that time and effort to better use – say, by implementing better communication practices.

If someone could produce truly sound, effective research to support basic principles of good communication, no one would be happier than I. But I don’t think we need to wait for that to start communicating better, that’s all.

5 thoughts on Quantitative Woes, Continued (Today\’s Comment)

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  1. Hi Amy,

    Good post – just want to say one thing quickly – I don’t think that we need to halt what we’re doing until we get quantitative “proof”. I think having more evidence and data will be useful – not just for the business, but for communicators as well. And these numbers don’t necessarily have to represent money or cost, and we certainly don’t need to get into proving the value of communications, but in a complex world where there are many options – how do we make better decisions about which is the best course of action ?

    As a hypothetical example, for an internal campaign, am I better off in spending resource in a desk drop, a set of branded emails, a weblog, an all-hands voicemail (ugh !), a series of cascade meetings…

    A desk drop will hit everyone, of whom say 5% will pay attention. A blog may only reach 100 people, but they may have the key networks to make a difference.

    Right now, I think it’s hard to determine which will be more effective. Anecdotal evidence will exist, but much of it will be skewed and misremembered, and often becomes post-decision rationalisation. I’m trying to find some way of determining what measures (or what can we measure) will help make these decisions easier.

    OK – that’s a very quick, stream of consciousness reply ! Hopefully it made some sense, I’ll post some more on my weblog later.



  2. Thanks for your comment, Anu. I’m enjoying this conversation!

    You wrote: “I don’t think that we need to halt what we’re doing until we get quantitative “proof.” …And these numbers don’t necessarily have to represent money or cost, and we certainly don’t need to get into proving the value of communications…”

    Ironically, those are EXACTLY the problems I’m seeing!

    Allow me to clarify: In my work, I mainly deal with enhancing the quality and effectiveness of communication regardless of the specific channel selected (print, online, audio, etc.). This comes down to matters such as identifying and understanding your target audience, reflecting their perspective, organizing your thoughts, avoiding overkill, using plain and vivid language, creating a sense of flow, motivating readers to action, etc.

    Believe it or not, I am often asked by readers and prospective clients to prove precisely these practices with quantitative research and statistics. For instance, last month a company with only two staff editors (who really were only doing low-level copyediting and proofreading) and which had just committed to buy a $300,000 content management system asked me, “What statistics can you show that demonstrate the value of editors to the business process?”

    That’s exactly what we’re up against here. So many businesses find it easy to spend huge amounts of money on technological “solutions” because technology creates the appearance of quantifiable benefits. Most of that is illusory – just ask most organizations which have installed a CMS. Usually, the promised benefits never appear, or significant new problems are created — because the fundamentally human aspect of communication wasn’t adequately factored into the “equation.”

    In contrast, companies seem to crave or even demand quantifiable data before they will spend relatively miniscule amounts of money on human skills whose value has been demonstrated over and over not by clinical research, but by experience.

    You also wrote: “In a complex world where there are many options – how do we make better decisions about which is the best course of action?”

    Now that’s true. Perhaps the best use of communication research is to support choices between channels, based on likely audience penetration or information retention.

    Unfortunately, the biggest and most pervasive communication problems that I see are not that they’re choosing the wrong channels – it’s that they are incomprehensible, off-target, scattered, officious, or just plain boring. These are the problems that I tackle in my work.

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the organizations which exhibit these basic communication flaws tend to be the ones that demand research and statistics before deciding to make better communication a higher priority. But it still frustrates me.

    I would love to find a way to get through to these people that by getting hung up on research and stats, they’re hindering their own progress. In most cases, learning to communicate better is not only easy, it’s fun and engaging. It’s an energizing process, not a drain. And it ends up not only making people’s jobs easier, their communication becomes more effective and rewarding. That’s not a matter of numbers, that’s a matter of experience.

  3. Hi Amy,

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve just said – and certainly part of the problem is that ROI is an easy word to sprinkle around, especially on the demand side…”“What statistics can you show that demonstrate the value of editors to the business process?â€? – without needing any real comprehension of what that question really means.

    I can see how one might go about answering the above question, but I don’t think many companies would be prepared to pay the price in research, or wait long enough for the results. Data aggregated from lots of companies might be a way forward as well, if such data was easily available and considered reliable.

    But, as I hope is apparent now, I’m not really arguing or in favour of this rigid show-me-the-money ROI/metric calculation – rather a more balanced approach that says that there has to be some yardstick, some set of measures that one uses to judge performance. And those set of measures may need to include both quant and qual.

    As I type this, I’m thinking about a balanced scorecard approach – I’m not a huge fan, but the balanced scorecard does recognise [or at least allow one to state] that life is not just numbers, or warm fuzzizness, but a combination of the 2.



  4. Ooooh… a “balanced scorecard” — I assume you are referring to this approach. Correct me if I’m wrong there.

    What an intriguing idea! I would love to work with you to develop this regarding the importance of enhancing the quality of communication, as well as the content-creation process.

    I would dearly love to have some metrics that would be relevant and sound (as far as I’m concerned) and meaningful (as far as organizational decisionmakers are concerned.)

    Where do we start?

    – Amy Gahran

  5. Oh man – I’m being forced into action ! I was hoping to get at least another couple of weeks of pontificating and sounding vaguely like I might know what I’m doing 😉

    But yeah – that’s the balanced scorecard approach I was referring to – don’t know if we really need to replicate the scorecard – the thing that appeals is the ethos of balancing quantitative and qualititative measures.

    As a start – I’m going to get a wiki set up for this in the next couple of weeks, and then maybe we can start populating some resources and ideas – I’ve a feeling that there’s research/data/information out there that is very pertinent and I’d like to get a handle on that. I’ve had other people say they’d be interested [at least in reading !], so it might be a good way to start it all off.

    How does that sound – it’s not a very ambitious begninning , but I don’t think this is going to be a sprint, else people would have arrived there already !