Crazy Ways to Get Close to Your Data
This picture sits on my bookshelf, right next to my computer monitor, and reminds me all day long about the importance of getting close to your data. It was one of my first research jobs out of college, working for Tom Greene at St. Lawrence University. We hiked up mountains in the Adirondacks, waited at the top with clipboards and surveys in hand (plus bagels, books, and beverages). When other unsuspecting hikers made it to the top, we politely asked if they wouldn’t mind filling out a survey, evaluating various aspects of the mountaintop vistas and the trails through which they had hiked.
In my experience, great researchers always want to get close to their data—on the phones interviewing, watching or conducting focus groups, or sorting through verbatim responses and spreadsheets of data. That is how we get a deep feeling for what the data means. I have never understood the more common model among research firms where client-facing managers presumably design research and write reports, but have nothing to do with the production of data and know little about statistics or analysis.
At a conference two weeks ago, I heard two other inspiring examples of researchers getting crazy close to their data. Deanna Meyler at Bozell climbed huge trees in the pacific northwest to understand tree-sitting tactics of radical environmentalists (climbing mountains pales in comparison to what she did!) Mike Rosenberg at JP Morgan Chase has personally conducted more than 600 in-depth interviews with bank customers during his years heading up research for the firm. Why? Because it’s the most valuable data he can get, and the closer he is to it (versus outsourcing that knowledge to vendors) the more he can help his internal clients.
Senior managers, especially, have multiple demands on their time, and of course we want the efficiency of letting others wallow in the weeds collecting data for our studies. But those of us who stay close to our data know how critical that closeness is to gaining a deep understanding of what data means and how it should be communicated to make it useful for our clients.
See also: Statisticians Who Watch Focus Groups