I was talking to a guy who does marketing research for a big brand. He said, dismissively, "
"We no longer collect any numbers. Things change too fast. We don’t know what to measure. We do ethnographies and stuff…to find out what’s going on out there."
Last night I was talking to a graduate of the Sloan business school at MIT. He doesn’t think about something unless he’s got the numbers.
It’s weird. It’s seems to me that the corporation is becoming more quantitative and more qualitative. Senior managers are getting more and better training in metrics. And they are (for some purposes) now in possession of more and better data suitable for "crunching." On the other hand, the role of concept people, the quantitative creatures, grows ever more important. Corporate wayfinding and innovation are otherwise unthinkable.
The continental drift continues. The qualitative and the quantitative are two solitudes, they are Snow’s two cultures. And it remains fashionable to take sides. The numbers people sneer at the hopeless imprecision of a world without numbers. The concept people believe that anyone who waits for the world to manifest its intentions in numbers will have waited too late.
The world loves to organize itself on this distinction. The bschools are sold on numbers. I watched management at the Harvard Business School vote for still more math. You could almost hear the collected faculty exulting. "That’ll show em!" And I thought to myself: "you have just made this place even more monolithic. And HBS is supposed to be the manager’s school!"
And of course on the concept side, there are people who are hostile to numbers and to the deeply grounded thinking that numbers make possible. This group likes to flit from "creativity" to "innovation" to "getting in touch with their feelings." Can it be surprising that managers think, "Good lord, you want me to trust the fate of the corporation to Peter Pan, to a person who thinks it’s attractive to be all creative and crazy and out of touch with the world."
Finally, of course, this is an empty tribalism. Really, in their heart’s of hearts, everyone knows you use numbers when you can, and concepts when you must. Numbers when possible, concepts when necessary. Which is another way of saying, more qualitative, more quantitative, all the time.
Concept to the rescue. Is there a way to think about the qualitative and the quantitative so that they are not mutually exclusive categories?
Is this a center-periphery relationship? Deep inside the corporation and high up in senior management, the corporation thinks in numbers. On the edges, out "there" where it makes contact with dynamic taste and preference, it thinks in words, imagines, metaphors. We could evoke a Medieval concept of physiology and say that the corporation (the body) is qualitative in its the organs of apprehension, and quantitative at the seat of comprehension.
Oh, but I’m quite sure someone can do better than this. And someone’s going to have to. As the corporation is obliged to become more qualitative and more quantiative, we need to come to our senses. I mean, comes to our wits. No, our senses. Yes, our…