Janus The corporation contains two different creatures.  It is two different creatures.  I got to meet both of them this week.

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…

9 thoughts on “Aftermath

  1. Brian Johnson

    Well, as someone coming from a very “mixed” academic background, but a predominantly qualitative mindset, it seems to me that the quantitative data are invaluable in formulating policies and responding to situations at an “immediate” level, but an understanding of the qualitative reasons for those numbers allows for prediction and inference of possible consequences. As for a good metaphor? I dunno, maybe gematria? 😉

  2. Eric Nehrlich

    Great topic, Grant. One possible way of looking at it is to use the quantitative to support the qualitative. New trends can’t be confirmed with data, as the data doesn’t exist yet. So it requires people like you to go out and ethnographically sift through the chaos to identify possible emerging trends. However, corporations can’t afford to commit resources to a project without having some sense of the ROI numbers, so once a qualitative analysis points the way, a quantitative analysis can follow to confirm the observation. There is too much data in the world to expect an unfocused quantitative analysis to settle anything, so using qualitative observations to bound the analysis makes sense. I don’t know if that’s any better than what you have, but it’s the connection I see between the two.

  3. Stephen Denny

    Grant: ah, the great “to count beans… or NOT to count beans… THAT is the question…” debate.

    I think your pick-up that “we don’t know what to measure” says a lot. Quantitative research is wonderful until you sprinkle in a bit of qualitative observation — then you discover ‘questions’ that you didn’t know to ask (most qualitative research isn’t particularly good at answering questions, after all, but is great for raising newer and more interesting questions).

    I’ve usually relied on both in moderation — qual to understand the nuances and raise the right ideas to the surface, and quant to make sure I’ve got some semblance of a projectable answer in case real money is involved.

  4. Gordon Luk

    I think these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. In order to understand what numbers to crunch, and what pitfalls to avoid when doing data collection, aggregation, or elimination, a manager has to have a sharp qualitative understanding of the subject matter. In addition, quantitative analysis seems to offer an effective path to building a qualitative understanding of a subject matter rooted in real data.

    I suppose this model is just one of experience-building. An effective decision maker might start with a underdeveloped qualitative grasp on a topic, and develop that with a healthy amount of quant into a more reliable qualitative understanding.

  5. jkh

    personally i think the qualitative and quantitative are mutually exclusive categories.

    people are more or less hard-wired in these different ways. they have been – they probably will always be.
    the 20th century though – and especially the 20th century organization – favoured the rational folks and numeric methods.

    and: qualitative approaches are no thing for the periphery. because new business paradigms like ‘brand’, ‘innovation’, ‘design’ have invited them right into the heart of the organization.

    a while ago i wrote a piece outlining an organizational approach to productively dealing with this ‘two faced organization’

    btw. grant ‘aftermath’ is a genius’ title

  6. Jamie Gordon

    Great dialogue, grant. One that has been buzzing about quite a bit and has been having a great deal of impact on our business of consumer insight and brand innovation consulting.

    First, an interesting link here that i was sent last night, chatting about Voice of Customer and trends in usage of consumer ethnography:

    It seems that our clients typically want to have their qualitative cakea and chew on their numbers too. Although, all approaches should go in their appropriate place.

    For example: its’ always a great idea to reveiw forecasting numbers, segmentation data as well as secondary lit before even getting into the process of doing consuemr insight work. I then find that ethnography is an excellent tool to inform more traditional qualitative work. Usually the qual piece is enough to inform really robust concept / product development work. Semiotic analysis also plays a valuable role here in identifying the trajectory of trends that will infrom innovation. It’s then the job of another round of qualitative (to do yer gut checks) to inform the “Mack Daddy” quantitative that will validate all of your hypothesis if you have done your work right.

    Approaches are often different by client / category. I think the best practitioners of research are those who can adapt hybrid methodologies to their client’s problems…having a depth and breadth of new and proven tools in their arsenal. After all, i have heard that often the best “futurists” are great historians. I think that parallels well to consumer research. I also think that researchers should be expert practitioners of innovation and strategy…but i digress….

  7. peter

    Good post, Grant (as always!). I have lots of opinions on this topic, perhaps too many for my own good.

    For now, let me say that people often believe that a particular activity they undertake is done for the reasons which everyone says. As an anthropologist, you would know that this is not always the case (indeed, maybe almost never the case) — activities are often undertaken for different purposes or serve different social functions than the reasons stated.

    Thus, for example, business planners create financial spreadsheets with the stated aim of forecasting demand, revenues and costs, and working out whether profits can be made. But everyone involved in this process — the business planners, the C-executives, the Board, the investors, the regulators — knows that such figures are meaningless. The future can’t be predicted, let along quantified with any accuracy, and any assumptions made are bound to be wrong.

    Given that everyone involved knows this, why do people persist with creating, revising, and evaluating business plans, and using them as a basis for investment decisions? The reason is that it is not the numbers themselves that are important here, but rather: the process by which they are found (or invented); the process by which they are challenged; the process by which potential managers of a new venture respond to such challenges; and all the thoughts, discussion and actions which having numbers in front of you may provoke.

    The REAL purpose of making business plan forecasts in companies is not to forecast the business, but to provoke a conversation with the relevant stakeholders about the future (or futures), and what actions to take there. Despite what people say in B-school, this is not an objective which only quantitative data can serve.

  8. peter

    Jamie — I just looked at the link you provided, to the Bain & Company description of Consumer Ethnography as a research tool. The page seems to report on a sample survey to assess client satisfaction with different marketing techniques, and presents a bar-chart showing the satisfaction for “Consumer Ethnography”. I did not know whether to laugh or to cry!

  9. PS

    As a 30+year practitioner (mostly on the client side), I’m not really surprised to see that the dichotomy of qualitative versus quantitative is still alive and well. But, let me propose that the reason for the controversy may be more due to the proponents than the processes.

    Over the years, I’ve consistently seen that both practitioners and their clients are disposed toward one analysis type or the other. Only on the market research agency side have I seen a few individuals who had the ability and interest to merge the two disciplines. These people are the few and far between.

    How many sensitive analysts have drawn terrific insights into a market process or product and yet, when faced with the need to place those insights into their actual market context so that they can be “sized” for their likely impact, the same analysts glaze over and become argumentative that the “real meaning” has been lost in the numbers.

    The other side of the equation is, of course,the “number tumblers” who can implement a host of complex, comprehensive and (even) relevant quantitative tools. Yet, even when it all seems right, they fail to recognize the importance of the underlying buisness problem and instead wander off into the land of the eigen values.

    Perhaps the findings that Bain summarizes are more about the predilictions of the clients than the qualities of the ethnography?

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