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Social Project Management

I liked your comment "But qualitative evidence has great virtues as well, for spurring hypotheses, emotions, and for enabling us to “see” truths that aren’t easily counted."

Last week I attended the @task 2010 User Conference and they made an interesting announcement about social project management. They developed a tool called Stream which basically does what you're talking about. Here's a link to learn more: It basically takes qualitative or conversational information and ties it into project reports. Very interesting idea. Everybody at the conference seemed to be very excited about the new platform.


Thought-provoking post, Bob!

What about..."When you are delaing largely with an audience that can't count (for nuts..:))"

This maybe an irrelevant example....but it is something I can think of immediately. If we're dealing with Children I guess we wouldn't achieve much if we were to be number-oriented.
My humble 2-cents...


John L Warren

Great and impactful insights Bob!...Connect this to The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ( (on the impact of the highly improbable) and you have a powerful understanding of why data are not always what they seem.

Charles Frith

A great post.

Shauna Axton

I thoroughly agree - both quantitative and qualitative research have their place in uncovering insight and directing strategy. Your reference of "truths that mask many lies and apparent half-truths" points to a weakness of quantitative research when measuring certain issues: people sometimes report what's expected/encouraged and withhold what they really think/feel/do.

My most recent example of this phenomenon occurred during qualitative interviews I conducted with members of the Girl Scouts. During initial interactions, most of the girls reported the Girl Scouts as a hugely positive, fun program. In many ways, this response was what the girls felt they were expected to say. The notion of Girl Scouts as a fun and beneficial program has been ingrained in them by their parents and by society as a whole. Past studies supported this finding - current Girl Scouts members (especially the younger ones) love Girl Scouts.

But after an hour of in-depth conversation with these girls, a different picture emerged. Many of the girls admitted that if they were to choose between going to Girl Scouts or not attending at all, they would gladly choose the latter. In fact, some of the girls were dissatisfied with the Girl Scout activities but felt pressured to attend (and like) Girl Scouts by their parents. Quantitative work alone wouldn't have been able to uncover these buried attitudes towards Girl Scouts. The "truth" or status quo in this instance is the brand equity of Girl Scouts as a thing to love, a "shrine brand." Perhaps the "half-truth" comes in when you realize that some of the girls the program serves don't necessary agree.

Of course, qualitative results are much harder to generalize. If some Girl Scouts in a select region feel this way, do others as well? We spoke with some die hard Girl Scouts families. And the fact that many were less than satisfied with Girl Scouts leads me to think that other girls probably share this attitude. People don't always say what they mean, and often, don't know what they mean. Qualitative work has the ability to uncover latent attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors - a power that quantitative research lacks.

Wally Bock

There are two tendencies at play here. First, many disciplines seem to me to suffer from "physics envy," the belief that only an answer supported by quantitative data is valid. Even a well-conceived study is only valid for a specific set of conditions. Peters' and Waterman's In Search of Excellence may not have met academic study standards, but it was a book that changed the way people thought and talked about management, mostly for the better.

Second, many people look at good research and cherry-pick the pieces they like best. This goes as far back as managers looking at Taylor's shovel study and keeping the part about shovel design and placement of the coal pile, but leaving the part about giving workers breaks out of their practice. Or, with Deming, keep that statistical process control techniques, but leave out the worker empowerment.

Management is a complex human task in a constantly changing environment. It's important for us to try things, measure the results and adjust behavior. It's important to find ideas for new things to try in lots of places, including academic, quantitative studies. But sometimes the best thing to do is find someone who's done something successful and figure out what they did. Then try it, measure results (not necessarily count results) and adjust.

Diego Rodriguez

I love this post.

When does quant matter more? This is the central question in my professional life. Right now, my best thought on this is that the closer, more routine, more familiar the territory you're operating in is, the more you can (and should) rely on quantitative data. But when you're out exploring new territory, qualitative evidence is probably more valid than quantitative data.


Rick Hamrick

My favorite example of a quantitative measure which is of some value while masking lies: the calculated benefit to a company in considering mass layoffs. As you and Dr Pfeffer have often noted, Bob, the reduction in overhead which cutting staff provides is seldom a leading indicator of a company on the way up.

Instead, it is typically an indication of management seeking to do something to placate the market or their board. The costs which are difficult to measure including productivity-destroying morale issues and other soft costs, are often ignored.

The unmeasured harm that such layoffs cause--be it unmeasured by choice or by ignorance--is most-often greater than any reduction in overhead the staff downsizing can offer.

Great topic, Bob!

Brian Sherwood Jones

Good post. Dr Deming has been misinterpreted by quantitative six sigma and lean people (largely a US influence); it is very important to stress that evidence isn't the same as numbers. Thank you.

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