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Cranky Director’s Corner – Post-Election Bonus Post

The past week has provided much material for emotional roller coasters, regardless of how you felt Wednesday morning. Sidestepping the overtly political (we’ll have plenty of that in the months and years to come), I’d like to address a couple majors contributors to the shock and surprise experienced by many over the last few days – data and bubbles.

In recent years we have raised data from a useful tool to a fetish to a nearly messianic thing that will cure our most pernicious diseases, solve our perennial social ills, improve our marketing and complexion, optimize our pipelines, and eliminate human error from all decision making! We’ve enshrined data-driven decision making in our policy and operational discussions, our personal and departmental goals, and our strategic plans. Big Data or Big Brother? Better data collection and analysis does offer more ways of capturing what has happened within our constituent populations. However, we should heed to the cautionary tale from this year’s election polls. Two lessons to remember:

  1. Data only tells us so much.
  2. Data is only as good as the assumptions we build into the collection and analysis processes.

The simplest way to avoid the first employs combining anecdotal evidence and our professional knowledge with the data. Does the data make sense? Does it align with the conversations we and our team (or others in our organizations) have with our constituents? Beware cherry picking stories to drive a preferred narrative. This leads us to tackling the second lesson. Humans are prone to an array of biases that affect our personal, professional, and political judgments, even as we strive to exercise objectivity. If data is to serve us, rather than us eventually serving it, we need to take clear steps to define data’s real role in our organization. Data’s role in our offices and the world is significant and a blog post is not suitable for a comprehensive discussion of this, but here are a few questions to get us started and regularly rehearse. Who are the consumers of the data, and can they speak back to it and us to challenge it? What are our goals? Where does data really fit into our regular processes, including our decision making? When do we gather, analyze, and share our data? Why do we need this piece of information from this source? How do we collect and share the data? Keep in mind the caveat Mark Twain attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” While we should not become enthralled to the data, neither should we manipulate it to our own short term ends.

Bubbles conjure memories of childhood and laughter. The US was also just blindsided (apparently we don’t know how to look in a sideview mirror) by different bubbles clashing in a way that demands attention. Politics aside, we do this in our offices. Do you serve all majors on your campus equally? Passive services like walk-in hours don’t count. Recruiters, do your organizations seriously entertain students with the right skill sets, regardless of major? Have you found you work more with some departments because they’re easier to work with? Has that compromised your own department’s reach and fulfillment of mission? Technology that encourages selective news consumption, mindsets born of behaviors on social media, and natural tendencies towards groupthink and herd mentality (Bay of Pigs anyone?) all isolate us from those that are other. And the human capacity to slice and dice who is “us” and “them” is nearly infinite. The best way to pop these kinds of bubbles is not with needles, but with bridges.

I’d like to close with a turn to one of the responses emerging from last week’s decision – safety pins. First used as a secret badge by the Dutch Resistance in World War II, then an emblem of the UK and US skinhead* and punk movements, now a sign of solidarity in the UK with those in fear of the uptick in racial attacks following Brexit, they are something to consider beyond being simple symbol. Since 1970s and 80s counterculture is lending us this, I recommend we take another step and hoist the 2 Tone flag.

*Skinheads were originally apolitical and non-racist and continue to mostly be so, but like Pepe the Frog, media coverage tended to allow the smaller racist element to define the whole in the public at large.

About the Author:  The cranky director will deliver rants on the economy, technology, social engineering, lack of a really good nearby falafel place, and idiot politicians (broadly defined)  to your computer desktop of preferred mobile device the fourth Friday of every month.

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