How People Make Sense of Data

19 Aug

My first real encounter with tacit knowledge and the role it played in organisations happened years ago while I was a post graduate researcher. I was analysing over 16 thousand e mails to see how power and influence could be levered electronically. In other words how do you get someone to analyse data (in this case an e mail) in the way you want them to.

I was particularly fascinated by one respondent’s e mails over the course of 2 years because the person changed jobs. The respondent started off in a senior position running a department within an organisation and moved to head a virtual purchasing centre which sat in an ambiguous position on the periphery of the same organisation; no one quite knew what the centres reporting lines were, just that it was meant to handle purchasing in a more efficient way. So, same person, same organisation, different job; let’s call this respondent X and the first job A and the second job B

In job A the e-mails’s of X were short, direct and to the point; emotionally distant and assertive. And it got the job done, X’s task was to operate the department and X had the formal authority to do it, the team responded positively to X’s requests. In job B, X still needed resources from the old team and started off e mail requests in exactly the same way- emotionally distant and assertive. Unfortunately for X the result wasn’t the same and X struggled to get any requests met. X’s mental model initially remained the same but the environment had changed, the new role and the virtual centre were no longer perceived as a priority by former colleagues.

Instead of becoming frustrated X’s e mails started to change, the emails became more social, expressed understanding of the recipient’s position and the stresses of competing demands, and X began negotiating solutions. Within the space of a few months X’s request were being met promptly again, via a different approach. Where once X held formal authority they now had only their tacit skills to fall back on, and these tacit skills worked well as they began negotiating and not demanding.

The study and the example are all about data, all this happened via e mail. Respondent X demonstrated tacit skills which allowed them to lever power and influence to get things done. For other respondents in the study the outcome was sometimes quite the opposite- they had their mental model, expected the world to share it and failed to adapt when the feedback suggested otherwise. And this previous statement is key as I’ll highlight the tacit data analysis skills X deployed to adapt.

Respondent X had an existing mental model, they were in charge. When the environment changed X was sensitive to the feedback they were getting and realised a change was necessary, but change to what? At first X copied the e mail style of the person they were communicating with, if the other person would open with Hi so would X (it used to be Dear or just a first name), if the other person was chatty so would X be.

The copying provided a rapport and more information, by copying the other person X was allowed more and more access to the other person’s mental model. For example- if someone asked how X was, they would provide an answer with some substance (I’m fine, but very busy with the current deadline as oppose to just fine), and would receive similar information in return. Copying acted as a means of obtaining more information and managing the uncertainty. From copying X was able to adapt and draw up a richer model of replies, requests and negotiating tactics; copy and adapt helped X manage uncertainty, get the virtual centre up and running and eventually be seen as success.

As with most people who achieve what X had done through tacit skills they were largely unaware of their own actions until it was formally discussed. X wrote it down and said they would pass it onto their deputy who was currently having trouble getting their requests met! The way I look back on this is through the concepts of copy and adapt- X was sensitive to feedback and used copying to build up a range of mental analogies which enabled them to negotiate electronically- this looks situation A so I’ll try A, then wait for feedback and adapt if required.

The study is probably more relevant than ever. When faced with uncertainty, confusing or vast amounts of data, using an analogy to anchor, set up some feedback loops, copy the analogy, and then adapt.

One Response to “How People Make Sense of Data”

  1. marciano49 August 20, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    Reblogged this on decisionsdotorg.

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