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Why Guess When You Can Know

Maximizing the Effectiveness of Your Workplace Surveys

By Jim Hartigan
August 2010

On a scale from 1-10, with 1 being “I cried tears of pain and anguish” and 10 being “I cried tears of joy and happiness,” how would you rate your last survey experience?  That includes taking a survey or developing your own survey.  In general, how useful do you think surveys really are in accomplishing their objectives (which are normally something along the lines of “measuring attitudes and opinions” or “exploring the relationships between ‘x’ and ‘y’”)?  Do you ever see any changes come about based on the results of a survey?  
Similar to, well, everything, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach surveys.  A survey steeped in science can be a powerful tool, yielding reliable and valid results.  A survey that ignores even the most basic principles that govern statistical analysis and measurement is nothing short of a waste of time – on the part of the survey developer and the survey respondent.
So why would anyone who has a need for a quality survey not take the time to ensure said survey is as effective as possible?  There are infinite answers to that question, but for the sake of this discussion, we’ll narrow it down to two.  The first, and probably the most likely answer, is that it seems like a costly venture to employ some highfalutin consulting/measurement/analytics/whatever firm to develop, deliver, and report on a fancy-schmancy survey that you could have probably done on your own at a fraction of the price.  Which transitions us nicely into the second most likely answer: developing a survey seems like a fairly intuitive, straight-forward process that anyone with half a brain could follow.  Figure out what questions you want to ask, ask them, and then gather the data ... simple!
As it, turns out neither of those answers are entirely true.  Firstly, if you decide to partner with a professional organization, they need not be classified as “highfalutin” ... nor do they have to charge an arm and a leg for their services.  Believe it or not, highly qualified organizations DO exist that will be thrilled to assist with your survey needs without wiping out your entire budget for the year.  The bottom line here is that the issue of cost can be resolved relatively quickly and painlessly.  Carve out a few hours one day to do some homework.  Shop around as you would for any service.  You may be surprised at the amount of options you have!
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  You may still be considering managing the entire survey process all by your lonesome.  If this is your maiden voyage into the world of surveys and measurement, I commend you for your brave, pioneer spirit!  You’re like a bold, westward-charging settler bound for glory.  MANIFEST DESTINY!  But, be warned!  Just as many settlers succumbed to rattlesnake bites and dysentery along the Oregon Trail, so too have many first-time survey developers fallen victim to poorly-executed surveys.  It isn’t as direct and simple a process as it appears on the surface.
As stated by Jon A. Krosnick, Ph.D., the idea that surveys are an intuitive art rather than a technical, science-based skill is “clearly an antiquated view.”  “Intuition,” says Krosnick “can often lead us astray.”  As an example, Krosnick refers to the always-popular “don’t know” response option.  The option, which is meant to be an “out” for respondents who generally don’t have enough information to answer the question, actually acts as a lure to many respondents who do have the information to answer the question.  Many respondents view the “don’t know” option as a time and effort saver; therefore, they click it and move along.  This is just one of several examples given by Krosnick in this insightful article, which was made available by The Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University.
Does that mean you should avoid developing your own surveys?  Certainly not.  Again, it’s a matter of one doing one’s homework, lest one become sorely disappointed with one’s survey.  That’s pretty much the moral of the story today.  Whether you seek an (ahem) professional organization to assist you with your survey needs, or you decide to get all D.I.Y. on your survey, do thy research and thou shall be blessed with wonderful results!  Oh, and once you’ve run the survey, collected the data and analyzed the results…you’re work isn’t finished yet.  The BEST surveys incorporate the “feedback loop” to inform the participants about what was learned.  We’ll take a look at that component of “why guess when you can know” in my next column. 
Until then – Take Care of your customers, Take Care of each other, Take Care of yourself!

About the Author:
Jim Hartigan, Chief Business Development Officer and Partner joined OrgWide Services, a Training/e-Learning, Communications, Surveys and Consulting firm in April 2010 after nearly 30 years experience in the hospitality industry, including the last 18 as a senior executive with Hilton Worldwide.


Jim Hartigan
Chief Business Development Officer & Partner
OrgWide Services
165 N. Main Street, Suite 202
Collierville, TN 38017
office: 901.850.8190  Ext. 230
mobile: 901.628.6586

Recent Articles:

Team Member Segmentation in the Workplace…or “If everyone brought potato salad to the picnic – it wouldn’t be much of a picnic!” / Jim Hartigan / July 2010
The Power of Effective Communication in the Workplace (and our Founding Fathers’ unrivaled Tweeting abilities) / Jim Hartigan / July 2010


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