My Old Shoe

When I arrived at work this morning, I found that one of my colleagues, with a shared interest in data and with a strong preference for databases rather than spreadsheets as the foundation of business information, had shared three online stories seeking to motivate change in the way that people view data [1]. It is striking to read the tone of the articles, which give reasons why excel should not be usesd as a database, most logically that it is not a database in the first place and has drastic limitations, including ease of data corruption, inability to have more than one person working on a file at the same time, and an alarming tendency to produce different responses when data is pulled at different times that harms the credibility of people seeking to present data-based solutions. Ultimately, though, it was a desire to control data that seemed to be the most prevalent underlying reason why people would want to switch to a database from excel, and being someone who feels a deep ambivalence about matters of control, except if I am the one in control (because I can trust myself and have a hard time trusting others), I find these reasons to hint at at least some of the reasons why data is deeply involved in controversy.

In many ways, the desires of managers and executives is contradictory when it comes to what they want from data. Excel, and other programs like it, are easy to use, and this is attractive to a wide variety of people. However, the ease of use that excel and similar programs provides makes it not only easy for those who are competent to use these programs in ways that they were not designed to do, but also for those who are not competent to do so. Yet many people desire data in an easy to recognize form that are not competent to use it well, and yet those things that make it easier for them to use data make it easier for other people to use data in ways that are less desirable and less preferred. Additionally, programs that allow for a higher degree of control of data require skilled database administrators and data scientists of one kind or another to be trusted, because they are often the only ones who can even understand what is being done with the data, much less be able to manage it successfully. And yet this trust is precisely that which is in dispute, or that which is lacking, when it comes to dealing with data and the people who work with it. Arguments over data are often proxy arguments over more fundamental problems like trust and credibility.

It is not without reason, though, that an entire class in my graduate program in Engineering Management was devoted to the resistance to technological change. There were many reasons given, and many discussions about how change management can take place effectively, but many of them boil down to questions of trust and comfort. People are often pretty lazy, and unless there are some compelling opportunities, that are recognized as compelling, or unless there are some significant penalties for not changing, most people will not seek to explore and move beyond their comfort zone. This conservative tendency within humanity is pretty widespread and is something that ought to be automatically assumed when one is dealing with efforts at reform. Change will be resisted extremely fiercely, even by those who would benefit from change, so long as change is enforced from above without any kind of communication of concerns or preferences or conditions among those who will be expected to change. Communication, respect, and concern all make change easier to undergo, but they are often easily cast aside by those who are impatient and forget that others are people and ought to be treated as such, and who forget that people are not mind-readers and require their own interests to be respected and taken into consideration.

So, what is the takeaway? If we know others well and can communicate with them well, change can be encouraged, or we can know better than to even attempt it. If we desire a certain change, and someone is not set against it, we must learn what factors to emphasize, while making clear to show respect and concern, and give them an opportunity to show their own concerns. Likewise, we must understand that the context of difficulty over a given change may include far deeper matters. Those who do not trust and do not feel respected are likely to be particularly resistant to change, and in order to engage in successful change efforts, one must engage in relationship building to the extent that this is possible. Likewise, the reasons that seem convincing to consultants and bloggers may not be as convincing to managers and executives, and certainly not to the line employees who are going to be asked to change their ways. Additionally, change rests on cross-currents in which factors favorable to one group of people may be antithetical to the interests of others, and successfully building widespread buy-in to a change may be an immensely difficult task, which makes it all the more important to do it well.

[1] The articles are below. One of them, in order to read, requires signing up for a particular service:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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