December 21, 2009

“We’d never ask them those kinds of questions”

Does your organization draw a line between audience research and mission independence? Two recent op-ed pieces spark questions about what’s off-limits.

It’s not every day that the U.S. military offers lessons for culture and education professionals. But two months ago, a Marine lieutenant colonel made what must have been a courageous call in a NY Times essay for the armed forces to ask front-line soldiers of all ranks for their thoughts on real strategy issues, not just on the operational or ancillary topics they're usually surveyed on, such as "family readiness" and the "command climate."

Current military and political culture will be dismissive of the idea that "our leaders should now turn to 20-year-olds in the field for strategy recommendations," the writer, Glen Butler, admits. But he argues that the troops "have a wealth of expertise and strong opinions they would be glad to express," and that if the military does ask such questions it will "be amazed at the depth and breadth of the answers the troops will provide."

It's exactly those answers, and the on-the-ground, you-are-there perspective they represent, that Butler believes the top brass need in order to make better decisions.

Working in the somewhat less dangerous world of universities, museums, and arts organizations, we occasionally find ourselves having to make an analagous argument. Some clients are happy to conduct surveys of their audiences as long as the questions are intended to inform marketing or operational decisions, or to demonstrate the impact of their programs. But they blanche or scoff at the idea of asking questions that get into mission territory.

In a university context, that might mean questions about what courses should be offered or what kinds of teaching works best. At a symphony, it might mean questions about how much (and what kind) of contemporary music to program, or whether the conductor should speak from the podium. In a museum, it might mean asking which potential exhibition topics are most appealing and what people might want to learn.

Of course, plenty of institutions and individuals are perfectly comfortable asking such questions. Much of our research and evaluation work falls into this category. But still, it's not unusual for us to hear concern or defensiveness about the risk of "dumbing down" programs or going "off mission" in order to please the rank-and-file consumer.

We explain that asking such questions is first and foremost about understanding how those consumers experience the institution and its offerings, not about slavishly giving them whatever they're asking for. In fact, our research consistently shows that people are eager for educational and cultural institutions to take them down new, unexpected paths and to share with them the passions and excitements of the institution's own mission experts (faculty members, music directors, curators, etc.).

In other words, we sound like Butler protesting that "there's nothing inappropriate about soliciting...strategy advice" from the people in the fray, "if it's done professionally and with respect for the chain of command."

It doesn't always work. To some, market research and even assessment and evaluation will always be about pandering to the lowest common denominator. But most of the time, we're able to show them that broad-minded research and thoughtful, creative responsiveness on their part can help them connect their mission to their audiences more successfully.

Often the breakthrough comes when they see a focus group discussion for themselves or mull over our report of survey findings and implications. Which brings us to the other Times op-ed, this one published just before the holidays by Mark Moyar, a national security scholar at the Marine Corps University. In it, he discusses the results of a survey he conducted among Army and Marine officers about miltary leadership. It's not exactly what Butler was calling for, but it comes close, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't influence policy in some helpful ways.

Moyar's analysis provides a beautiful example of one of the most important roles such research can play: revealing differences in mindset and even basic personality between those who run the organization (and commission the surveys) and those who experience it day to day. He notes that the proportion of intuitive thinkers and risk-takers in the upper echelons is different from the proportion in the lower levels, resulting in a misalignment that decreases satisfaction and leads to departures. It also has serious implications for how nimble and adaptive the institution can be.

To my ears, that sounds like a fair diagnosis of, say, an art museum whose curatorial ranks are full of people who, by early self-selection and long education, tend to share certain priorities and personality traits, at least when wearing their professional hats. Do the museum's visitors share those priorities and traits? What are theirs? And how would the museum know? Unless, of course, it asked.

Well, a long post — but please jump in. Does your institution draw a line around mission-related questions? Do you think of your audiences as sources of strategy advice?


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