The Leader Magazine

SEP 2017

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58 SEPTEMBER 2017 ThE lEadER Interviewer, to Franklin Becker: As a professor at Cornell, you did research your whole career. You now write and talk about "practice- based" research in contrast to "academic- based" research. I am surprised that an academic would promote what seems like a less rigorous and scientifi c approach to evidence and data. What do you mean by "practice-based" research, and what's its value? FB: Practice-based research uses the standard tools of academic social scientists, things like surveys, interviews, and observation, but it differs from the academic model in several ways. First, the goal is grounded insight, not publication in a peer-reviewed journal. That means collecting empirical data, not relying on random anecdotes or a few-hour benchmarking visit. It is a form of structured inquiry that is a middle ground between academic studies and anecdotes and casual observations. While for a peer-reviewed journal article you might have to conduct 50 interviews, survey several hundred employees to enable sophisticated statistical analysis, or do hundreds of hours of observations over weeks and months, in practice-based research you might conduct 15 to 20 interviews and a week's worth of observations. You would still be concerned about how the sample was selected. You don't want to talk to three people selected because they're a manager's friends. You want to observe behavior over different days and time of day, in different locations, not only on a Tuesday at lunch time. And, I think, most importantly, you don't want to rely on surveys. They're an effi cient way of collecting a lot of data and lend themselves to statistical analysis, but they are pretty much useless for understanding the dynamics of a complex system with a large number of interdependent factors: information technology, work processes, employee demographics, and organizational culture. For that, ethnographic and qualitative methods using observations and in-depth interviews are extremely useful. These more qualitative approaches can take lots of forms, including what I call "walk and talk," where the "researcher" walks around the workplace with an employee and the employee talks about which places she uses, when, for what purposes, with what other people, accessing what technology resources, and so on. These take time, but with a small but somewhat representative sample they can produce signifi cant insights that no survey would generate on its own. Using several methods in combination, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, enables you to tell the story of what is going on in a narrative that is likely to meaningfully engage decision-makers. Interviewer: But doesn't that lead to making decisions with data that may not be accurate or reliable? FB: Yes. But that is always the case. You need to remember that no data or evidence, no matter how rigorously collected, is ever fully explanatory or foolproof. And even if it were, the dilemma for practitioners faced with making decisions for specifi c projects within the framework of the project's schedule is that they cannot wait two to three years for the results of an academic study. Further, generalizing those results to your own project is highly risky... Practice-based research is another way of knowing, and it complements academic research, benchmarking visits, and informal conversations with employees. Its value is, fi rst, that it is a form of empirically grounded structured inquiry; second, it is organization- and project-specifi c; and third, it is done in a timeframe that ranges from a few days to a few weeks or a couple of months so that it can be closely aligned with a project schedule. Interviewer: Can you give me an example of this kind of practice-based research? FB: These examples are from the work, starting in 1989, I led for 20 years at Cornell as part of the International Workplace Studies Program. We worked directly with companies in a range of F E A T U R E A R T I C L E interviews with Franklin Becker, Michael Joroff and Larry Matarazzi Interviewer, to Franklin Becker: As a professor at Cornell, you You would still be concerned about how the This article further explores the discussion of two linked panel sessions, held at the 2016 CoreNet Global Summit in Philadelphia, that focused on the role of evidence and data in making corporate real estate (CRE) decisions. Moderated by Michael Joroff, the panel was formed by Franklin Becker, Gagan-Deep Singh, Larry Matarazzi, Suon Cheng, and Margaret Latshaw. As a follow-up, Becker, Joroff and Matarazzi were available for an interview with the LEADER to capture their thoughts on evidence, data and different ways of knowing. It is the question that drives learning

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