Lake Wobegone is the fictitious central Minnesota town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” It was the setting of a long-running radio variety show, several novels, and a feature film. The radio show A Prairie Home Companion was set in Lake Wobegon, “near Sterns County, up around Holdingford, not far from St. Rosa, Albany, and Freeport, and northwest of St. Cloud.” It was a live broadcast that featured relaxed humor, acoustic music, tongue-in-cheek drama, and fictitious sponsors like The American Duct Tape Council, Earl’s Academy of Accents, and The Fearmonger Shop. You may have seen Robert Altman’s movie.
In 1711, Alexander Pope published An Essay on Criticism.
Not many have read the book, but most of us are familiar with three of his quotations that still survive 300 years later.
“A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
In the late 1980s, I was an active, full-time consumer and market research practitioner who also taught a research class in the Business School at the University of Miami. My assignment was to teach students How to Do Market Research. I showed them some of the basics of research, mostly about surveys and simple statistics. I taught them the principles of question phrasing and sequencing, ranking vs rating, statistics, analysis, and so on. Armed with their newfound knowledge, they formed teams that built their own studies, collected and analyzed the data, and presented their findings on the last day of class.
In spite of a semester of training, they made every possible amateur mistake. Their heads full of half-digested information, they had ignored every caution and built too-simple surveys that violated every principle of research design. Their projects were clumsy and amateurish. I gave all of them passing grades anyway, because I felt I had failed to teach the subject adequately. The next semester I took another approach. But when the results were the same, I learned an important lesson. I realized it was foolish of me to imagine students could learn such complex subject matter in a single semester.
(Please note my opinion is not shared by thousands of universities everywhere that claim they can teach you enough to do your own research in a single semester. Companies that promise to teach you how to do research in only a day or two disagree with me, too.)
Those who believe the nonsense of instant expertise must also believe you can learn dentistry or accounting or plumbing without bothering with all those annoying years of studying. If it takes Psychologists, Sociologists, Economists, and Statisticians years to learn how to do research, how much can business students possibly learn in a single semester or a day-long workshop? When I realized I wasn’t doing justice to either the students or to the field of behavioral science research, I quit trying to teach it.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Over the next twenty years, I worked on hundreds of studies for all kinds of companies with all kinds of people far and wide. Each year, I saw firsthand that more and more executives were approving research that asked the wrong questions of the wrong people for the wrong reasons. They didn’t make these mistakes because they were dim-witted, but because no one ever showed them how to safeguard and guarantee research efficiency, effectiveness, and accuracy. I saw firsthand a multi-billion dollar wasteland of squandered resources, missed opportunities, and unrealized potential.
It got me to thinking back to the classes I had taught and realized it would have been better for everyone if I had taught people something far more valuable and far less complicated. I should have taught them how to manage the research that crosses their desks. The breakthrough came when I realized that what businesspeople need to know is not how to do research, but how to plan for, assess, and use research. Executives cannot learn how to do research in a semester or a day – but more importantly, they don’t need to waste their time trying.
“To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
When I was once again asked to teach a course in How To Do Market Research, I declined, saying I would only be doing students a disservice. Instead I offered to teach a seminar called How to Guarantee Your Company Gets Above Average Research. I added the Above Average because what’s the point in teaching people how to just get by? I chose the seminar format because it differs from a typical college class in several important ways:
- The students are the presenters.
- The teacher is a guide, not a lecturer.
- The methodology mirrors how research is conducted.
- Seminars are not restricted to educational institutions and are being adopted by more and more businesses as practical ways to upgrade employee skills.
Having learned that most Executive Decision-Makers want magic solutions that give them the instant ability to do complicated things expertly and without effort, I built this advanced seminar course for a smaller, more discerning group. This kind of training is exclusively for those who can answer yes to these two questions:
- I understand good things don’t come easily.
- I believe lasting value is a result of my own hard work.
Participants who pass this entrance exam learn Three Big Things (and a lot of little ones, too):
- They begin by learning how to scope research studies and allocate resources.
- Next, participants learn how to select, manage and evaluate vendors.
- And finally, participants learn how to lead a fact-based business culture.
Concurrent with my first crack at teaching businesspeople How to Guarantee Your Company Gets Above Average Research, I was working on a 22-nation global research project, so my beta-participants got to work alongside me in the trenches on a real study. With their front-row center seats, they got to see how real decisions got made in real time with real outcomes on the line.
MBAs don’t need to learn how to become researchers any more than they need to learn how to become accountants or lawyers or engineers.
They need to learn only how to tell good research from bad. So what, you say – I’m not involved in my company’s research decisions. To be sure, not everyone is, but most people’s jobs require them to use information provided by their companies, you included. Those who learn how to tell the differences between good information and bad become forces to be reckoned with.
I don’t recall where I first learned a little learning is a dangerous thing and to err is human, but I can tell you I learned about fools rushing in from Ozzie and Harriet. You may have learned it from the movies or from songs by Elvis, Dean Martin, or Bow Wow Wow. You can hear it the way I did by clicking here.
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