Technology makes surveys too easy to execute, while organizational culture makes it too hard to do anything with the results.
Your opinion is very important to us. If you’d like to take a simple 483-question survey that will take no less than three hours, please press 1 after reading this article. You have a nonexistent chance of winning a prize with little to no value. If you’re lucky, the data you entered will end up in a pie chart on slide 121 of the PowerPoint the intern creates and no one reads, or it will be dumped into a database to which no one remembers the password, and never again considered. Thank you for your valuable time!
At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, one of the things I often find myself bemoaning is that technology makes some once-complex tasks too simple. The careful art of writing a letter has been replaced with throwaway prolixity in the form of tweets and iMessages, delivered instantly and, too often, thoughtlessly. Another area corrupted by the ease of technology is the survey.
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What once required careful gathering of customer names and addresses, an expensive mailing or telephone campaign, and weeks of manual data analysis has been replaced by tools that anyone with opposable thumbs and a spreadsheet of email addresses can use to fire a guided missile straight into thousands of inboxes at essentially zero cost. A quick visit to my junk mail folder found no fewer than a dozen surveys from one 24-hour period, all assuring me that my opinion matters and is very important. In one case, my opinion was so important that the survey creator apparently didn’t test his or her survey before hitting Send, as it was addressed to [CONTACT_FIRST_NAME].
The data plague
Even before technology, humans fancied themselves as analytical and data-driven creatures, and data are cited as a prerequisite for efforts of any significance. This, of course, makes sense: You don’t enter a dark cave without data about whether there’s a hungry beast inside, and decisions involving life and limb most certainly should have a high standard for gathering information before executing.
Our relatively newfound ability to gather near-unlimited data also has a dark side, in that it’s a great enabler of indecision. Before launching a new product, or changing an HR policy, or even responding to current events, all areas unlikely to result in being consumed by a lion or other risk to life and limb, leaders can happily demand more data before taking action, and use those data as justification if things go wrong. Overly cautious organizations will wait for weeks or even months for the data to absolutely confirm a decision before it’s made, which usually results in the rest of the world passing the organization by, just as some organizations will demand data for a decision that’s already been made merely because “that’s how we always do it, and it doesn’t cost anything.”
The broader cost, however, is that we’re increasingly disinterested in the constant demands for our valuable opinion. I’ve seen well-meaning organizations launch constant performance surveys that are so complex and frequent, everyone checks the same box, and it looks like every employee is a superstar. Many of us have seen this in full effect when buying a car or other large purchase, where the salesperson mentions that you’ll receive a survey, and if you don’t rate them as “excellent” their children will be fed to hungry wolves, creating a completely useless feedback loop and data point. As companies increase their requests for feedback, and recipients provide increasingly meaningless responses, the vicious cycle continues.
Why are you launching a survey?
To correct this bad behavior, consider three simple questions before launching your next survey, whether it’s a mass poll of your customers, or a simple check on whether staff like a new application:
- What am I actually going to do with the survey results?
- How will my behavior change based on what I learn?
- Is a survey actually the best way to get the data?
Too often, you may find you’re doing a survey just because, and you aren’t really going to change anything regardless of the outcome. In other cases, you may have a very specific and pointed question that will drive your strategy, and a survey seems like a tool that’s “good enough” even if it might not be the right one. If you have a specific question and clearly divergent paths based on the answer, consider detailed interviews of a handful of key people, observational/ethnographic research, or using existing data. Companies I work with are often amazed that a specific question can be answered by observing and interviewing a handful of individuals with far more precision than a poorly designed survey sent to tens of thousands.
Like too many tools, just because surveys are easy, cheap, and “the way we’ve always done it,” they’re not always fit for the job at hand.