From Where I Sit: Workplace Research

TFM Columnist Tim Springer recalls the words of Jack Nicholson
TFM Columnist Tim Springer recalls the words of Jack Nicholson

From Where I Sit: Workplace Research

From Where I Sit: Workplace Research

By Tim Springer
Published in the April 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of facilities management. I’m evaluating a university’s degree program, writing about the topic regularly, and have just spoken about the subject in a keynote session of the recently concluded TFM Show. My pondering inevitably leads me to contemplate the state of workplace research.

For any profession to become a full fledged, recognized discipline, it requires a robust body of knowledge built on scientific research. Most workplace professionals really do want the truth that comes with good scientific research. But in periodic discussions with colleagues engaged in the loosely defined field of “workplace research” a consensus emerges: much of what is called “research” really isn’t; to make matters worse, some excellent quality research is largely unknown or unapplied. How can this be? The reasons are numerous.

These activities may be sincere inquiries and efforts, but they are not research by any definition. Let’s be clear. Truly scientific research follows specific and well defined rules to build knowledge. Knowledge and the ability to transfer what is known rely on the ability to trust the foundation on which it is based. The best way to establish trustworthy knowledge is to apply standard, tested, valid, and reliable methods—i.e. research.

Where is the best place to find quality workplace research? Professionals’ answers are often disappointing. For instance, during a meeting with an organization famous for innovation and known for its Nobel Laureate scientists, I asked, “Who does your workplace research?” The head of facilities and real estate promptly replied, “Our vendor.”

This is in no way a criticism of the product and service providers who have supported facilities management by creating excellent sources of information for professionals. But relying on organizations that manufacture and sell products for use in workplaces as the sole source of information is not recommended under any circumstances.

Here’s the point, “tens of millions of dollars” is not spent on workplace research. Much of what is included in those “millions” is product development and marketing activity. These are legitimate avenues, but they are certainly not forms of objective, scientific inquiry.

When done right, workplace research requires expertise, a reasonable sample of users, and expenditures—time, resources, or money—all of which are in short supply. So often it happens that companies just want the solution; they won’t bear the “cost” to figure out if a solution actually works.

By now readers may be wondering what’s the big deal? Why all the teeth gnashing and hair pulling?

My statistics professor once said, “Data don’t care where they come from, so it’s up to us to care…and be careful.” Without attention to accepted scientific principles and practices, “research” is subject to bias, misinterpretation, or demagoguery.

Many workplace professions from which facilities management draws—architecture and design, engineering, business management—are not scientific disciplines. Lacking bodies of knowledge grounded in scientific inquiry, these professionals are not trained in research methods. Consequently, it’s possible to forgive an occasional lack of awareness of appropriate research or, conversely, claims of “research based” work that actually isn’t. What can’t be forgiven is cultivated ignorance. The research exists and must be used.

If facilities management (not to mention other workplace professions) ever hopes to be more than a vaguely defined practice, it must support and use critically reviewed, valid, and reliable research. Barring this, facilities management will fail to become a true profession and discipline and may cease entirely. Elitist? Alarmist? I don’t think so, but then again, it could just be me.

Springer ispresident and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. andfrequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affectingorganizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit and for future musings from Springer, visit his Web site.

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