Don’t Tell Me!!!

Wise men don’t need advice. Fools won’t take it.
Benjamin Franklin

The older I get, the more I see this message true. It is easy to assume we are all experts. For a researcher, this is not a good attitude. We all know the one way to do any research activity (process, data, approach, etc.), but in doing so, we often forget the joy that comes from learning something new. It is in that learning, based on recommendations, comments, critiques, etc., that we grow as researchers. But it is in the teaching to others where we learn more.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Why Does Adopting New Information Take So Long?

do we know the question?

As a researcher, I have often heard people lament, “We studied this in the past and nothing was done”, or “Why are we not using this approach”, or some variation concerning the fact that data and information are not being used after the being developed, purchased, or studied.  The question is that we think, using our crystal ball, we have built a masterpiece, and wonder why people don’t adopt our insights.  We often forget that this “knowledge” could be slow to be adopted by others for many reasons.

Failure of adoption:

  • The first is simply the WHY?  Sometimes when doing research we understand more about the question that the person who needs the answer.  So while we prepare our work, we forget our client will only use what they can understand with some level of confidence.  How often have we seen a more senior person misspeak based on information not properly summarized for them?
  • Secondly, there remains the ever consuming “tyranny of the urgent”, in that the research is needed in a timely manner, but the research is not needed beyond the “now”.  The reasons can vary from staff turnover, policy change, new leadership, the findings were not what was expected, to a thousand different reasons.  Furthermore, data is perishable, something that is often forgotten by the researcher, but not the client.
  • Thirdly, the experts may not agree with your opinions.  My wife is a fan of Downton Abbey, and during season 3, Sybil Branson died after childbirth.  The tragedy was there were two doctors arguing over her treatment, and the older doctor stated to the other doctor he is to not interfere.  In many ways, we can find people with good intentions failing to achieve an expected outcome because they are using older models from the past.  They remain uncommitted to learn, and without the application of new information, their working knowledge could, and does, fail, in providing actionable insights, or even providing the wrong information.  Presenting this expert with new information may only lead them to become more entrenched to their position.
  • Finally, our research may not actually answer the question being asked!

I suspect the following challenges will remain with us for a long time, based on  NCHRP Active Implementation: Moving Research into Practice, posted at

For the research community, the ghost of people not adopting our great ideas haunts the adoption of our “great efforts”.  But we must understand what the client may do with the research once it has been delivered, which may depend upon how we communicate before, during and after the research process!

Tell Me What You Want

When I was younger I read the story of the three vinegar tasters in “The Tao of Pooh“.   What does vinegar taste like maybe a question for a cooking class, but as a researcher, its relevance is more important as “why do people need this information”.    Everyone who is asking a question does so for many reasons, but they can be grouped into some very large clusters:

  • information to impress (everyone wants HUGE numbers),
  • wisdom to inform a decision maker (help make a decision), or
  • to satisfy a program requirement (support a decision already made).

As a researcher, people come and ask you for a question to be answered.  The challenge is you may have to help them ask the correct question, which sometimes they may not understand why formulating their request remains a critical step for a successful study.  In the short story, “Ask A Foolish Question”, by Robert Sheckley, there is a machine capable of answering any question, named the “Answerer”. The problem is that people asking do not know as much as the computer (or in some cases, the researcher’s knowledge on the topic).  The Questioner must know something about the answer for the Answerer to provide the correct information.  In some ways, every researcher must learn how to pass on information, but they must also inform the people asking the question to help them both format their question and understand the answer.  (Richard Feynmn  would argue if you can’t explain it to a five-year old, do you really understand the topic?)  Sometimes people feel like Ralph where there is too much ambiguity to even phrase the question.

In helping people frame their research, often we simply have to listen, asking them what they want and how will they use the information.  Oftentimes this becomes a collaborative process between the answerer and the asker.

With the advent of the internet, many assume the information they seek is readily available, often ignoring the work and effort it takes to transform data into something useful,  This failure to understand could lead to the discounting of the work associated with exploring the question, assisting in organizing the research, and providing a satisfying answer. So, please a little patience goes a long way for everyone to agree on how vinegar should taste.