Saturday, August 08, 2009

Truth, Honesty, and Privacy

n Ads Follow Web Users, and Get Much More Personal, published in the New York Times, July 31, 2009, Stephanie Clifford reports that companies are linking your online behavior with the information that offline companies have tracked about you, to create a thoroughly personalized profile of you. Advertisers can use these profiles to provide micro-targeted messages to consumers, complete with appropriate offers.

Clifford explains how this excites advertisers and scares privacy activists. Regardless, this definitely provides a practical application of research.

Read the article at

Truth, Honesty, and Evidence

Evidence-based practice is an area of focus within the field of education in general, and in training and development in particular.

(Before going further, let me define evidence-based practice. It’s a decision-making process in which people base their choices on evidence from the research, adapted according to the characteristics of the situation.)

In the ABCDEs of Learning and Development’s Next Paradigm, published in the August 2009 issue of ASTD’s T&D Magazine, Benjamin Ruark serves as an enthusiastic proponent of evidence-based practice. In the article, he describes six reasons why it’s Learning and Development’s next paradigm.

Among the many reasons he proposes: it provides “a more accurate predictive focus,” it allows the discovery of “connections between . . . ‘research crumbs of effectiveness’;”it presents a broader, big-picture view; and it emphasizes the

Just one thing: evidence-based practice is NOT a completely new paradigm. It’s just the latest incarnation of a concept that’s been around for a while—that research needs to be transferred into practice. In fact, ASTD—the publisher of the article—published a whole series of “What Works” books under a contract from the US government to transfer research on training and adult learning into practice.

About 5 years ago, ASTD launched its Research-to-Practice Conferences, complete with published proceedings, that had the same general goal.

What’s different about evidence-based practice is that it doesn’t make recommendations based on a single study, as might have been inferred from previous efforts to transfer research to practice. As Ruark notes, “Research in the form of individual case studies being generalized into global performance improvement solutions is tantamount to deadheading into a curriculum’s instructional design based solely on some e-learning tool’s capabilities.” (And a body of evidence in management in general, and growing in training and development, suggests that managers primarily make decisions on instinct.)

Ruark acknowledges the limitations of the current system for transferring research to practice. As a solution, he suggests that a central authority is needed to vet and transfer research, that “new effectiveness findings from researchers get disseminated to the work world” and that “practitioners conduct what’s known as practice-based research, submitting preliminary actuarial data to a central research agency, university, or similar affiliate, for rigorous experimental replications. “

Like most other recommendations for transferring research to practice, these are not practical. Establishing a central authority sounds easier on paper than it will prove in reality. Who will organize the authority? How will all of the different disciplines that feed research into our work be accommodated—not only the obvious ones, like adult education, educational technology, and human resource development, but also fields like educational psychology, learning sciences, industrial psychology, and human resources management? Many work with different world views and research standards; agreement becomes a challenge.

As far as disseminating research to practicing professionals goes, the importance of doing so has never been questioned. What no one has figured out is how? Some studies suggest that practicing professionals aren’t reading research publications; editors of professional publications often have a journalism background and might not have awareness of current research in the field, much less historial research. There’s an interesting situation mentioned in a 2002 study by Rynes, Colbert, and Brown, in which the research indicates that graphology (handwriting analysis) is not a good predictor of future work performance, but a practitioner magazine published by a professional organization promoted graphology as the next big thing in selection.

If we are to disseminate research, it needs to start with the editors of publications becoming familiar, to make sure that the research evidence supports the suggestions for practice that they publish.

As far as practicing professionals engaging in research and submitting their data—one of the challenges of that is that the data that would be submitted would have to be open to verification. Given how protective many organizations are of their data and how sloppy others are with it, this bank of data is likely to have limited applicability.

This is not meant to throw cold water on the suggestions. Rather, it addresses the frustration with many such suggestions, most of which come from the researcher’s perspective.

Suggestions need to be more realistic, taking into account the reality that most practicing professionals lack the resources to conduct the type of research that would be necessary to provide validated data and have little time to familiarize themselves with the research.

Other models exist, but they do not exist within the mainstream of training and development. One practical model for disseminating research to practicing professionals is the website, website. This website provides guidelines for designing effective websites. It not only summarizes the research for each guideline presented and provides references, but also identifies the strength of each recommendation (that is, how much research and what type of research underlies the recommendation).

Read Ruark’s article at (you might need to provide a userid and password to see the article).

Friday, August 07, 2009

Truth, Honesty and Confidentiality

As doctor-patient and lawyer-client confidentiality is so essential that it’s protected by law, so is the role of confidentiality between researcher and participant. In fact, before researchers can start work on studies, they must explain how they plan to protect the their participants—and that plan must receive the approval of a research ethics committee.

Although researchers do not have to provide confidentiality, when they say they plan to do so in their research plans, then they are bound to do so.

Further binding participants is the informed consent agreement they must sign before starting a study. In it, the researcher must explain whether participants’ identities will be protected and, if so, how it will be protected. If participants are promised confidentiality, then that’s stated in the agreement and that becomes a legally binding promise between the researcher and the participant.

Of course, when the participants are well-known people, people are naturally tempted to know the results.

But legally, if researchers have promised confidentiality to the participants, they have a legal obligation to abide by it.

Whether all of these protocols were followed when baseball players participated in drug testing in 2003, I don’t know. What I do know is that they were promised confidentiality and it was violated.

In his opinion piece from the August 4, 2009 edition of the New York Times, Doug Glanville eloquently explains the sense of violation felt by the players whose drug test results have been leaked to the public.

Having had my confidential comments leaked, I can empathize with their feelings.

Read Glanville’s piece at at

Thursday, August 06, 2009

More Truth and Honesty in Research—the Concern this Time, Perception and Dissemination

When sex crimes, blood, guts, and questionable fires highlight most local and national newscasts on television, online, and in the paper, the most shocking news is in the statistics--crime is going down in the US.

That’s actually been happening for well over a decade.

But everyone assumed the great recession would drive crime rates up but, according to current FBI statistics, crime is actually continuing to drop in nearly every major city.

Shaila Dawan explores this unexpected phenomenon in “The Real Murder Mystery? It’s the Low Crime Rate, in an August 2 article the New York Times, as well as the challenges of explaining this situation this situation poses to the experts.

As a resident of a large city and visitor to many others, this information is certainly reassuring.

As a news junkie, I’m surprised I’m just reading about this, and find it odd that this information seems to be invisible on other news sources. Perhaps I missed it, but—as a happy couple makes for a lousy soap opera, so safer streets make for lousy news ratings.

As the child of an elderly parent who’s perhaps unnecessarily concerned about crime, I wish these reassuring numbers were more widely reported.

And as a researcher, this situation proves, once again, the importance of letting the data speak. It often says things we do not expect.

Read Shaila’s article at

Truth, Honesty and the Reporting of Research

I don’t know “Medical Papers by Ghostwriters Pushed Therapy” shocked me, Nathasha Singer’s August 5, 2009 article in the New York Times about professional medical writers preparing scientific articles for peer-reviewed (scientific) journals that would be by-lined by working scientists. Some scientists are notoriously lousy writers and need the assistance of a ghost writer; others are so busy with research that they don’t have time to write articles themselves. Because scientists’ work performance is measured by the number of publications they have, they have to publish and hiring writers to help them creates a lot of opportunity for scientific and technical writers, one of my two professions.

Singer explains however, that court evidence indicates that the pharma companies paid for the articles, the scientists credited for writing these articles have little involvement in writing them, and the articles seem to overlook or, worse, omit unflattering results from experiments. Most of the articles in question in the article were articles reviewing other studies on Hormone Replacement Therapy, and called it the “gold standard,” while some studies had indicated serious problems.

Because scientists assume scientific journals to give balanced and unbiased results, and because the peer review process is supposed to flush out missing information, when a published article calls something the gold standard, that’s a standard against which a practicing physician can make a decision.

Apparently not. The article calls into question the actions of the pharmaceutical companies, and this should be questioned.

It also notes that some journals are now asking authors to attest to their role in writing articles with their by-lines.

But I have to wonder why the missing negative evidence was not noted in the blind review?

Worse, because of the lawsuits, the problem of providing partial results is getting raised in medical research. But what about social science research, like educational research, where some researchers are so committed to the programs they’re researching (and usually designed), that they fudge the results to make some programs seem more effective than they really are.

Read the article at

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Twitter: Now It's for Mom and Pop

On the one hand, I’m haven’t been a Twitterer. I don’t think I’m becoming a Luddite. But I had not been convinced that Twitter was anything other than a way for attention-starved people to annoy people with the irrelevant details of their painfully bland lives.

I don’t need Twitter for that; I already have people in my life who fulfill that purpose.

But I read an article in the New York Times about small business owners finding new customers or, at the least, mentors through Twitter. So who knows, maybe my next mentor might be found there.

Inspired, I sent a couple of long Twitter-like rants through Facebook, expressing my concerns about the increasingly endangered health care bill in Congress. I don’t expect those rants to change the course of the legislation. But they have, at the least, given me a visible means of expressing my views on the topic. Another benefit of micro-blogging.

Read the entire article at

Monday, August 03, 2009

What's with all the Thumb Work?

Among the many sights seen during my recent vacation in Los Angeles and New York City, were countless texters. They texted in the airport and the food court in the mall. They texted in Macy’s and Starbuck’s, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They texted while they walked and while they drove.

At the least, it’s annoying to find yourself slowing down in traffic because some twit is tweeting on his or her blackberry—and driving 20 to 50 percent below the posted speed limit.

Or to watch as some poor sales person is trying to serve a texter. Even though the texter has invested time in waiting for the service, he or she is usually so engaged in the Blackberry or iPhone conversation that he has no attention for the person who’s trying to help him.

At the most, it’s downright frightening to think of what could happen. OK—the girl who was foolish enough to tweet on laptop in the bathtub—and plug it in for extra power—was probably an exception. But what about the girl in Toronto who got run over while texting, or the train conductors in California and Boston who were too busy texting to attend to the safety of the passengers in their care. And let’s not forget the recent research suggesting the dangers caused by cell phones in cars.

I know; I sound like an old fogey. But I have a right.

And it’s not because I’m approaching that age.

It’s because I’m increasingly the person who’s behind the texter and cell phone user who’s not only annoying the crap out of me, but also risking his or her own life and the life of those around him or her.

And what for? Multitasking and getting more things done? The research on multitasking is starting to come in and it’s not validating the practice.

To be honest, I don’t know what’s so urgent that we have to communicate with all of these people all of the time. All I can think of is a Seinfeld card I bought years ago, saying something to the effect, “The reason for the cell phone, fax, e-mail, and pager is that we have nothing to talk about, but we have to do so right away.”

To see:
• A recent New York Times editorial about the dangers of driving while using cell phones, visit
• A summary of research about multi-tasking, visit

Perhaps We're Not So Short

Although Talent Management magazine and other human resource magazines suggest that there’s a talent shortage looming, other evidence suggests otherwise.

An editorial in the July 24 issue of the New York Times suggests that a significant number of the new jobs are opening for non-skilled and partially-skilled workers, who receive lower end wages.

Similarly, Leah McLaren’s column in the July 23 Globe and Mail explains why so much opportunity is opening up at the bottom end. Middle-end jobs seem to be going away because the middle segment of business is going away.

Although sharp rises in gas prices and the prices of most foods have caused us to believe that all prices are rising, the cost of many products and services—especially electronics, clothes, and appliances—have remained the same or gone down in the past decade. I’ve also noticed that the hourly wages for independent technical writers and instructional designers haven’t budged much in that time, and the day rates for freelance instructors has dropped precipitously.

Furthermore, the New York Times article that describes the lack of success of many job re-training programs, suggests that economists often do not predict well what jobs will be needed in the future.

In other words, as the middle drops out of the market for goods, so the middle drops out of the market for jobs. And if that’s the case, then what’s all this fuss about needing skilled labor? And what does that mean for the future of our job market?


(o) The New York Times editorial at

(o) Leah McLaren’s column at

Sunday, August 02, 2009

For all you Twitterers

Wondering how to stretch your 140 characters in Twitter? Check out Ben Schott's column in the August 3 edition of the New York Times at

More about De-Skilled Jobs

Despite all of the talk about the knowledge economy and the jobs of the future, one of the oft-overlooked facts about that economy is that a large number of the jobs that it will open are unskilled and de-skilled jobs, as I noted in a recent blog post.

Unskilled jobs are ones like counter staff at a fast food place, which require little, if any, incoming skill.

De-skilled jobs are ones that, in a previous time, might have required specialized training but, thanks to job redesign and technology, can be performed by someone with little or no training. Meat packers are one example. So are typesetters.

For those in unskilled jobs, opportunity exists in moving into related skilled jobs, such as moving from a nurse’s aide to a licensed practical nurse; or from a baker at a Tim Horton’s to an assistant manager. Where the Jobs Are, an editorial published July 24, 2009 in the New York Times explores the challenges of unskilled workers.

For those in de-skilled jobs, one of the issues is that technology often de-skills once skilled jobs, and then de-skills them some more. Consider typesetters, whose job was deskilled with the rise of desktop publishing. Anyone could set type and, at first—when a shortage of desktop publishing experts existed—these jobs commanded a premium. Some could even wordsmith text, and called themselves technical writers. .

But the primary skill of so many of these desktop publishers was manipulating the software, a skill that, with each successive release of the software they knew, became less exclusive as the software manufacturers made the desktop publishing software so easy to use, specialists were hardly needed except for the most challenging of tasks.

This has the devastating effect of lowering wages for once skilled workers and reducing opportunity for many. The article, In this Recession, Older White Males See Jobs Fade, in USA Today, July 30, 2009, explores some of these challenges, as it covers the problems facing older, skilled, workers who have been laid off. (The only positive in these negative stories is equality is coming to unemployment.)

I’m not sure that too many specialists in HR and workforce dynamics are paying a lot of attention to it—at least, not many of us specializing in Human Resource Development and Technical Communication.

To see:
• The New York Times editorial, visit
• The USA Today feature, visit

The Nice Politics of Minnesota

One of the nice things about vacation is catching up on the reading in my pile. One of those items was a New York Times Week in Review piece about the election of Al Franken as senator from Minnesota.

I thought the piece would be about Franken. Instead, its author David Carr presents an ode to the uniquely participatory and relatively clean politics of Minnesota. He describes some of the colorful characters whom Minnesotans have elected and how these people have not only risen to the occasion but often served as innovators.

Carr also describes some of the uniquely Minnesotan approaches to precinct politics, regional needs and voter registration that give Minnesotan politics its unique characteristics.

The article made me proud to have started my adult life in Minnesota, and I see how the values I learned then remain a part of me today.

Read the entire article at