October 1, 2021
KT Venti, BA (they, them)
When working with qualitative data, clients often ask us to share the number of people who indicated a particular sentiment. We get it; the desire to quantify qualitative findings is natural and intuitively appealing; we want to understand the magnitude of the challenge at hand. This desire, however, misses the true intention of qualitative data; to go beyond what the numbers can tell us. Qualitative data provides us with context and richness that numbers alone cannot offer and it helps us gain insights that founders and leaders desperately need. By adding a number to qualitative themes, we are transforming the data and can end up reducing the real, lived experiences of people to binaries and frequencies.
By adding a number to qualitative themes, we are transforming the data, and can end up reducing the real, lived experiences of people to binaries and frequencies.
Qualitative data is often dismissed or undermined. The notion that “what gets measured gets managed” has done a great disservice to organizations, especially when applied to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. In fact, the old adage is actually deeply misunderstood. “Not everything that matters can be measured. Not everything that we can measure matters.”
Not everything that matters can be measured. Not everything that we can measure matters.
Even one person’s experience of bias, discrimination, or harassment is important. We know that for every incident reported, there are likely many, many more that were not. In this way, it’s important to not attribute the severity of a problem to the number of people who experience it and instead focus on the systemic issues that contribute to an environment where people are having these less than awesome experiences. When we’re referring to the real, lived experiences of people—particularly of those experiencing marginalization—the subjective day-to-day experience matters, and it’s our job to ensure that we do not minimize people’s pain, even if it’s not always something easily measured.
As a team of people who have been in analytics for a long time across many different sectors, a common statement we get from people is, “I need insights!”. What they’re REALLY asking for is the “why” behind quantifiable numbers. We need to understand that qualitative data can provide a deeper understanding of employees’ behaviours, attitudes, and opinions, which is vital information for those in Human Resources and/or People and Culture. Particularly in respect to lived experiences, quantitative data is often not enough to explore the context and nuances behind the data. Qualitative data helps to lend insight as to the potential reasons that drive quantitative scores.
Well-designed open-ended survey questions, interviews, and focus groups produce qualitative data that’s often unparalleled to many forms of quantitative research. Qualitative findings bring so much value to any assessment. Typical items on a survey are limited to the responses that we provide to them. Open-ended questions gather qualitative data and people can share whatever what’s right with them. In this way, they can indicate significant gaps within an organization or even within the design of our survey that we may not have otherwise considered. When people can communicate about anything they want to, they can add vital context that we lack when we choose to only look at the numbers.