Tomorrow is my last day as a civilian employee of the U.S. Department of the Army. I’ve spent the last three years researching the effects of insurgent IED capabilities, patterns of consensus among detainee interrogation reports, return-on-investment for development projects, and other conflict-related subjects. I’ve worked on conflict issues ever since I was an undergraduate, and I’m sure I’ll still keep my fingers in a few of those pots. (I’m in the middle of a study of counter-narcotics operations in Mexico and getting ready to start a study of the relationships between disease and conflict in Africa – I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot about those projects on this blog). But on Tuesday I become the new Research Director in the marketing department at WorldStrides. I’m not sure, but I think my decision to move from the defense industry to the educational and travel industry raised even more eyebrows than my more general decision to move from the public to the private sector. I don’t think that change is as big as it might seem. I’ve tried to explain this in casual conversations with people over the last few weeks, but I think it’s a good idea to try to spell it out for myself here.
I study behavior. Specifically, I study the way people form shared patterns of behavior in response to their physical and social environments. At a more theoretical level, I want to know what kinds of ways an environment can vary. At the day-to-day research level, I want to know how variations in an environment can cause or coincide with variations in behavior. At the practical level, I want to know how variations in the environment can be changed or planned around to maximize the behaviors that people decide they want and minimize the behaviors they decide they don’t want.
In that sense, my move to a new industry doesn’t represent a change in research focus at all. I’m still dealing with behavior. I’m still dealing with environments. The stuff I study in the education industry will (I hope) involve fewer guns than the stuff I studied in the defense industry, but to me that’s just context. It’s still just behavioral adaptations to environment.
That begs the question of why I made the move. If it’s all the same stuff, why study it in the private sector instead of the public sector? No one has said it to my face, but as I’ve talked with people in the Defense Department I’ve gotten this vibe…sort of an unspoken question: “you’re leaving the study of national security so you can do marketing research?” Yeah, I am. Some of that has to do with frustrations I had working for the government. If you have access to the A-Space network, look up “iWAR” (the blog I helped maintain on that network) and you can see what I wrote about some of the things that bothered me. But a lot of my decision to move has less to do with specific things that made me unhappy about working for Defense, and more to do with a general need that working for the government couldn’t really fill.
Most people (I think) do research with the idea that it should inform people’s decisions. Research basically tells people that there’s a door through which they can walk to get to where they want to go. Problem is, research is just a conglomeration of researchers’ assumptions and a sample of data (often selected under less-than-ideal conditions). When people do research in organizations or situations where no one actually tries to walk through that door, there’s no way to really evaluate the validity of the research. If the research says there’s a door there, you ought to be able to walk through it and not hit a wall instead. That wall of reality makes for better decisions and better research because it provides a practical way to separate the valid assertions from the invalid ones. I was really surprised to learn that the U.S. government (at least the corner in which I worked) does not have many walls of reality. Analyses were planned, conducted, and disseminated without the findings making their way into any practical implementation that could really provide measures of how well the outcomes of the research-based actions did in comparison to the way things were done before the research was implemented. There were loads of information, and piles of analyses, and very little implementation, and that made it really, really hard to evaluate findings.
I need an environment where I can not only do research, but where I can follow what happens when people act on that research. I think good research can be done in many different environments, but for me at least, it’s easier to do good research when I have that wall – the reality of implementing the findings in a way that will either work or not work. If it works, that lends some support to the validity of the research. It it doesn’t work, that could mean the implementation was bad, but it could just as easily mean that my research was flawed. Either way, that interaction with practical application is what keeps me honest about my assumptions, my methods, and pretty much everything else in my research.