Explaining Research in a Big Network of People

Now that I have finished graduate school and have my PhD, I find myself in a totally different dichotomy of “research”. After having several conversations with non-academic, industry-based colleagues, I know that my experience is not unique. Now, I have lots of conversations to learn what I used to learn by combing through peer-reviewed literature with a search engine. Now, instead of googling something, I must write emails. Lots of emails. Maybe you’ve written an email like mine?

“Hi! I was given your name by person P who suggested that you would be a good contact for my project… Do you have expertise in metric N? … If not, can you recommend someone for me to contact next?”

-sent repeatedly, January – May 2015

As a researcher, this is a challenging work environment. How do I describe my research process where there are no trusted written resources? There are no peer-reviewed papers or even white papers in many companies. I can’t just read a well-written text to understand a process. Often times I have to talk to a whole string of experts before I feel like I understand the process. And it takes sooo long! I think when you start working in industry you have to redefine your definition of a “source”.

Grad School: Peer reviewed paper.

Big Company Source: The person we hope never leaves because they know all the things about metric N.

As I was explaining my frustrating research process to my boss, he recommended that I at least document all the people I’ve been talking to. This seemed like a good idea. But how do I describe which experts I spoke with and who I got my information from?  A extensive bibliography with lots of “interview” references seems cumbersome. Surely there is a better solution. I don’t know what he was expecting, but I produced a diagram which resonated with everyone I showed it to at every level of my company. I want to convince you that this is a fabulous way to communicate why a research process may have taken months.

The people map diagram is a visualization of all the contacts I made for a particular project at work (see below). I anonymized the data, but changed nothing else. The ovals represent people who just recommended me to other people (Hubs) and the squares are people who actually had data for me (Warehouses). Take a look.

Click for larger version!

Click for larger version!

My favorite experience in living the reality of this chart was the week when Person 18 recommended I talk to Person 15, 16 and 17. ALL of whom recommended me to Person 14, who was my direct partner on the project… “Yes, thank you! I have talked to Person 14, in fact I talk to them daily. You see, I’m trying to validate their data, so I need a different table than the one Person 14 recommended…”

Not_Amused

Sarcasm aside, I found that by creating a visual of all the conversations, my boss was much more understanding of the amount of time it took me to learn a new process. He easily grasped the breadth of research I had undertaken.  And the best part about this diagram is that everyone will see exactly what they want to see. In fact, I claim that diagram is a litmus test of what kind of person you are. Take our slightly satirical quiz and see if Social Math can guess your personality!

SocialMathematics Quiz

Let us predict what kind of person you are!

Q: What underlying feature do you notice in this diagram? Is there any particular take-away that you see?

A:

  1. I see frustration and hardship for the researcher dripping off the edges of this diagram. (go to C)
  2. I see hard work, dedication and resourcefulness of ME!’s work. (go to A)
  3. I see a social network which will identify the most useful employees in the company. (go to B)

A.  You are the perpetual optimist. You are eager to be convinced that nothing is wrong with your system. Instead, there is something wrong with all the other analysts who didn’t try hard enough!

B. You are the enthusiastic extrovert. What’s more, you are in the business of leading and reorganizing people. You are the clever person who couldn’t care less about the plight of your researchers, but rather see the larger picture about the social network of people.

C. You are the battle-worn data warrior. You are a detail-oriented researcher who dreams of organized self-serve data sets. You are used to being in data trenches of a big community.

I, myself, am a (C). But then, I was the person who had to talk to all the experts to learn the process…

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About Samantha from SocialMath

Applied Mathematician and writer of socialmathematics.net.
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