Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Social science and beyond

A story in the news of late is that Yahoo has a new policy against working from home.  People have opinions based on personal experience.  They say working from home works, and it's foolish of Yahoo to abolish it.  Or they say there is something valuable about interacting with people in-person, and working from home just isn't as good.

But to say it does or does not work is overly simplistic.  It depends on the type of work that needs to be done.  It depends on quality of supervision.  It depends  on the disposition of the employee -- some people work best alone while others work best with others.

It's the kind of thing social scientists may measure.  They may look at one group that works from home, and another group that works in an office, and compare the productivity of the two groups.  And they may get into the complexities -- when does it work, and when doesn't it work.

When I was in college, I thought social science held the answers.  Now I think there's more to life than social science.  Social science can give me information, but it doesn't have all the answers.  If I were a manager of employees working at home, I could look at social science to see what type of supervision tends to be most successful for employees working at home.  But it would only tell me what tends to be successful.  If you know social science, you know it doesn't tell you one thing works in every case.  It may say that supervisory technique A works well for 45% of employees, while supervisory technique B works well for 80% of employees.  Based on what social science tells you, you use technique B.  But that still leaves 20% of employees for whom it does not work.  Maybe for some of them, technique A will work.  For others, technique C will work.  In deciding which technique to use, you use your personal knowledge of the individuals involved.  And when one thing does not work, you try something else.

That's the thing to do.  To use research results to inform, to use research results as a tool, but to do our best to integrate all sources of knowledge and wisdom we can find.

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