Itís All About the Data, Except When itís NotÖ
This month Big Ben travels across the Atlantic to one of the commonwealth countries.
After many years as a project manager and an independent parking consultant, I recently returned to an advisor role in municipal parking and mobility policy development, just for a few months to cover a local staff vacancy.
Now, I haven’t exactly been out of the day-to-day picture, but my role has had more to do with senior managers and executive directors - folks about my age with similar experiences and outlook. In my current assignment, I am working a bit further down the ladder, with recent graduates and junior staff members who are within their first 10 years of practice.
In last week’s discussion, we reviewed the layout of an existing city neighborhood that was going through a rapid evolution in its small business profile and developing some denser residential buildings within its commercial mass. The discussion was fairly freewheeling, and I mentioned that the land use characteristics suggested that 2-hour metering and a $1.50 fee throughout the complex would be required.
“How do you know that, Dave”, was the chatter, “neighborhood planning is not just all about the money. You don’t have the data on this, how can you possibly know the condition well enough to report on it?”
I was caught off guard, because I was used to a situation where my experience level was well known and my “mark one eyeball” judgement was rarely questioned. On reflection, though, I wonder about our modern methodologies and priorities, and I have to think we are missing something.
The service uses a complex process of closely managed training and formative experience to create a culture where very young adults can become prepared to take confident charge of major responsibilities, and to manage people and technology in extreme and often very dangerous situations.
The goal is to create an organizational culture of accountable and motivated leadership, tempered by experienced judgement and risk management, which support assertive action at all levels in the organization.
In civilian-side management training, whether it is for business or public administration, we rarely encounter that same level of care, preparation, commitment, and personal accountability. Instead, we substitute computer-based learning and simulation models for experience, and place inordinate emphasis on binary choices and simple comparisons.
When I was 25, I was a naval watch keeper on a destroyer at sea teaching aspiring trainees how to move the ship aggressively and accountably while maintaining positive control. In that environment, it is necessary to know exactly where the ship is at every moment, where the ship is going to be in 3 and 6 minutes given course and speed, where airborne, surface and sub surface traffic is located, and where natural and man-made hazards are, all while maneuvering the ship to avoid hazards and comply with the sailing plan approved by the captain.
There are lots of gadgets – radars, sonars, GPS, range finders, radio beacons, and computers – set up in key locations to help you make calculations quickly and add to your situational understanding.
The inflow of data is so powerful that inexperienced officers often become hypnotized by it, trying desperately to keep up with the simultaneous process and understand what it all means, so much so that they don’t look up from the screen long enough to see what is really happening in the world around them. On many occasions, it was necessary for me to stop the ship and make sure the trainees were completely informed, keeping “ahead of the ship” and had a full 360-degree awareness of the world around them.
I fully understand our modern world and the need to know more about everything with great precision. I also understand our love of tech and the attraction of flat screens and spread sheets, especially where important and accountable decisions are taking place.
In most cases, though, I find that data can measure, assist, illustrate, demonstrate and differentiate with great speed and clarity. But it is only half the story, a pale substitute for familiarity and knowledge, hands on experience and judgement, formed in the human cauldron of day-to-day planning and real life operations, where best practices are made and refined, and where knowledge can flourish.