Bridging the Quant-Qual Divide

Image: LEOL30
Image: LEOL30

It shouldn’t be so hard to draw on both qualitative and quantitative measures at the same time. But many managers find it difficult.

“Despite years of work at providing both knowledge and quantitative analysis to decision-makers, there is scant evidence that we have really improved decisions,” Babson College professor Thomas H. Davenport observed recently in The Wall Street Journal.

Davenport suspects that part of the reason is that most people fall into one of what English novelist C.P. Snow called “The Two Cultures”—the sciences or the humanities. “Knowledge management people are humanities/liberal arts types, and analytics people are math/science types,” Davenport wrote. “We need to get them together, however. Almost all key domains of business—including customer insights, understanding the broader business and economic climate and various approaches to performance improvement—involve both qualitative and quantitative content. The best decisions and the best organizations will make effective use of both.”

This was a divide Peter Drucker recognized, and he, too, stressed the importance of making use of both “qualitative” and “quantitative” data when making a decision. “I am a figures man, and a quantifier and one of those people to whom figures talk,” he wrote in Technology, Management, and Society. But, he warned, you cannot manage by numbers or reports. After all, “reports are abstractions, and . . . they can only tell us what we have determined to ask. They are high-level abstractions.”

In The Age of Discontinuity, Drucker brought up C.P. Snow’s concern about the divide between the “Two Cultures” and declared that any good manager—indeed, any knowledge worker—must aim to bridge the two.

We will have to demand of the scientifically trained man that he again become a humanist; otherwise he will lack the knowledge and perception needed to make his science effective, indeed to make it truly scientific,” Drucker warned. “We will have to demand of the humanist that he acquire an understanding of science, or else his humanities will be irrelevant and ineffectual.”

As for the practice of management in and of itself, Drucker wrote in The New Realities that the job of the manager “fits neither Snow’s ‘humanist’ nor his ‘scientist.’” Because it deals with “action and application,” it is a “technology,” Drucker pointed out, but because it deals with “people, their values, their growth,” it is also a humanity. For that reason, management is “what tradition used to call a liberal art” (a topic we’ve explored before).

It is a concept that many are still struggling to master.

What successes and failures do you see among business leaders in integrating qualitative and quantitative data into their decisions?