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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Decision making psychology

My current reading is Beach and Connolly’s “The Psychology of Decision Making: People in Organizations” (Sage, 2005), which I’ve found incredibly stimulating and which is providing a suite of tools that I’m certain will prove invaluable for interpreting the material I’m gathering through my case studies. I’m going to resist the temptation to put up all my notes on the book, but I’ll pull out a couple of the things that I’ve found in there that I think will be useful to me, even though when they’re put as baldly as this they may seem banal: the book is replete with further insights, experimental evidence, and models for particular situations, and if you’re interested in finding a theoretical basis or empirical support for interpreting decision making, I’d recommend you to have a look at it. I may also run through an example or two from my case studies, suitably anonymised. OK, so, some of the ideas I’ll be trying to weave into my work:

Framing. The way the outcomes of a decision (the action to be taken to solve the problem) are framed is vital. With outcomes framed as gains, people will take more risks; framed as losses they’ll be conservative. When considering whether to invest resources in maintaining a digital resource, we could think in terms of the potential loss of value from that resource, or additional value to be gained, or the opportunity cost of using the resources to this end.

The gambling analogy. Whilst the gambling analogy played a key part in early theory, and indeed has a role in current theories for particular kinds of decisions, there are many kinds of decisions where the analogy fails utterly and many analogies that can work better. Lots of decisions in digital resource management could probably be assessed quite well using normative gambling theory, at least in terms of evaluating probable outcomes and weighing them up against gains or losses. But figuring out the last part of that equation – the value of the gains or losses – can’t be achieved with gambling theory alone.

Scenario theory. One of these alternatives revolves around the construction and testing of scenarios (or stories, if interpreting past events). By creating a web of cause-and-effect relationships (some of them interdependent), weighting them for the likelihood of their outcomes, and again for the value of those outcomes, decision-makers can evaluate which has the best chance of success, and which the best pay-off.
Figuring out an application’s dependencies (and their own inter-dependencies), the likelihood of any of these being disrupted, mitigating strategies and their costs, running the scenarios and figuring out the value of the probable outcomes: this is a complex process, but it’s perhaps one worth pursuing (together with a “significant properties” approach) in evaluating sustainability strategies for museum digital resources.

The nature of the unknown. Even where gambling can seem appropriate, in dealing with uncertainty, it’s not all about the likelihood of a given action succeeding as intended: there is the question of how the scenario will unfold, and even uncertainty as to the value of the outcome in the event of success, since this value may change for the “player” over time. This is pretty pertinent for museum digital sustainability problems, since these will often involve planning well in advance when there is a high degree of uncertainty about not just future conditions and problems, but the value of the resource (or aspects of it) in the future. For example, a learning resource may prove to be much less valuable if there are curriculum changes; the likelihood of this happening may be hard to assess, but the risk might make it injudicious to invest significant effort in making the resource “future-proof”, whatever that is.

Decision making in groups. As well as offering the chance to share knowledge and, one would hope, use this to make better decisions, group decision making throws up hazards, not least the possibility that, instead of sharing new knowledge, groups will focus their discussions on common knowledge and reject anything outside this, thus narrowing the evidential base for their deliberations. Procedural, structural and social barriers can also bias decisions towards one faction or another.

The role of social pressure, morals and ethics. Although “normative” theory has no space for these factors, they are clearly inherent in many decisions. Etzioni has distinguished between three classes of factor influencing decisions:
  • utilitarian influence – the economic assessment
  • social influence - social pressure to conform, risk of approbation etc.
  • deontological influence [deontology is effect of moral obligation and commitment upon behaviour]. May include internalised reflections of social factors e.g. guilt, but covers internal drivers of behaviour.
An institution acting as one of my case studies – let’s call it Framley Museum and hope they don’t sue – threw up an example wherein a number of middle managers were found to be unnecessary to the continued operation of the institution, although objectively one might view the obvious staff shortages in some affected areas as indicating that claims of “redundancy” were logically false. The deliberations that led to decision to dismiss staff may have included many factors, but one conceivable influence could have been the fact that a key member of the executive, with whom all the targets had been in conflict, was leaving the museum on the day that the redundancies were announced to Framley's staff. Exiting the social context (and the country) in which that director would have been held accountable may have liberated him, for better or worse, from any social influence upon his decision. Whether this also meant liberation from the responsibility to make sound and profitable decisions for the benefit of Framley Museum is an open question; and one has to ask how wise it can be for any organisation to take advice on such vital decisions from people on the point of departure, who then cannot then be held accountable for them in any way. It should also be said that it’s likely that incomplete information contributed to the staff-shedding decision, wherein the directorate was probably unable to obtain or comprehend the information necessary to assess the role of some managers, in part because they’d need to gather the information from the affected parties. Clearly the question of the influence of ethics is complex; likewise the role of information which I have barely touched on here, but which is a significant component Beach and Connolly's work.

These are poor caricatures of concepts from the book, and I haven’t even finished yet (two chapters to go) but I really wanted to write something about it. Perhaps in future I’ll work through some fuller, more detailed examples. If that’s of interest let me know with the usual sound of one hand clapping ;-)

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