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Partial data and organization development: Dangerous liaisons

July 7, 2011

Incomplete data dilemma...

The debate regarding what to do with incomplete data in the scholarly research realm has been around for quite a while. Many researches have addressed the issue by proposing analysis methods such as Monte Carlo and other statistical analysis vehicles (Roth, Switzer, III, & Switzer, 1999; Chen & Astebro, 2003; Rogelberg & Stanton, 2007). There are far more researches than can be represented in this entry as the concept of incomplete data, regardless of why it is missing, can make or break the credibility and robustness of the analyses performed – or not performed – and therefore reflect positively or negatively upon the findings of the research.

Applied organization development and human resource management research in the form of audits and other types of inventories suffer and triumph from the same dynamics. Incomplete data cannot be relied upon to yield sound recommendations rooted in best practices unless there are extreme circumstances whereby the information is not possible to obtain or it doesn’t exist. Even then, such a move is hazardous and the cost-benefit analysis has to be clear. Strategically speaking, having only part of the picture to base recommendations upon is a very dangerous position to be in and when one finds themselves in such a situation, restraint and caution become primary motivations.

I recently found myself faced with such a dilemma in a consulting situation and my reluctance to make broad organizational change recommendations regarding everything from processes to people and tools prompted me to consider a few things:

  1. Overthinking. Yes, yes I know. As an academic I have been trained to do just that. However, presuming one has not passed the point of diminishing returns, “overthinking” really becomes a focused attempt to dig down to the details in an effort to rule in or rule out possible explanations for whatever is being assessed. Overthinking (in the negative sense) only becomes problematic when there is no value to be gleaned from further analysis.
  2. Rush to judgment. Sometimes clients and organizational leaders want the “quick fix” and push for recommendations prematurely. Such a reaction seems to come from the desire to minimize costs. However, the costs are generally much higher for bad decisions that are made hastily and without the benefit of all of the information than they are for taking the time required to produce sound findings based upon good data.
  3. Liability and reputation. As a consultant, when I consider the cost of making recommendations based upon partial or incomplete data I become nervous. My reputation as a consultant depends upon the credibility of my findings and recommendations. Hence, I could conceivably and irreparably damage my reputation, and the reputation of my client, by not doggedly pursuing “the rest of the story”. Additionally, my ill-informed recommendations could have liability implications (depending upon the situation) for both myself and the client. Accordingly, my practice has been to push back hard when presented with these all-too-common problems. The cost is too great for all concerned.
  4. Integrity. Sometimes organizations and their leadership really want to do the right thing and are in a hurry to fix things. That’s understandable. Operating for any length of time in crisis mode can be pretty stressful. Consultants faced with 11th hour situations in which clients desperately need their help can’t waiver if more information is required. This isn’t about finding ways to increase billable hours for the project but rather it is about handling the situation with integrity that is reflective of the quality of work the consultant endeavors to produce. Critical conversations with clients in this scenario are necessary and difficult. The consultant always runs the risk of being shown the door. Given the alternatives, the door is far better than acting negligently.

The purpose of this post is not to sound preachy – though I suppose it might. The purpose is to confirm that these things do happen and the manner in which consultants respond is critical to their long term survival. If a consultant is honest and forthcoming with clients about the breadth and scope of what is really necessary, clients fully informed and are certainly free to take the advice or not. That’s the beauty of their choice. Consultants, on the other hand, can’t always easily bounce back from a mistake made in the form of hasty organization development recommendations; especially if the consultants operate as independents, small firms or boutique consultancies.

John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873) pronounced “Actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number” and that’s true. Sometimes, however, consultants have to tenaciously hold to what they know is right even when clients think they want and need a “quick fix” in lieu of a sustainable, long-term solution. At the end of the day the consultant can at least look themselves in the mirror, even though they may have taken a hit financially. The benefits of avoiding such dangerous liaisons will ultimately pay dividends at some point; one just has to believe their actions are right.


Chen, G., Astebro, T. (2003). How to deal with missing categorical data: Test of a simple Bayesian method. Organizational Research Methods, 6(3), 309-327.

Rogeberg, S., & Stanton, J. (2007). Understanding and dealing with organizational survey nonresponse. Organizational Research Methods, 10(2), 195-209.

Roth, P., Switzer, III, F., & Switzer, D. (1999). Missing data in multiple item scales: A Monte Carlo analysis of missing data techniques. Organizational Research Methods, 2(3), 211-232.

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