A Research Christmas Carol
Editor’s Note: Here is a special treat reposted from the BrainJuicer blog. It was simply too good not to share. Enjoy and Happy Holidays!
By Tom Ewing
It was a snowy December night, and Ebenezer Brand, Head of Insights at a grand confectionery firm, was walking home. He passed pubs heaving with merriment, old friends greeting each other in surprise, shoppers trudging along with heavy bags, lone travelers poking crossly at their phones as they passed. Brand observed none of it: his head was full of data.
As he picked a coffee for the walk home, a sudden thought struck him. He pulled out his own phone and called Bob Crunchit, his Chief Analyst. He frowned as Crunchit answered: in the background Ebenezer could hear children’s voices.
“Yes Mr Brand?” Crunchit said nervously.
“Have you… gone home, Crunchit?”
“Yes – it was the kids’ carol service and.. well…”
“Crunchit!” snapped Brand furiously, “It’s only 7! That pre-test data won’t analyze itself, you know! And we have several more modules to add to the Easter Eggs U&A – and where are our internal satisfaction survey results for the Insights Team?”
“But Mr Brand… only you and I work in the Insights Team – I didn’t see that a survey was needed…you could always have had a chat…”
Ebenezer Brand went an unpleasant shade of puce.
“A chat?” he spluttered, “And how, precisely, do you measure a chat against our norms database? Remember our team mission statement, Bob! You do remember, don’t you?”
“We make chocolate….” Crunchit began miserably.
“…but we eat data!” Ebenezer Brand finished triumphantly. “Words to live by! See that you do.” He pushed the phone back into his pocket in satisfaction, and found that he was almost at his front door.
Had he been harsh on Crunchit, he wondered? Then decided not. The man was a good worker, but sloppy, Brand thought to himself – without sufficient data, how would anybody take decisions?
He reached down to turn the key – and jumped back with a start. In place of his door, the key seemed instead to be unlocking a great, grey, quite unmistakable filing cabinet. Something about the apparition of the cabinet filled Brand with dread, and he stood for a second in shock on his step. Then looked again, and the door was a door once more.
He blinked. “I must be working too hard,” he thought as he entered his house.
Later that evening, Brand was relaxing, when he heard a curious sound. He put his copy of Quirk’s down and frowned. There it was again. The rattle of a key… but a thin, small key. A filing cabinet key.
Brand sat up, nervously, and to his horror saw a spectral shape drift through the door. The shape of a man in a rather unfortunate polyester suit, dragging behind him a cabinet that was bulging with closely typed papers.
“Ebenezer!” cried the spirit. “I am here to conduct a survey on behalf of the world beyond!”
“Jacob!” gasped Ebenezer Brand, for he recognized the eerie visitor. “Jacob Crosstabs, as I live and breathe!
“Yea!” moaned the ghost, “It is I – Jacob Crosstabs, your long-dead former boss! And be thankful you do live and breathe, for you still have a chance to change your ways!”
“Change my ways, Jacob?” said the scared and puzzled Head of Insights, “Whatever for?”
“Do ye see this filing cabinet?” said the specter.
“Y-yes,” said Brand, thinking he had best make a joke of it, “Well, it’s good to know there’s plenty of analysis for you to do in Research Heaven…”
The ghost gave a ghastly screech. “THAT IS NOT WHERE I AM!” he howled, “This filing cabinet is my burden – it contains all the insights I missed when I was a researcher on Earth?”
“Missed? Oh come now Jacob, your significance tests were the most scrupulous in the agency – and I know for a fact your tables were very well checked” – as he said this Brand shuddered slightly, for it was he who had done most of the checking as an agency-side research executive.
“It was not the tables, Ebenezer!” the phantom cried in a piteous voice, throwing up his hands. As it did so the drawers of the filing cabinet began to heave themselves open, throwing reams of ghostly paper into the air, whirling about Crosstabs’ head like a hideous cloud.
“But what was it Jacob? You must tell me! If the figures were fine, and the results were significant, and the model was accurate –“
But at this the ghost simply gave another terrible howl, from the center of that whirl of phantasmal paper.
“Heed me, Ebenezer! Three more times this night will you be visited by spirits – pay them due caution!”
The paper continued to swirl, forming a vortex which seemed to spin the ghost upwards like smoke, and within a minute he, the paper, and that terrible cabinet had gone.
Ebenezer Brand sat heavily down and reached once again for Quirk’s, wishing his hands would stop trembling. It must have been a hallucination – or a waking dream – he thought to himself – a sign he needed more rest. “I shall take a day off in the new year,” he announced out loud. Then to himself – “An outlier of the mind, that’s all.” And he repeated this phrase several times under his breath, before bed.
The First Spirit
It will not astonish you to learn that Ebenezer Brand took some time to go to sleep that night. His rational analysis of the situation was unconvincing even to himself – it seemed all too likely that Jacob Crosstabs had been a genuine visitation from beyond, and that there were more to come.
So while he did drift off to sleep, he was not surprised to soon be woken by a voice calling for his attention. “Excuse me – excuse me!,”
Brand shook himself awake. At the foot of his bed stood a woman wearing flat shoes and a sensible coat, clipboard in hand. She gave a businesslike smile as she caught Brand’s eye and held it firmly.
“Good evening – I wonder if you could just answer a few questions. It’ll take about 10 minutes.”
“Well, I suppose – but – “ Brand sounded suddenly concerned, “I am not sure I’ll be able to answer. I’ll probably be screened out. You see, I work in the research industry –“
“Oh, I do know”, said the woman warmly. “I’m the Ghost of Research Past.” Brand was suddenly aware that he couldn’t exactly tell how old the woman was, or even get a clear impression of the style of her coat – 1970s, 1950s, even earlier? Only that businesslike smile and firm gaze seemed constant and solid, and the biro which hung on a raffia string from her clipboard.
“I’m so glad you’d like to participate,” the Ghost was saying, “And it seems you do fit our quotas, so if you’d like to just walk this way, I can start by showing you the stimulus.”
As the Ghost spoke, Brand’s bedroom began to melt away, and Ebenezer brand had the curious sensation of traveling fast without really moving as the scene changed around them. Before he had a chance to think of more than “Well, it certainly beats a flashcard”, he and the spirit were hovering outdoors – above a newsagent, it seemed, with small children scurrying and shouting hither and thither beneath them. And Ebenezer realized with a start that this was the very newsagent he had visited as a boy to buy sweets on pocket money day.
As Ebenezer watched, he noticed a pattern to the activity below. Another, smaller boy – one he hadn’t spotted at first – was speaking to each child as they passed through the shop door, then making quick, precise marks in a spiral notebook.
“Do you recall that boy, Mr Brand?” said the Ghost at his side.
Ebenezer looked harder, then gave a little gasp. “Why, Ghost, it – it’s me! But what am I doing?”
At once, Brand found himself hovering at the shop door – invisible to the children’s eyes yet close enough to listen. The young Brand was asking each child who passed a question. He stopped a tall boy who was about to enter the shop, and the adult Brand heard his younger self asking -
“What are you intending to buy?”
“Um, polo mints?”
“Football stickers maybe – look, could I just go in and buy them?”
“Thinking now about the last 12 months,” the young Brand said, “How often would you say you bought polo mints?”
“Every couple of weeks? How am I supposed to know? You’re weird, you are!”
“And now thinking about the next 12 months, do you – hey!”
The tall boy shoved young Brand aside, pushing his way into the shop. The young Brand adjusted his glasses with a hurt look. “I’ll mark that down as an incomplete then,” he muttered.
The older Brand was also fiddling with his spectacles, as cover for wiping his misty eyes.
“Ghost, I remember those times!” he asked, “But why do you show me them? My interest in measuring human behavior started unusually young, I admit, and not many of my fellows shared it….”
He tailed off, as the Ghost’s impassive smile was replaced by a more knowing smirk.
“Behavior, Mr Brand? Is that what you were measuring?”
She gestured once again at the shop, and Ebenezer Brand noticed what he had not before. His younger self was not stopping every child, but only those going into the shop, not those coming out. One girl emerged with a packet of spangles, and a boy held a copy of the Beano, but these children and their new possessions held no interest to the infant researcher, who continued to ask simply what the pupils intended to buy.
“Of course! Stop!” Ebenezer cried to the young Brand, but around him the scene was already fading, replaced by the plain walls of his bedroom. He turned to the Ghost of Research Past, but her face was flat and businesslike once more.
“On a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 represents very satisfied and 1 represents very dissatisfied, how satisfied were you with this vision,” intoned the Ghost.
“I was very satisfied, Ghost – but I see now the mistake I made. I paid so much attention to claimed behavior I never looked at what people actually do! But Spirit, is it too late for me?”
“Hm,” said the apparition. “Thinking now about your future behavior, how likely are you to act differently as a result of seeing this vision? On a -”
“Oh! I shall change!” cried Brand, before he had even heard the scale. “I shall!”
“I’ll put you down as a 5 for reformation intention, then,” the Ghost said, and Brand realized her form was becoming indistinct. “Thank you for your co-operation……”
And she was gone, leaving Brand in a state of considerable turmoil. He had to change his ways – that was obvious. But real behavior was so… messy, he thought, and very hard to structure. Besides, people knew what they wanted to buy and what they bought. And there were loyalty norms to think about.
Within half an hour he had decided that a limited pilot scheme was the most prudent course of action – he would get Bob Crunchit to look into the possibility tomorrow. And satisfied with his commitment to action, Ebenezer Brand fell asleep once more, quite forgetting he had two promised visitations to go.
The Second Spirit
When his second visitor arrived, Ebenezer Brand was midway through a rather uncomfortable dream about a board meeting and a missing pair of trousers. His mumbled apologies to the CEO began to be drowned out by insistent, repeated phone alerts.
Brand rolled over sleepily, looked for the rectangle of screenlight in the dark of the room, and picked the device up. “74 new Twitter alerts?” he murmured, “But…. I’m not on Twitter….”
“That’s your problem!” said a friendly voice. “No Twitter. No Tumblr. Are you on Medium? Have you heard of it?”
Brand blinked in befuddlement. Standing over his bed was a young man, very tall with a shock of dark hair and a pair of blaring red trousers. He also held a phone in his hand, but there was a tablet in his other hand and a third device glowing softly in his breast pocket. LEDs pulsed on a wristband, and he seemed to have some kind of antenna attached to his glasses.
“Ghost of Research Present,” said the vision cheerily. “Let’s go. Things to show you. Must be quick. Get changed.”
The Ghost threw Brand something blue, rubbery and floppy, and the old researcher jumped back. The Spirit frowned. “Only neuroscience! Come on!”
The discombobulated Brand pulled the blue thing – a kind of cap, trailing wires and diodes – onto his head.
“Measures everything,” said the Ghost. “We get all your data. Read the T&Cs?”
Brand gave a baffled squeak.
“Good! Let’s be off. We’re in real time here!” The Ghost grabbed Brand by the arm. “Watch out. Might feel some disruption.”
Brand expected the gradual fade out of his prior visitation, but was to be severely disappointed. His bedroom vanished and a new scene slammed harshly into place, leaving Brand feeling like a stray build in an overactive PowerPoint. The Ghost saw its charge turn green, but was less than sympathetic.
“Paradigm shift! Keep up! If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.” On uttering this, the Ghost paused and turned to Brand with a wise air. “That’s Mark Twain.”
Brand now began to take in where the Ghost had sent him – a small room at which a man was sitting at a desk, tapping on a laptop and pausing occasionally to sigh and rub the bridge of his nose. At once Brand recognized him. It was his Chief Analyst, Bob Crunchit, still up and working. Brand glanced at his phone – past 2AM.
“What is he working on so late?” Brand asked. The Ghost of Research Present gestured at the laptop. Peering over Crunchit’s shoulder, Brand saw a thicket of open windows and tabs. “Snack Confectionery U&A (Multi-Market)”, “NPS Analysis (Wave 3)”, “Campaign Tracker Week 50”. Crunchit was clicking mournfully through page upon page of numbers.
“Checking,” said the Ghost, “Charting. Analyzing. Integrating. All too slow! Not real time. No dashboards! Ripe – “ – he jabbed the air with his phantom finger – “for disruption!”
As he spoke Brand looked at his lonely employee, whose head was starting to nod, then jerk awake again. “Muzzn’t go to sleep…..” Crunchit murmured, “Need reportzzzz….”
“Automatic charting!” roared the Ghost.
At that moment there was a faltering knock at Crunchit’s door. A few instants later, the door began to creak open and a young boy entered the room. He was thin and wan, and supported himself on a tiny crutch.
“Daddy –“ said the pitiful mite, “How is your work going?”
“Oh – Tiny Tim!” said Crunchit, “You should be in bed. You need to rest… it’s your appointment tomorrow.”
“I couldn’t sleep, Daddy. Will – will you be able to come with me to the Doctor? You promised.”
Crunchit looked bereft. “Tim, I’m sorry – it’s these reports – I told Mr Brand I’d analyse them all… he needs so much data…”
Tiny Tim’s lip trembled. “I – I understand, Daddy. I know how important your work is…. But it would mean so much….. so much….”
The lad turned and hobbled out of the door. With that slamming sensation, the scene changed again to Brand’s room. Brand clutched at the Ghost’s garish trousers in a state of abjection.
“Spirit!” he moaned, “I shall change my ways! I swear it! But I must know – WILL TINY TIM LIVE?”
The Spirit furrowed his brow.
“Live? Eh? It’s only a sprained ankle.”
“Oh.” Said Brand.
“Change though! Good idea. Start right now! Your research is too slow! Just in time! Disruption! Agile! Lean! That’s what you need.”
“Ghost,” said Brand, “You’re right – you and your colleague both. I will look only at real behavior, and I will make sure my data collection methods are real time. No more slavery for poor Crunchit on Christmas Eve! I shall invest in a real-time social media dashboard. I will track locations! I will monitor brains! I will do something or other with big data! I’ll have all the information I need in real time and my customers will love me for it. Oh Spirit, thank you! Thank you!”
“That’s it exactly!” said the delighted apparition.
“I know there’s one more visit to come,” said Brand, “But can’t we skip it? I’ve already changed my ways – I can’t wait to get started.”
The Ghost looked evasive. “Quite right. Wish I could. Just a formality – don’t worry.” And he vanished, leaving only the faint afterglow of a dying phone screen. The resolute Brand sank back onto his bed and awaited his final visitor.
The Third Spirit
Ebenezer Brand’s happy and determined mood was not to last. He first began to notice a steady drop in temperature in his room, then a certain clamminess to the atmosphere, and the emotional disturbance this caused was certainly not helped when a grey-robed, cowled figure emerged from the plain wall of his room, and extended a frankly skeletal finger at the terrified researcher.
“A-are you the G-ghost of Research F-Future?” asked Brand.
The specters’ cowl dipped briefly in acknowledgement.
“Bit of a rough year for the industry, then?” said Brand. But the Ghost was not one for small talk.
As if routed through a particularly tricky questionnaire, Brand felt compelled to follow the Ghost as he drifted back through the wall and out into the night – and was startled to discover that he too was intangible.
The Ghost led Brand across roofs and streets until they came to a halt at the most familiar place in Ebenezer’s world – his very own offices. It was evening. But something was very wrong. Inside Ebenezer’s office the desk was almost bare, the drawers open, and the swivel chair spun round, emptily. The place was being stripped by two young men – future trainees, he judged from their conversation.
“I’d have thought he wanted this,” said one, removing from the wall a particularly beautiful infographic.
“Wouldn’t have fit in the bin-liner,” the other said, and they both laughed.
“Did you work with him?”
“I did. I was sent to fill in after that other bloke left – Bob Something.”
“What was he like?”
“Typical researcher. Tons of information and no idea what to do with it. Every morning he’d come in and look at his precious dashboards and if there was the slightest change he’d go bananas, memos going this way and that, telling everyone what to do. Frankly, he was a pain in the charts.“
“Who’s getting his office?”
“Dave Hunch from Sales, I think.”
Ebenezer Brand winced at this mention of one of his great office enemies. “Spirit,” he implored his skeletal companion, “Redundancy is a part of life, I know that. But I confess I’m disappointed none of the great modern ideas I had - well, that I’m going to have – made a difference. Was I not appreciated? Is there nobody here who misses me?”
The shrouded figure pondered, then with a wave of his arm transported them to the building’s cafeteria. A woman sat, moving her finger back and forth across an iPad in a half-attentive way, while a colleague talked.
“It’s a shame about old Brand!” the man was saying, “He had real vision. He was on top of things – and he took social media seriously.”
Brand beamed. “Spirit!” he said, “It’s Zack Viral! He’s a hard man to please. I can’t have been all bad. And there’s Carol Meme – let’s see what she’s got to say.”
Unfortunately, she was rolling her eyes. “None of his ideas were ever good, though! He knew exactly what people were doing, but had nothing to say about getting them to do anything different. What’s the point in knowing so much about behavior so quickly if you can’t change it?”
“Welll…,” her friend said glumly, “You’ve got a point. And most of his ideas were all about messaging and segmenting and ‘communicating the benefits’ – it made for pretty dreary marketing.”
“That’s the thing,” said the woman, “All that data – did it make a single person happier?”
“Ghost, I’ve seen enough!” sobbed Brand, “Take me back, I beg you – take me back and let me really change this time……”
The Ghost of Research Future waved his arm one last time, and the world around Ebenezer Brand swirled to black…
Bob Crunchit had set his alarm for 7 that morning, and was not best pleased to be woken a half hour before – particularly by his boss. He mustered as businesslike an air as he could. “Good morning, Mr. Brand.”
“Bob! Are you up yet?”
“Yes, Sir,” Bob fibbed, swinging himself out of bed.
“Don’t be a fool, Bob! It’s Christmas Eve! Get back to bed! No, wait! Go buy yourself a turkey, expense it! Buy two! One for you, one for Tiny Tim!”
Bob blinked at the phone. “I’m not quite sure I get you, Mr. Brand. Could you explain when I’m in.”
“You’re not coming in! It’s Christmas.” Shouted Brand down the phone. “You’re not coming in until January! And when you do, things are going to change! Starting with your promotion.”
Now Bob Crunchit started to listen, and he kept on listening too, as Brand told the remarkable story of the night’s four visitors.
“They each had a lesson for me, Bob. First – look at actual behavior, not what people say they do. Second – use technology to speed things up and get more data, when you need to anyhow. And third – most importantly – find out why people do what they do and then get out from behind your desk and start trying to change it! Life’s too short to just report and recommend, Bob – just ask Jacob Crosstabs!”
“Well,” said Bob Crunchit. “That’s all very sensible, Mr B – Ebenezer. I’ll hear more in January I guess. Right now I’ve got to go to the Doctor with Tiny Tim! But one more thing –“
“Of course, Bob!” said the gleeful Brand.
“That’s quite a story. Why don’t you write it up for Greenbook or somewhere? Really put the word out.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Bob!” laughed Ebenezer Brand, “Who would ever believe it?”
And so it was that Ebenezer Brand and Bob Crunchit had a merry Christmas that year, and their firm did for many years after that. They learned about decision making, they used data wisely, and they changed behaviour. But that is a different story, and now our tale is done. So in the words of Tiny Tim…
GOD BLESS US, EVERY N=1!