Bias and Time

This is about consulting-in-the-world. :-) (excuse my weak, philosophy in-joke)

Paul Murphy posted a thought-provoking piece concerning consulting bias (plus), called Corporate loyalties and the temporal disconnect. He calls attention to the idea that people cannot really claim to be unbiased. We are wise to disclose bias so that we know how to deal with it and how it affects the decisions we make. I understood Murphy’s point to address more of the way people compare, for example, a product now with their experience of it in the past not taking into account the context of the comparison being “now.”

“…the memories haven’t changed, but circumstances have – and basing actions on comparisons in which one side is frozen in time is therefore intellectually dishonest.”

He elucidates this conclusion with several situations in which types of temporal bias would affect a decision. The post mostly is being asserted as the viewpoint of a consultant and clearly it is supposed to focus on a particular type of bias–the temporal sort, but of course there are other types of bias to take into consideration. That’s why I liked his point that

“The whole bias issue generally represents a fundamental mis-understanding of the problem evaluation process: open bias is often a positive thing…”

So, in thinking about these points, I had to reflect on TEC (the company for which I work). Our site frequently proclaims that we’re “impartial” and we attempt to present analysis of software data without bias. Is that really possible? On the one hand, I’d like to say yes because the way we evaluate the functionality of, say, an open source ERP vendor against a proprietary one is based (this is the most rudimentary way of saying it, actually it’s more involved) on a program that calculates features supported against those not fully supported. In other words this should take out the human bias that might be present in a consultant trying to recommend a system to its client. The consultant may be susceptible to the temporal situation pointed out by Mr. Murphy or, more likely, might be involved in a certain business relationship with vendors that provides an incentive for recommending those vendors’ solutions. Our company on the other hand, has no alliance to any particular vendor.

However, I have to think that using a program to weigh functional capability and a lack of alignment with specific vendors, do not necessarily equate to a lack of bias. At some level we could probably discover some form of bias. For example, as our analysts model the criteria on which to evaluate vendors because they rely on their research and experience they probably introduce, however innocently, certain biases. I can think of one simple example right away. Before open source software became a well-known enterprise commodity, many of our analyses did not include criteria for open source database support, thus in some ways, perhaps proprietary solutions had a form of advantage.

I would hesitate to call this criticism but rather I think this may highlight a reason why analysts, consultants, etc. have to be constantly self-critical, constantly trying to reflect on why they conclude certain criteria are applicable toward software comparisons and merit further research or recommendation. Thinking on the processes we undertake to form these analyses, comparisons, or conclusions may also be enlightening toward trends of the times. And that comes back to Murphy’s point on the changing circumstances of temporality.

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