Research Heroes: Barbara Summers

barbara%20summersBarbara Summers is a Senior Lecturer in Decision Making at Leeds University Business School, UK, where she also serves as co-Director of the Centre for Decision Research. She has recently been elected to serve as President Elect of the European Association for Decision Making (EADM), and currently serves on the Society’s Board as Member at Large. Her research focuses on individual decision making from both cognitive and emotional perspectives, with application areas in health, marketing and pensions. Her work benefits from her previous commercial experience as Head of Systems Development at Equifax Europe UK.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…… the advantages of walking and patience. Sometimes projects take a while to get going; you have an idea, but investigating it leads into slightly unfamiliar territory so you feel there is a lot of literature to get through. Or you might feel you have lots of bits of the puzzle but can’t see how they fit together. It’s human nature to want results quickly and to feel disheartened in these situations, but don’t – this sort of project can be the most interesting in the long run, so it’s worth being patient and working through it. I find the best way to trigger the “eureka” moment when the bits click into place is to stop thinking. Walking while not focusing on your thoughts or sleeping are really good ways to do this. The idea of sleeping on a problem usually works for me (and recharges your batteries).

I most admire academically… because…There are a lot of people, but the work of Kahneman and Tversky on Prospect Theory had the biggest effect on me. I had been doing work in another field and realized that this theory gave a better explanation of some data I had than the traditional explanations in the literature. I was converted and decided to investigate the area further – well worth it! There are many others as I explore different aspects of decision making, but this was the first.

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….There are so many different ways a project can be best – and I have been lucky enough to have quite a range of experiences. Some projects broaden your ideas of how the world works (I feel this about the work I’m doing now on emotion), while others can produce real world impacts that are satisfying to see (I did work on a project producing decision aids for patients, for example, and another project helped a company predict and respond to customer needs better). Some projects can just be a good experience in terms of getting to know others. I try to see the best in all of them.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…If you are doing research then some projects are not going to work. You might not get the results you want, you might even get results that prove you wrong. It’s frustrating, but most projects have some value in the longer term. The bad ones are ones you don’t enjoy working on.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….… is always the bit where the predicted results happen – I get a real buzz every time, because you now understand the world a little better.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…I used to be involved in organizing a professional conference (while an academic) and there was a project that needed real managers to take part in the research. I suggested we might use the future delegates for the conference, and we could give a talk on the results in my session in exchange for their participation. The project was trying to identify ways in which professional managers’ decisions in a particular field (to do with corporate failure/ creditworthiness) demonstrated expertise, and to make it more interesting we also got groups of lecturers who taught techniques for making similar decisions, and their students, along with a group of lay people to provide a comparison. The professional society helped us distribute the questionnaires and we put the talk in the program. Then the results came in. Lecturers and students generally performed better than the professional managers on the tasks, and in fact the managers were barely better than lay people (who really knew nothing about the subject area). Welcome to the conference talk from Hell – we had to stand up and tell people (who paid to be there) that they were hopeless at a job related task!

In the end things were not so bad. The obvious “How can this have happened?” response gave way to an investigation of how the task (which the managers thought was important) fitted into their role as a whole, and led to an understanding that their real expertise was not in getting the right answer in the first place, but in managing the relationship with the company they assessed for credit as it developed (so these skills made more difference). We even managed to get a laugh when we gave the talk! I probably have told this to some people, so apologies if you heard it before…

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…I’ve not given up yet on any project I wish I’d done yet. If I still wish I’d done it, I still hope to manage it. Sometimes things drop off the list because I realise they won’t do what I want, but that’s it.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be……probably back (or still) in the commercial world. I spent a lot of time in Business Analyst type roles doing quite a lot of greenfield development projects, where the company was moving into new territory or the client wanted to do something but didn’t have anything in place. These have quite a lot in common with research, certainly in the thinking process, so are fun. Some of the ones I was involved in were international joint ventures, so I got some chance to travel and see other perspectives. Not quite as much fun as academia, but still fun.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…Getting the real world more widely engaged. We’ve had a burst of interest in behavioral work in the UK, with the government setting up a Nudge unit. There are however a lot of fields where more behavioral aspects could give real benefits in solving real world problems (like helping people make informed decisions), and in benefitting business too. Students who’ve taken the Management Decision Making course run by our centre regularly report how useful it is in their careers from interview stage on, giving them a perspective on avoiding pitfalls in decision making (I wish I had done it before being a manager myself!). I see many opportunities, but we need to keep up momentum to get there.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…Enjoy what you do – you do better on projects that catch your imagination. Make contacts and work with others – ideas develop faster with more than one person thinking about them. Establish what you need to get to where you want to be. When I got my first lecturing post the Dean of my School gave me a list of promotion criteria for the next grade up and told me to start ticking them off as soon as possible. I found this really helpful in getting established, as someone moving across from industry, but I think it would have helped anyway. If you’re in this position, I wish you all the success in the world and have great time – academia is a great job.

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