Cornell Survey Pros Go Beyond Crunching Numbers to Tell Human Story


Science and number crunching skills underlie a big part of Cornell Survey Research Institute’s success, but there is a human element essential to accomplishing its mission.

The Ithaca campus-based SRI has established a reputation as a top survey organization serving major academic, non-profit, government and corporate clients for over two decades. It has handled a range of social issues that provide decision-makers with crucial data to support policies around health care, the environment, social needs and security.

SRI’s ultimate success in delivering for clients, however, is rooted in knowing that data’s value is tied to the group’s ability to connect with often difficult to reach survey participants and to accurately convey their stories. From engaging a jaded population whose criminal past has kept them from landing employment to getting time-pressed human resources professionals on the phone, SRI has proven it can reach the people who matter.

Using a combination of online, snail mail and phone outreach, the SRI team has been able to connect with a high percentage of participants. “SRI uses customized survey designs and combines modes to create cost-effective surveys that produce high response rates and superior data quality,” says Yasir Parvez, Technical Project Manager at SRI. A survey organization’s success lies in its ability to win over enough participants for the research to have any value, and human connection and engagement as much as sophisticated methodology are essential. Survey “interviewers are similar to salespeople in that they have a product they are trying to ‘sell,’” Stephanie Slate, administrative manager at SRI, says. “It is essential to be able to read the person on the line and adapt your approach based on how they react to you.” As texting has become the preferred way for many people to communicate today, knowing how to connect with someone over the phone is an invaluable skill for any survey organization. “During a phone call we are able to really explain why someone might benefit from participating in this research in a way that reaches outside the generic template of an email invitation,” Slate adds. “We have interviewers on our team … who really know the ins and outs of survey research and really just know how to talk to people.”

For the SRI survey targeting those with criminal backgrounds, the ultimate goal was to help them get priority hiring for the 2020 Census. SRI conducted that survey with a combination of online, traditional mailing and phone outreach on behalf of Cornell's Labor and Employment Law Program. It managed to secure a 75% response rate for this group.

"There are many challenges to phone surveys, particularly right now with all of the excessive robocalls everyone gets," Slate says. "That means that we need to make the most out of every call we have where someone actually does answer their phone and our interviewers are extensively trained to do so."

For the survey project involving human resource professionals, SRI sought to compile and analyze data on U.S. companies' hiring and personnel policies and organizational characteristics. The goal was to get a detailed understanding of hiring processes and other aspects of work culture. The survey clients were Stanford and Harvard universities.

"We were talking with hiring managers and human resource staff and we know these are super busy people," Slate says. "Asking them to take the time out of their day to answer a 30-minute phone interview is a huge burden, so giving them the option to do this on their own time and possibly more quickly via the web is an appealing option in this situation."

While clients also submit questions that they want as part of the survey, SRI is mindful of the limited time they have to elicit useful responses via online or on the phone, and the importance of keeping words and sentences simple and easy to understand.

"It is imperative that everyone understands the question you are asking them the same way," Slate says. "If someone doesn't know what a word means, they may not answer correctly and your data quality suffers. If the questions are difficult, require calculations, or feel like a quiz, the respondent may see that as a burden and stop doing the survey altogether."

ILR Executive Education's close partnership with SRI on competency assessments has delivered high completion rates and key insights that inform targeted learning programs. The rigor and expertise SRI brings to ILR Executive Education is one of Cornell's differentials to achieving successful client outcomes.

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