Modem Operandi

With its red-brick exterior, stately columns, and dramatic balcony, IU's Center for Survey Research looks more like a home to fraternity hijinks than high technology. Indeed, until 1963, the four-story structure at the corner of Third and Hawthorne belonged to the members of Phi Kappa Psi. While the days of ritual and brotherhood may be gone, a spirit of camaraderie prevails among the center's staff in a slightly different form.

Male bonding, it seems, has given way to e-mail bonding.

As director of the center, John Kennedy wouldn't have it any other way. When a high-pitched beep signals the arrival of yet another electronic mail message-- his sixtieth of the day--he barely bats an eyelash. "In such an information-intensive environment, high-level communication is a must," he says. "Nobody here can work by himself or herself. Every decision affects other people."

The Center for Survey Research serves the research needs of IU faculty and administrators as well as various state and federal interests. In the course of a year, forty to fifty projects are carried out, ranging from an Office of Student Financial Assistance questionnaire for graduating seniors to a five-year survey of aerospace engineers and scientists sponsored by NASA. Information is gathered primarily through phone and mail surveys.

Every task performed in the center is monitored by computer, which enables Kennedy to monitor projects closely. "If I want to find out how many interviews have been completed in our seven current phone surveys, I can access that information immediately," he says. "In the past, I would have had to go through piles and piles of paperwork." Automation also means that turnaround time on projects is lightning fast. Recently, Kennedy and his staff completed telephone interviews for a survey at eleven o'clock one evening and presented the client with a summary report of the data the very next day.

Although technology is instrumental in nearly every task at the Center for Survey Research, Kennedy knows there's more to managing than monitoring machines. Students, who make up the majority of the staff, are the lifeblood of the center. And the experience they gain, he says, is truly invaluable.

Every student employed as a telephone interviewer undergoes rigorous training, focusing on computer, telephone interviewing, and interpersonal skills. The best interviewers can be promoted to supervisory positions and learn to manage up to twenty-two people at a time and keep apprised of the status of ten or more projects. The diversity of race, culture, and age among the center's staff provides a challenge as well; there have been times when nineteen-year-old undergraduates have supervised forty-year-old interviewers. For some students, the responsibilities are extraordinary. "Right now, one junior is leading a team responsible for the data collection on a five-year project that has a budget of $200,000," says Kennedy.

No sooner has Kennedy started to chat with a student in his office doorway than the air is once again sliced by the sound of an e-mail message en route. It's time to get back to work.

Such is life a la modem.

--Allison Block