A recent article in the Asia Research quarterly reports a fall in optimism for the opportunities market research has to offer. “Most pessimistic are researchers working in one of the big 4 global firms” – it reports.
In my opinion, this change of fortune for researchers is largely driven by growing irrelevance of skills which were central to the market research function a couple of years ago. This article explores what those skills are and provides a perspective on how researchers can regain their glory.
Market research can be viewed as comprising 4 different stages each requiring specialist skills:
Problem solving: A consultative skill that helps define business problems and suggest an appropriate research design.
Research methods: An expertise in methodology that translates into valid and reliable data collection.
Analysis/Reporting: An interpretative skill using market understanding and basic statistical knowledge.
Activation: A facilitation skill that enables engaging a group of stakeholders and assimilating information to help transform insights into business decisions.
Researchers, particularly those working in large agencies, have excelled in two of the 4 skills – namely, Research Methods and Analysis/Reporting. Problem solving and Activation has traditionally been the domain of consultants with some sparks of brilliance demonstrated occasionally by a few researchers. I hypothesize that fixed frameworks offered as products by many large agencies have encouraged a mind-set to ‘fit’ these products to solve business problems discouraging original thinking and a problem solving mindset. The solution is always available and it is only a matter of figuring out how it works! This ‘force-fitting’ of research products to business problems also hurts the researchers when it comes to Activation. One realizes that it is difficult to get the results to ‘work’ for the business as the solution was not the best-fit in the first place. Further, not having engaged the stakeholders in the Problem Solving phase makes it challenging to play the lead role in Activation. Therefore, Activation does not come ‘naturally’ to these researchers. Last but not the least, the overt focus on product sales also leaves little time to think about activation – the next projects being just round the corner.
Survival with Research Methods and Analysis/Reporting was not too difficult until the last couple of years when these skills seem to be increasingly losing relevance. The omnipresence of unprompted and passive data has diminished the relevance of the science of asking questions and eliciting information. The sophisticated data modelling skills required to integrate multiple data-sets to cull insights has made the Analysis/Reporting skills of researchers seem rudimentary. More important, technologies offered by DIY research platforms provide reasonably sound Research Methods and Analysis/Reporting via a few clicks making these skills seem so simple and therefore low value.
Metaphorically speaking, to avoid being a ‘survey monkey’ it is, therefore, important for researchers to focus on Problem Solving and Activation skills.
Problem solving requires that researchers rekindle their curiosity and wake up the ‘Holmes’ in them.
‘The Holmes’ that listens to every word the client has to say and probes until he is fully satisfied with what is going on. The Holmes who does not rule out any possibility and who hypothesizes all possible causes and investigates every motive. Researchers must also draw inspiration from Einstein’s quote: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions” Asking the right questions is, in my opinion, what it takes to solve problems. The pressure of having to come up with good questions to ask is very salient in my mind. Allow me to share a story: I attended a short talk by John Sculley (Former president Pepsi, CEO Apple) when he was last in Singapore. At the end of the session, I got an opportunity to ask a question during the Q&A session. While I was keen on leveraging the opportunity, to be honest, I did not really know what to ask. So when the microphone was handed to me, I asked “John, what is the best question you have been asked so far”!! If you prime yourself to ask the right questions – you will. If you ask a lot of questions, you increase the possibility of asking the right question. Elementary! Isn’t it? as Holmes would retort.
The skills for activation come from learning the tools for facilitation. Conferences such as www.cpsiconference.com offer a fantastic platform to learn from the community of facilitators and innovators.
Understanding how to foster active participation and help a group of stakeholders make ‘sense’ of the research outputs is a skill that is often overlooked. Labelling it as ‘presentation’ skills simply exposes the naivety of the researcher. Flipping the onus on client side researchers to facilitate may also not work as well. Ironically, very few organizations train their personnel to conduct meetings – when most decisions are, in fact, group decisions. Again, if training on the operational aspects of meetings like arriving in time, booking a room, taking notes, leaving with action points is considered sufficient, it exposes the naivety of organizations. Formal training in facilitation and understanding group dynamics in a meeting setup is essential. The facilitator only gets better with ‘practice’ and experience. Allow me to share that I find my teaching assignment at SMU enables me to hone facilitation skills – it is not easy to engage Gen Y’s in a 3 hour late evening session on market research without some creative facilitation and ‘activation’ of statistical principles!
Market researchers should not lose hope. Discerning research buyers will see through the hullabaloo around big data, social media research, DIY and other technologies and value researchers who are good problem solvers and creative facilitators. It is important that researchers first recognize the current skill gap. It is important that organizations such as ESOMAR play their role as well. For instance, quote problem definition and activation as part of the research skill set to begin with! (See current definition of MR which has an overt focus on data collection and analysis: https://www.esomar.org/knowledge-and-standards/market-research-explained.php).
In summary, given the current skills, the lack of optimism among researchers is justified. But the problem solvers that we are, I am sure our smart community will figure a way out. I hope this article has taken one small step in that direction: to nudge the pessimists to recognize the skill gap and act. Good luck!
First published on LinkedIn
Author, Samy Mardolker, SVP Marketing & Product Research (Asia) at ORC International