By Ellen Woods
Over the last few weeks I have had conversations with many research managers about the state of research in their organizations and their research needs for 2014. As I reflected on those conversations, it was hard not to notice how much has changed; even the language around the issues is peppered with words that were little used (if even known) a few years ago. Having been a part of this industry for over 20 years, some of those conversations were hard to hear with many expressing angst and in some cases anger, while others were embracing changes with a sense of new found purpose. The conclusive difference seem to be that more traditional researchers were ingrained with a need to search for “bullet-proof” consistency while newer methods assimilate large volumes of data and assume consistency and are therefore able to deliver the relative value of that consistency against a growing body of anomalies.
My background is in the sciences, where many late night hours were spent in the lab watching for consistencies and noting anomalies. Sometimes the consistency was so elusive that you tended to try and group the anomalies. Every so often there was that one gem that proved to be verifiable and became “the finding”. It usually had the simplest explanation and the interpretation was not hard to write or understand. The anomalies were then categorized and recurrences were noted. It was a tedious and time consuming process and it was just the beginning. That was then. Today, many of those processes are automated and machines are much better at characterizing anomalies than tired humans. Healthcare has certainly seen the value and many people have been diagnosed at earlier stages with better outcomes because of the advances.
Traditional market research is a lot like the older science methods where there is limited sample and a time consuming process for data collection, and in most cases anomalies are simply removed from the data set without further analysis. Large scale data analysis, on the other hand, uses blunt force to find the consistencies and focuses on the relative value of the anomalies. The speed of analysis, the ability to graphically represent “on the fly” and the ability to identify and categorize anomalies at a rapid rate make it a preferred tool for many decision makers. In that context, the shift in market research makes perfect sense.
That, however, is a hard transition for those of us who have relied on statistics for many years and feel a sense of comfort with parameters. Being a “wild west” of data is a bit daunting, if not downright scary. It also brings into question where research is headed and what delivers value in an age where speed is paramount? In some organizations, where the research is still largely quantitative and statistical, the value of the research in the organization has receded. In others, where a high focus was placed on communities and qualitative insight, the research sits on the edge as a supplement to “hard data”.
In more progressive research environments, teams are focused on leveraging new types of data and integrating that data to inform strategically in conjunction with traditional tactical research. Interestingly, these organizations are not focused highly on techniques but rather on insights. They have ongoing programs testing everything from eye tracking to virtual reality, but they keep the focus on the bottom line. The technique has to deliver an ROI or it doesn’t fly. They invest in new channels and already have strong in roads in mobile and new types of ethnographies and are using the findings within a larger context. Those teams meet regularly with senior management and C-Suite members so they are a part of the direction, not just the soldiers in the field. In a sense, they are going back to the future because they are focusing on insights that align with the future, not on what has happened in the past.
The old adage “Time is Money” is probably a key factor in the accelerated transition occurring in most companies. For researchers pondering their position, there is a seat at the table and it is positioned to give research a voice. Insights are probably more valuable than ever and when they are delivered within a larger context, they become a key part of the strategy. If you are ready to be part of a solution rather than an asset you have unlimited opportunity.