Are Qualies and Endangered Species?
A recurring theme at the AMSRS Conference a couple of years back was the idea that as an industry we needed to ‘adapt or die’ … that technology and new ways of understanding human behaviour were fundamentally changing research, and unless we started doing things differently, we would become largely redundant. And it seems this is still a hot topic in the industry both here and overseas. Thankfully, the fact that our industry is still alive and kicking seems testament to the fact that we are adapting – and becoming better researchers because of it.
But at the same time, when I look specifically at qual research (my own area of expertise), I see another quite separate challenge that we seem to have done little about, even though it’s been around for quite a while.
Putting it simply, it seems to me continue to allow others to ‘eat our lunch’. Qual research is not just done by qual researchers. I continually come across qual work undertaken by management, brand and media consultants / strategists / planners. They all seem to ‘do a bit of qual’ in some shape or form.
I’m not saying for a moment that these consultants shouldn’t be doing research – quite the opposite. I think we need to learn from them. If consultants who are not qual research specialists are doing qualitative work for their clients, it’s reasonably safe to assume clients value it and are paying for it. So we need to ask ourselves why. Why are consultants being asked to do something that we as the experts feel we should be doing? Put it another way, what is it that they do well that clients value?
From where I sit, I think it’s becuase they focus more on outcomes than process. They understand that no matter what tools are used to collect it, qual data is just that – data. That clients want quality thinking, clear and useful insight, and a point of view on where to from here. In short, I think consultants are used because they do the ‘so what, now what’ better than we do.
And for those of you who doubt this, or are convinced you are already doing this, or think you’ve heard all this before, here’s a recent comment from a client, that suggests we researchers may still have a way to go: “[Of course] the methodology needs to fit the outcome, and conversations about the latest methods and trends are fine, but where [research] suppliers keep falling down is in the reporting. Several [I know of] don’t know what ‘good’ looks like when it comes to focused, strategic reporting. They don’t even know how to build slides with an insight in the heading.”
At the risk, then, of stating the obvious, if we want our expertise to be valued, then we need to deliver greater value. And that doesn’t just lie in understanding, say, behavioural economics, or how we can use smartphones to get closer to consumers’ lives. These are important, even fundamental to our doing our job well, staying relevant and avoiding redundancy. But they are not enough. Let’s take a leaf from the consultants’ play book and give thinking and outcomes the focus they deserve (and not just pay lip service to them).
So are we qualies an endangered species? On the one hand we probably aren’t, as clients are likely to need qualitative insights for a long time to come. But on the other hand, we might be – if we let it happen. For as much as businesses will need qualitative insights…it’s equally clear that they won’t necessarily be coming to us for them.
We need to ‘stake our claim’ as qual research specialists. How? Obviously, we need to keep abreast of, develop and be well trained in the latest techniques – as everyone expects experts in any area to do. But we need to also think, talk and behave more like consultants. This combination of sound research technique and truly strategic thinking is invaluable.