Market Research Needs More Than Research Skills

By Neil Gains, Tapestry Works:

The New Year brought a wide range of predictions for the future of market research, mixing positive and negative sentiments about the industry.  The majority of the predictions were consistent in seeing a future where market researchers would need to develop a broader range of skills to take advantage of the changes in technology, consumer understanding, data accessibility and, above all, client expectations.  These changes offer great opportunities to the industry if embraced, and a huge threat if they are ignored.

The changing landscape of business intelligence (a broader and more relevant category than market research), requires a whole range of skills outside core research, driven by new knowledge from brain science, behavioral economics and psychology, demands to manage the increasing diversity and complexity of data sources, and the need to leverage research to drive business change as ‘consumer insight’ grows in importance within Asian businesses.  Thus, skills as diverse as consulting, account planning, journalism, design, anthropology and training will all have a role to play in the future of the industry.

The results of the Asia Research employee survey demonstrate that as individuals, many market researchers see the need for such skills and are eager to learn, but as managers in organizations continue to focus on core research skills within traditional research processes.

Asked which training topics would be of most interest to them personally, the most popular topics across the total survey sample were:

1st ‘Strategic marketing’ (how businesses create value and drive innovation) chosen by 58% of participants

2nd ‘The psychology of research’ (what we can learn from neuroscience and other disciplines) chosen by 52%

3rd ‘The business of marketing’ (the organization and role of marketing in businesses) chosen by 48%

The importance of the first two topics is seen across all agencies and also client-side.  However, clients are more interested in the ‘Psychology of research’ rating this well ahead of other topics at 64% (and perhaps reflecting greater experience of the role of research within marketing).

When asked what training would be useful for their team, a very different range of answers emerges:

1st Communication skills (including presentations) chosen by 52% of participants

2nd = Core quantitative skills chosen by 48%

2nd = Delivering client value chosen by 48%

Communication skills are considered particularly important at the middle to senior level of research staff as well as those for those working in operations, whereas Core quantitative skills are chosen by significant numbers of participants in all groups.  Does this reflect a poor perception of current standards and current training practice?  Other feedback in the survey suggests that current training practices have significant room for improvement, so it is disappointing that “Train the trainer’ topics are not chosen by more participants, as there is a clear need for companies to improve internal practice or seek external help.

Qualitative skills are chosen by a disappointing number of partucipants, reflecting the skew in the sample towards quantitative research staff.  Sadly and predictably, qualitative researchers see very little need for quantitative skills (28%) and quantitative researchers see very little need for qualitative skills (19%).  I believe this is a serious concern for the future of research, along with the assumption that understanding of consumer psychology is only relevant for more senior researchers.  Surely, understanding the consumer is at the centre of all that we do, and should be a fundamental skill set for all researchers?  How can you write a reliable questionnaire or discussion guide if you do not understand how the brain works, and what influences consumer decision-making?

There are some other interesting findings in the survey.  In general, female researchers choose more training topics than their male counterparts, although male researchers see a particular need to improve their understanding of psychology!  Although the base numbers are small, there are some interesting differences across Asian markets, with Singapore, Hong Kong and China researchers choosing ‘The psychology of research’ much more frequently than their colleagues in other countries in South and South East Asia.  The need for team training in communication skills is high across all markets (reaching 70-80% of the sample in some).

The Asia Research employee survey shows low satisfaction with current training provision across Asian markets, although I believe this reflects the quality of training more than the quantity.  Many research companies invest significant time for staff training, and should perhaps invest equal resource into ensuring that the quality of training matches the investment.  Training is often conducted by senior research staff, who have little training experience and no formal coaching in adult learning styles and facilitation skills.  Such skills and experience are vital to effective training with lasting organizational impact.

To make a full and honest declaration, Tapestry Works have a vested interested in raising the profile of learning and development in market research and marketing.  However, the more important learning of the Asia Research survey is that companies can and should do much more themselves to raise the standards of their learning programs, seeing coaching and training as a key investment in the future of their companies rather than a harmless diversion from day-to-day work.

Well planned and executed learning programs pay for themselves many times over in greater staff satisfaction, higher productivity, increased work quality and happier clients!  The industry in Asia urgently needs to develop its talent pool in order to develop a strong and sustainable future business model.  Training and coaching are vital to future success, both through more effective development of traditional skill sets and the encouragement of a wider vision of how we can help our clients to create value from consumer and market understanding.