OPINION21 November 2011

No question: Thinking time’s important


Dean Murley reports from the ICG’s Question Time event which discussed the changes wrought by technology and why the very human art of interpretation remains the greatest research tool.

Welcome to Question Time. On our panel: Everything Everywhere’s insight director Nick Bonney, Legal & General’s Mark Russell, Johnny Caldwell of Research Now, Warren Knight, a b2b social media consultant and, doing his best David Dimbleby impression, Vision Critical’s Ray Poynter.

This being an Independent Consultants Group (ICG) production of Question Time, not the BBC’s popular current affairs show, politics was off the agenda. Instead the audience was interested in the panel’s views of how best to embrace new technology in research while maintaining robustness, and what implications this new technology has for the MRS code of conduct.

“Legal & General’s Mark Russell led the calls to ensure that quality thinking time isn’t squeezed too far to the margins as this is where research practitioners will add value”

Many of the questions addressed how to ensure rigour and reduce bias when using social media, access panels and gamification to generate insight, which immediately reminded your correspondent of a piece of wisdom he received early in his career: “Always remember who you haven’t spoken to.”

The need to consider carefully the context and limitations of each source of insight is vital in this age of instant and real-time feedback facilitated by social media and communities. There are social media addicts on Facebook and TripAdvisor who are over-represented and have the loudest online voices, but we need to make sure that we use complementary methods for data triangulation to build bodies of evidence and to spot trends.

But does it really matter if a sample is not representative, as long as we are aware of its limitations and biases? The panel raised the point that research samples whatever their stripes have always been biased to varying extents. Bonney, for example, questioned how representative a CATI sample is now in a world where fixed line telephones are being replaced by mobiles.

Returning to social media, Bonney brought up the fact that much of the MRS code of conduct is concerned with “protecting consumers from nasty big brands”, whereas consumers nowadays actively want to interact with brands. Never before has the adage ‘Consumer is King’ been more appropriate. Consumers now have the power to call brands to account in a very public forum and can wield influence much more widely.

So the MRS code seems in need of a redraft, even an overhaul, in order to address this new reality. The most recent iteration (April 2010 ) describes research participants as ‘respondents’ – but in a world of increasing collaboration and co-creation, ‘respondents’ are becoming more like ‘partners’. This role shift has implications for the entire code.

That’s clearly a job for next year, but the panel were asked to say what other developments they would like to see in 2012. Broadly, their wishes were for the industry to embrace new technology and to focus on predicting and understanding behaviour.

My personal feeling is that advancements in technology will go hand in hand with understanding the consumer and we should be capitalising more on consumer-owned devices to collect data. This could be in conjunction with increasingly common bulletin boards and online research software or, more excitingly, with real-time ethnographic mobile applications that allow researchers to analyse behaviour at the moment it happens.

And of course, the research industry needs to make the most of its core skills of thinking and interpretation in order to help clients maximise the potential of these new methods – no mean feat when you’re dealing with a bombardment of data and increasing pressure to deliver short-term results within organisations.

Russell led the calls to ensure that quality thinking time isn’t squeezed too far to the margins as this is where research practitioners will add value – the interpretation of data is what we do best and we recognise the importance of the art of thinking.

Caldwell made the point that good researchers have empathy with consumers. It is this empathy, combined with inquisitiveness and an ability to analyse, interpret and generate insight that will ensure researchers remain relevant.

Dean Murley is a director of White Tiger Research and an ICG member. The Question Time event was held at The Odeon Covent Garden on 16 November