OPINION2 January 2013

Research in review: A spotlight on skills


The hottest topics of last year hold important lessons for how research skills must change and evolve. Sinead Hasson, managing director of recruitment firm Hasson Associates, delves into our archive.

It’s news to no-one that jobs in research are changing. For many professionals, particularly those adapting their skills for the digital age, these are unnerving times. Others, especially those starting out in their careers, consider the industry’s rapid evolution to be a chance to get ahead. Whatever your circumstances, one thing holds true: understanding the direction of the industry and the skills it will demand in the future will give you an edge. If you’re reading Research, you know this already. So what did the website and magazine teach us in 2012 that will help focus minds on the research skills you need to succeed?

Data, data everywhere

2012 was all about the value of capturing and analysing existing information in real-time. Social media platforms are beginning to leverage their mountains of user data. Digital loyalty schemes are providing more and better opportunities to build valuable consumer profiles. Online communities are more prevalent and more willing to engage than ever before.

All this makes sampling easier and gives researchers an opportunity to add more value through their work. This assumes, of course, that they have the skills needed to delve into the data and extract the right insights on-the-fly.

Gary Angel’s article on Pinterest highlighted the growth in profiling data analysis by social sites, whereas this interview with Webtrends’ Martin Doettling explored how increased investment in technology is allowing digital marketers to track and respond to consumer behaviour in real-time. Both articles suggest that research professionals need to develop their skills away from standard data collection and reporting, in favour of generating real-time insights from datasets acquired from elsewhere. The arrival of big data and the researcher’s ability to visualise, analyse and respond to it will be an essential skill in the coming years. Internet marketing firms are developing data analysis tools that can automate this process. Right now they are focusing on search engines, but for how long? It’s easy to see how they could steal a march as brands increase their demands.

Sixth sense

BrainJuicer’s Tom Ewing argued in February that researchers need to “understand more than just consumer decisions”. He said that research professionals, and those that make use of their output, also “make important choices” and have an impact on the insights that are derived from a study as their own understandings and idiosyncrasies are subconsciously employed to interpret the results. Researchers are well placed to become experts in behavioural understanding but currently have “much to learn” in this area. Developing a greater understanding of human decision-making will provide researchers with further insight into how their own biases can influence research results and analysis.

Developing a heightened level of self-awareness will enable researchers to respond more astutely to market trends. Those able to explore a brief while sifting through the data – drawing out the conversations, comments and responses, and capturing the zeitgeist as they go – will reveal more actionable insights that assist clients in their generation of new ideas.

Explorers? Yes. Scholars? No.

A number of articles in 2012 suggested that it is time for professionals to rethink their research mindset. In March Affinnova’s Jeffrey Henning addressed the rise of the crowd-shaped survey. He discussed its implications on survey design and neatly illustrated that researchers should now be steering away from “what do we want to know?” and toward “how can we discover what we don’t yet know?”. He claims that researchers should throw out the “we have the questions, you provide the answers” mindset and instead build surveys collaboratively. For example, researchers could ask a panel to shape the questions which will be posed to a larger group and have a constantly evolving survey where the questions are altered in response to the answers that are given. To master this, researchers will need to work hard on their group collaboration and moderating skills. In 2013 this new, dynamic approach to survey design will make forward-thinking researchers really stand out from their peers. It’s also something pretty cool to drop into a job interview.

Digital devotees

In May Coca-Cola’s Stan Sthanunathan argued that we need to view the research world through a different lens in the future. Technology should be a driver of research, he said, not just a tool to make traditional techniques more convenient. Will all researchers eventually be replaced by automated data analysis? Apparently not, because humans are needed for “logical conclusions”. He said that researchers should, therefore, strive to swap a “conclusive mindset” for an “exploration mindset”. Research professionals need to stay close to the technologies in play, since it will be those that experiment with new technologies – and observe how they are generating new forms of consumer interaction – who will be the most likely to spot how they can best be employed to generate never-before-seen insights.

From this, it’s easy to see that researchers should immerse themselves in new communications tools and technologies. The world around us is full of social media platforms, mobile device innovations and opportunities for digital interactions. Maintaining a broad awareness of these platforms is no longer enough – only full immersion in digital culture will allow researchers to identify nuances, recognise barriers and spot the signals that will lead to new insights. Technological familiarity is the key.

Business integration

In November journalist Jane Simms turned her attention to the integration of research into media agencies as they look to bring “research and insight deeper into their service offerings”. If this trend continues, researchers will need to develop a more inclusive understanding of core business processes if they are to adapt appropriately and deliver the additional value expected from this closer integration.

Final thoughts

A few things to consider as you prepare your 2013 career and skills development plans:

  • Get good with data
  • Learn how business works
  • Be social
  • Become an explorer
  • Be a pioneer

Allow me to add one more to the list:

  • Be brave

Throwing out the rulebook won’t always deliver results, but having the guts to think laterally and act differently will do researchers no harm in these changing times. By keeping pace with the bleeding edge, everyone has the chance to future-proof their careers.

How to begin? Perhaps with a question: What could you do differently tomorrow?