OPINION11 September 2023

Upskilling matters – ignore it at your peril

Opinion Trends UK

Training often drops down the list of priorities, but research businesses must regard it as an investment, not a cost, says Inger Christensen. 

ball of coloured elastic bands

When was the last time you actively embarked on learning or developing a new skill? It is by no means controversial to claim that upskilling, training, and professional development is important. In the market research and insights space, where learning, discovering and imparting knowledge is at the heart of what we do, it is critical we keep building and refining our skills.

In a recent blog post, the chief executive of LinkedIn Ryan Rolanski wrote that the social media site’s research shows that “skills sets for jobs have changed by around 25% since 2015. By 2027, this number is expected to double. That means jobs are changing on you even if you aren't changing jobs, just as business demands are changing on you even if you're not changing your business.”

The current need for upskilling is real. And yet, in the pace of the everyday, the need to monitor costs, the ongoing focus on the pipeline and delivering the projects, training can often drop down the list of priorities, be relegated to something we'll do when we have more time, when we have more space, when we have more cash. A report published last year by the Learning and Work Institute argues that the UK risks "sleepwalking to stagnation in skills" as spending on training employees fell more than a quarter in real terms between 2005 and 2019, from £2,139 to £1,530 per year.

The signs are clear. Ignore upskilling at your peril. Whether you are an individual or a business, I urge you to see upskilling of yourself, and of your team as an ongoing, integral process. Regard upskilling as a value driver to boost innovation, performance and delivery, not as a cost, but as an investment.

1. Increase your AI literacy

The key challenge in our sector – and indeed everywhere else – is undoubtedly understanding AI. Commit to working proactively to manage and take advantage of the impact of AI on businesses and employees. The critical thinking skills needed to spot biases, blind spots and cultural and societal assumptions in the algorithms are exactly those we in the insights sector excel in and now, more than ever, need to nurture. 

Restech (research technology) platforms use AI to design questionnaires, transcribe speech and analyse findings. The founder of Feeling Mutual, Tom Woodnutt, has looked into how qualitative researchers are responding to generative AI. Writing on Research Live recently, he stated: “The advent of generative artificial intelligence (AI) has triggered an existential crisis for qualitative researchers. Its mechanisation of knowledge threatens to undervalue our craft as it churns out increasingly credible discussion guides, hypotheses, summaries and even probes. Unsurprisingly, a 2023 paper from Princeton University said market research analysts are in the top 10% at risk from generative AI.”

I fully endorse Tom’s conclusion that researchers should embrace AI and use AI to be more efficient. And I equally agree when he says that we need to recognise, value and celebrate our unique human skills of curiosity and empathy. 

To not just keep up with AI and its applications, tools and software, but to keep on top, we need to spend time and effort increasing our knowledge of AI and to critically assess the AI research landscape of platforms, tools, apps and softwares. Equally important is investing in honing and refining our critical thinking, our rigour in data collection, and our curiosity and creative thinking – our ability and capacity to make leaps of discovery and digging out those rare nuggets of gold. 

2. Keep core research skills relevant and sharp

Training in the fundamentals of survey design, sampling, representation, moderation and guide writing skills as well as data protection are essential for researchers at the early stages of their careers, but refining, refreshing and updating these skills are important at any level of your research practice. 

3. Supercharge yourself

A significant part of how research and insight impact, depends on how we write, speak, present and engage. I recently booked myself on a one day speech writing course with Good Shout. It focused equally on writing – stick to the mantra of no word wasted, no preamble, no fillers – and delivery. It helped me hugely in writing this piece. Investing in training which nurtures our thinking, writing and communicating will make us match fit to take on challenges from clients, bosses, the business climate and AI. 

Upskilling matters – and has a positive impact on the bottom line and the sustainability of a business.

Inger Christensen is co-founder of Daughters of Sailors