What an insight professional needs to know and do is changing quickly. The future is not just about taking orders and conducting surveys. What’s needed is a much wider skill set and deeper engagement with the business.
“The demands of the insights profession, moving forward, are very different from what was needed when we all came into the industry,” ESOMAR Director General Finn Raben told me. “That does have implications for the skill sets that we require.”
The skill set for the insights professional of the future will be radically expanded. A solid grasp of methodology, statistics, sociology and psychology will not be enough. The ability to comprehend cultural context, digital marketing, history, and predictive analytics will also be essential—as will the skill to synthesize these inputs into a simple message of what B2B consultant Michael Haynes calls: “So what? What’s next?”
Telstra’s Elizabeth Moore says that, for her team, the skills needed have already changed. “It is quite a different skill set. It’s not just ‘pull somebody out of a research house and plug them into the team.’” She needs people who can extract insights from, and know when to use, multiple types of information.
“You need to be able to tell a story. You need to be able to string information together. You need to be able to look at the data lake, understand it, and understand what qual you need to wrap around that. You need an understanding of social media sentiment tracking, and when to use it, and when to commission traditional qual. You need to understand the business too. I think that we will see more people in insights roles coming from strategy companies, people who understand the way businesses work, and understand how to read a balance sheet, and what free cash flow is, and why EBITDA is important.”
“You must have this mindset of being a consultant while aiming to be fully integrated to the business,” says Estée Lauder’s Anamaria Gotelli, “and look for solutions in a way that is easy to understand, like The Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey.” Former Turner CRO Howard Shimmel agrees with that, but also thinks the consultant qualities need to be coupled with other hard skills. “If I could ever build the ideal researcher, I would clone someone who’s a third McKinsey consultant, a third data scientist, and a third someone who’s got the current research skills and instincts, who is concerned about the quality of data, and who knows how to do surveys, to explore complex issues that you can’t address through big data.”
This requires a stretch from where we are at today, but it’s not exactly a foreign endeavor. Mike Stevens, Founder/Editor at Insight Platforms points out, “There’s a bigger range of data sources but, effectively, we’re talking about the scientific method. We’re developing a hypothesis, and we’re going to try and find the data points to prove or disprove it. I think the range of different data sources is independent from the sort of skills needed to go and make decisions and influence things.”
A need for ongoing education
Researchers must pick up new skills and become familiar with other methods. “The insights people that I see who are future-proofing themselves are getting their heads around digital marketing skills, analytics, data science and technology,” says Stevens. “They have an understanding, even if it’s not highly detailed, that enables them to talk the talk effectively. And they see how those methods get used alongside traditional research approaches in a source-agnostic way.”
Picking up these new skills requires a significant investment in continuing education, which shockingly few insights professionals are currently making. According to Ray Poynter and Sue York’s #NewMR Market Research Knowledge Benchmarking Study 2018, 38% of market researchers had 5 hours or less of training in the past 12 months. Poynter and York conclude, “. . . too many market researchers are not receiving enough training, something which we believe is endangering the future of market research as a knowledge-based, value-adding industry and profession.”
Shimmel encouraged ongoing learning at Turner by arranging for people in the insights department to get some exposure to other techniques. “Turner’s campus in Atlanta is right next to Georgia State,” he explained. “I connected with someone in their data science group, who ran a training program for us. We put 50 people through advanced data management skills. We were starting to train people on how to use SAS and SPSS—how to tap into data lakes and things like that.” He recognizes that that is not enough. “We need to train them on skills like that,” he says, “but we also need to train them on how to walk the walk, and talk the talk, like someone from McKinsey.”
ESOMAR’s Raben doesn’t see higher education as being responsive to this need for more well-rounded training—yet. “When you look around different universities—and I’m fortunate enough to be involved with a number of them across different regions—they’re still quite traditional in their approach.” He thinks there is a need to offer a broader education that looks beyond traditional quantitative and qualitative research because areas like anthropology, digital marketing, history, and predictive analytics are “the skill sets that we need developed.”
Raben believes market researchers are well positioned to make this leap: “I think we are still the best data manipulators and managers around, because it’s in our blood.” But he recognizes that we must act quickly and decisively. “If we don’t adapt some of our teaching and training going forward, we may well be left behind.”
The #NewMR numbers probably overestimate the percentage of researchers who do continuing education—because those who are fully detached from learning are probably not tapped into education centers like #NewMR. That’s disheartening because it suggests this lack of change will lead to a significant culling of the herd. But maybe that’s a good thing for the evolution of the insights function.
Let’s invest in learning to make sure we not only survive, we thrive!
The Insights Revolution is Coming
The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything
It’s time to start the insights revolution.
Andrew Grenville, Chief Research Officer at Maru/Matchbox says the insights industry is in trouble.
It’s not growing and it does not have real influence in the boardroom. So what to do? This book takes a problem/solution approach that shines an uncomfortable light on familiar practices before suggesting a better way forward.