Stewart Gowans, speaker, trainer and commentator, brings irreverent humour to the thorny issues facing today’s young research and insight professionals.

Crystal Balls – A Sideways Look at What 2018 Might Bring

Management guru, Peter Drucker, once said . . . “Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights, while looking out the back window” . . . and given the recent predictions around elections, buying trends and beards you could be forgiven for thinking that reverting to tarot cards or a crystal ball might be more effective.

Prediction is difficult but of course it doesn’t stop everyone doing it, especially in the research sector. You won’t be surprised to know that most industry commentators – all predict that 2018 will be a “transformational” year for the research and insight sector – yes another one. Apparently, we will be awash with “disruptive technology”, “paradigm shifts”, “watersheds” and “tipping points” – all of which can be translated into plain English as…“Lots of unexpected stuff will happen, but no one knows exactly what.”

I’m not immune to all this nonsense, so – in my capacity as the Chairman of The Chartered Institute for Making Stuff Up – here are my predictions for 2018.

Artificial intelligence biscuits

You can’t seem to get away from AI and machine learning when talking about the future. Yes, AI and machine learning’s awesome ability to gather, process, learn from and communicate data will have a huge impact on research, but my top AI prediction is that soon all focus groups will be facilitated by robots instead of a human beings. This pleases me because at the last focus group I took part in the facilitator ate all the biscuits – he kept lunging forward from the whiteboard and scooping them up. I was distressed because I had my eye on the last chocolate hobnob – but he snaffled it. I wouldn’t really have minded but the topic of the focus group was “Attitudes to Obesity”. Nevertheless, given that robots only eat batteries, at least the biscuits should be safe in future.

Smartphone-based research will thrive

This one is inevitable. Our phones are already a deep source of data such as location, purchasing habits and app usage. They can provide an unprecedented and uncomfortable level of insight into consumer behaviour, and my phone already knows more about me than my mother, the police and the Inland Revenue. Apps, for example, can be incredibly nosey, demanding permission to access lots of data, and I’m worried that things might be going too far.

The other day, when downloading an app, a message popped up saying . . . “This app needs permission to access to your immortal soul and your conscience” . . . Allow or Disallow”. I agreed happily as, being an agnostic I’m not sure if I have an immortal anything, and as for my conscience, that flew out of the window long ago when I began a career in advertising.

Quantitative v qualitative – the old battle

I predict that there will be a controversial piece of quantitative research which shows that 64.5 % of qualitative research results are made up in the pub by researchers having a laugh. This will be swiftly followed by an in-depth piece of “empathetic” qualitative research which reveals that all quantitative researchers are nerds who love their Excel spreadsheets more than life itself. Who said this battle will never end?

The awful truth about most research proposals

I predict that 60% of clients will turn to the last page of research proposal (the one with the breakdown of costs) and thereupon immediately decide whether to commission the research there and then without reading the rest of the proposal (even the lovingly crafted Executive Summary which someone spent days on). If you have ever been a client this “finding” won’t surprise you at all.

Jargon phrase of the year

I predict that in 2018 the most used phrase in presentations will be… “The Customer Journey”. Of course, this one has seen around for a while, but in 2018 with AI tracking everything from our banking to our bowel movements, the customer journey really will be accessible to researchers for the very first time, and let’s face it we all want to be in on that journey . . . well maybe not the toilet habit bit.

The revenge of the masses

I predict that in 2018 the ‘lower classes’ will perfect their technique of lying to middle class researchers. In the past few years the C2, D, and E demographic have had some mega successes (and lots of laughs) wrong-footing the research professionals about how they intend to vote, and I forecast that this is a trend which will continue. Research will keep going on about the need for ‘engagement’ with research subjects, but in future they will need to look for new ways to “engage”, perhaps even going as far as to venture outside the M25 and go to… The North.  

Millennials and Gen X fuss about Gen Z

Just as Baby Boomers and Gen X have been obsessed with Millennials, and as Millennials move into real positions of power and seniority within the research sector, they in turn will become obsessed with Generation Z, who are generally agreed to comprise the cohort born after 2000. Gen Z are young – really young – and are the first truly digital generation, it’s a little known fact that when born they don’t have anything as “analogue” as a belly button; instead they come complete with a SIM card slot and a USB port instead. I have underpants older than some members of Generation Z, but thankfully my pants will never be the subject of rigorous research, which is just as well really.

Brexit Means What?

Finally, I confidently predict that no amount of research will ever uncover what “Brexit Means Brexit” actually means.


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