Research Live reported the death of Bill Schlackman in late June, who had passed away on 31 May, aged 88, at his home in Florida. Bill played a very important role in the development of market research in both the USA, and the UK. You can read about his contribution in Simon Patterson and Francesca Malpass paper, ‘The influence of Bill Schlackman on qualitative research’, the Forum article in IJMR 57/5, 2015.

I have also worked with Bill in the past, in particular on a major in-depth research project when I worked at the Automobile Association exploring car usage by older motorists and the challenges they faced in their day-to-day motoring. The findings were used to help develop advice and guidance to this group of motorists, to petition government about the importance of maintaining mobility for this age group, and to alert manufacturers about issues to do with car design that might make life easier for the older motorist.

I therefore felt that another way to mark the passing of such an influential figure in the history of market research would be to feature the work of Bill as an IJMR Landmark Paper. This proved more difficult than I thought.

Bill was a regular speaker at conferences, but apart from being Guest Editor of a special issue of JMRS in October 1986, ‘Planning Tomorrow Today’ (JMRS Vol. 28/4), where seminal researchers from that era (including Liz Nelson, Mark Abrams, Nigel Piercy, Jonathon Gershuny) looked to the future, discussing the likely impact of new technologies, changes in the structure of society, time use, the consumer of the future and how retailing was likely to evolve I only found one published paper:

A discussion of the use of sensitivity panels in market research: the use of trained respondents in qualitative studies, Bill Schlackman, JMRS Vol. 39 No. 1, January 1997

MRS Certified Members and Fellows can access this Landmark IJMR paper here on the SAGE Publications website. 

This appears in the two special issues of JMRS published in 1996/1997 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MRS, which contained seminal papers from either past issues of the journal, or the MRS conference, the latter being the source of the one I’m featuring. This was presented at the 1984 MRS annual conference.

In his introduction to the reprinted paper, Bill discusses why building a longer-term rapport, and trust, between participant and interviewer could enable the ‘truth’ to be uncovered, thus overcoming possible social desirability effects and enabling participants to expose negative attitudes and facts about themselves without lowering  their self-esteem.

However, as Bill discussed, there is a down-side, such as the increased likelihood of conflict within the group, idiosyncratic motivations and drop-out from sessions over time. Three key challenges were also identified: how can appropriate participants be identified; what is the optimum frequency for convening the groups; what level of participant training is appropriate, and, ensuring that participants do not become experts.

In the paper itself, Bill describes in detail the experimental work conducted in this field by The Schlackmam Group Limited, and the aim to create discussions that were more spontaneous and honest, with less ‘phoneyness’ and game playing by participants, less inhibition, an increased willingness to engage in the techniques used in the sessions, increased sharing of heartfelt experiences and more honest confrontation in the discussions.

The procedure for building and running a sensitivity panel is also described in detail, including the training the techniques used in discussing the topic under consideration. This leads to describing one of the five panels run to that date, set up with Unilever Head Office Research and their Elida Gibbs brand. Bill describes running a sensitivity panel as ‘resembling a party consisting of friends rather than an ordinary group discussion’.  The researcher also gets to know the participants as human beings, enabling a much greater understanding of them in terms of their values, personalities and motivations, and providing the opportunity to build a psychographic type segmentation.

Bill also discusses, and dismisses, the view that such groups would exhibit a sort of Hawthorn effect, using evidence from the panels. Whilst Bill considered that the experiments expose the deficiencies in traditional methods of qualitative research, for example, by providing the opportunities to examine the impact of product changes on attitudes and behaviour, the use of sensitivity panels needed to be restricted to hypotheses generation, as ‘ginger groups’, the insights needing to be verified using other research methods, but this is true for other qualitative methods, with validation using larger samples often necessary. Boredom could be a problem unless the discussions can be developed over time, and this represents a more expensive form of qualitative research.

Bill believed that the evidence from the groups led him to also conclude that the perceived wisdom at the time that trained or experienced participants could not be of value to market research due to bias, was ‘essentially untrue’. He considered that conventional groups generally provide consensus data, due to conforming to group pressure, this being largely overcome in sensitivity panels.

Of course, this was all before the internet age and the development of online community groups, that provide a similar longer-term research vehicle. However, Bill’s paper provides valuable food-for-thought in the internet age, exposing facets of human nature, and how people interact with each other, and with those orchestrating longer-term groups, that are timeless.

Finally, and still on the theme of the unchanging underlying nature of human behaviour, a paper by Bill that I’ve turned to on many occasions over the years, either as a manager of a research department, or when teaching about how to be effective in client-researcher relationships is ‘The interface between market research management and marketing management in user organisations: honi soit qui mal y pense’, presented at the 1979 MRS annual conference. You can find this on the Archive of Market and Social Research.

Bill recounts his career in research in the oral history interviews held here on the MRS website.

How to access the International Journal of Market Research (IJMR)

Published by SAGE, MRS Certified Members can access the journal on the SAGE website via this link.

Go to the IJMR website

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