In the May issue of IJMR (58/3), you will find a comprehensive set of Conference Notes based on the IJMR hosted debate, ‘Who will succeed in the new age of data discovery?’ , a session in the afternoon of Tuesday, March 15th at this year’s MRS annual conference, Impact 2016 held in London. As with the first such session, ‘Fit-for-Purpose sampling in the internet age’, held at Impact 2015, we attracted a large audience to hear the views of our four international panellists and take part in the subsequent lively discussion. As in 2015, the debate was chaired by Adam Phillips (Real Research), a member of the IJMR Executive Editorial Board.

- Big data; big challenges

Edwin Kooge(Metrixlab Big Data Analytics, The Netherlands), co-author of ‘Creating Value with Big Data Analytics’, opened the session by describing the skills and experience needed by organisations, and individuals, to meet the challenges posed by big data. It is highly unlikely that these can be found in one person, the solution being a highly skilled multi-disciplinary team that act as a ‘conductor’ of the marketing intelligence function within the organisation. The big challenge would be ensuring that the leader of this team has the skills, experience and personality traits to, firstly, manage a team with such a disparate skill-set, and secondly, to engage with, and be respected by, top management.

- Re-positioning market research

The second speaker, Paul Bosher (Global Head of Research at Walgreens Boots Alliance), described his experience of working in an environment that is awash with data held in a complex network of organisational silos, echoing one of the challenges described by Kooge. Today, everyone has access to data. Currently, big data is used to solve small problems. The big challenge is moving the focus to addressing strategic issues. In the past, market research was the oracle, where others in the organisation came to seek knowledge. Now, data is available to all from a wide variety of sources. Research needs to be positioned as the voice of the consumer working in collaboration with all stakeholders in the business. Research is just one input of many in today’s world of big data; insight is the output.

- A ‘bilingual’ future

Rachel Lawes (Regent’s University) argued that the canny consumer is rapidly learning how to gain advantage by manipulating social media data to achieve their goals, citing the online dating sites as an example. Lawes believes that those who will succeed in the new data rich world need to be ‘bilingual’ in social research methods and business skills.

- New skills in a new era

The final panel member, Christina Jenkins (Global Research team leader within GSO Insights, LinkedIn) contended that a new cultural mindset was necessary for organisations to succeed in the big data era, whilst individuals needed new skillsets. Organisations needed to take risks, learn from failure and work collaboratively. LinkedIn data demonstrated the rise of the data scientist, whilst researchers were acquiring new analytical skills to broaden their skill-sets. However, those researchers who rose to senior management positions also possessed leadership and business skills that enabled them to fulfil a strategic role.

- The future of insight

Successful organisations in the new data-rich insight-poor world will be those that recognise the strategic value of insight – gleaned from a variety of sources - and create an appropriate culture and structure to facilitate this development. Positioning of the insight function to provide a corporate resource that influenced business strategy is therefore of vital importance. This positioning builds expertise and leadership, preventing a glass ceiling that is common for specialist research and analytical functions. This creates a new sense of purpose and worth for the team by playing a key role in influencing the strategic direction of the organisation. This team also needs to be independent from operational functions, such as marketing, to ensure an objective and respected view.

The challenge is finding appropriately skilled and experienced managers that have sufficient knowledge of the tools and methods used by the team to judge the soundness of their work, whilst being able to engage at board level. Researchers who aspire to be managers of such a function will need to ensure that their career development takes in the knowledge and experience that will make them a respected member of the senior team. Broadening research skills to embrace the new big data tools, or becoming a data scientist/technician simply creates a more knowledgeable member of the market intelligence team. To secure that seat at the top table as a strategically orientated senior MI/insight manager requires the addition of a different skill-set embracing leadership, finance and an in-depth knowledge of the business and its market context. Analytical skills are in short supply, and we need a new breed of highly experienced knowledge-managers to lead high-level strategically orientated MI functions. Will researchers be able to seize this opportunity to ensure that organisations gain maximum competitive advantage from today’s data-rich, but often knowledge-poor, environment?

- A view from the bridge

Our debate chimed with key themes articulated earlier in the day by the opening Keynote speaker, Stan Sthanunathan (Senior Vice President Consumer & Market Insights, Unilever). In a very fast-paced presentation, Stanunathan warned that the democratisation of data means that information does not create power and no longer confers competitive advantage.

The real challenge is to foster rapid growth with scarce resources. Research needs to be good, fast and cheap to be effective. With data being commoditised and insight democratised, actions provide the competitive edge. Stanunathan painted a picture of a future where nerds will rule, citing the current 150,000 shortfall of analysts in the USA; boutique suppliers will flourish as large agencies shed staff to cut costs; integrators will emerge as a key force; scale becomes a liability where agility and nimbleness become vital; the human body will become an increasingly important source of data (the quantified self); artificial intelligence becomes a dominant technology; there will be no role for briefs where insight needs to be created in hours and real-time is the new currency; a new conceptual world is emerging where we already have the answers, just tell me the question; get social or be branded anti-social and use social media to identify those externally influencing the organisation.

These trends were influencing the internal transformation within Unilever to unlock talent and potential. To address these challenges and attract the talent necessary to power the new insight landscape, Stanunathan advocated partnerships between the research sector and academic institutions plus new certification programmes as key strategies in achieving this goal. I think that if we can also offer new avenues to career progression, as advocated in the IJMR Debate, this will also help attract those who currently see research as a having a low glass ceiling.

- Paragon Partnership

Stanunathan also announced the launch in May of the Paragon partnership (, where Unilever and a host of partners from governments, clients, academia, research agencies and NGOs, MRS and ESOMAR, ‘are creating an open platform to combine market research forces in addressing key global development and sustainability challenges’. Paragon will generate and provide access to insight to help governments, NGOs and academics around the world.


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