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Viewpoint: Why MRS should broaden its remit

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Vol. 54 No. 5, 2012 p.587–588

Martin Callingham

Birkbeck College, University of London

We live in an extraordinarily data-rich society. But, less than 15 years ago, this was not the case. Company computing infrastructure was designed for operational purposes; data extraction was difficult and the quality poor. In this world the market research industry provided market data through data pooling, consumer panels and the like. To be helpful, it was not unprepared to have a go at collecting data when the research route was not the most satisfactory one, as it often relies, for example, on perception. In terms of staffing, large companies had more researchers than sales analysts.

Now it has all changed.

What I notice is: the dramatic increase in properly structured data suitable for analysis, the arrival of significantly more powerful PCs and appropriate analytical software and, on a different tack, the substantial improvement in management numeracy. The result of this is a much greater demand for analysis and a much better capability of satisfying it. This mostly new activity has led to a new profession, that of the business or customer analyst. Big companies have lots of these people - a straw poll carried out by me suggests that they employ about twice as many as researchers.

What do analysts do? Generally they are involved in a series of concurrent projects, based mainly on the analysis of internal and some external data sets, with a view to telling a story to inform on a particular problem. They work to tight deadlines and have too much to do; they have the inevitable internal political tightrope to negotiate, and they have to be clear in their story and inspire confidence.

What are their personalities like? They like data, analysis, connecting with the wider company and often work effectively outside the company hierarchy. They are sincere, have great integrity and are proud of what they do. They are curious, intelligent and imaginative, and gain excitement from cracking a problem - and, frequently, they are not trained statisticians.

Sound familiar?

Yes, they are just like us!

So why don’t we help them join us? It would take very little redefinition in our mind of the term ‘market research’. MRS already encompasses the twin worlds of quantitative and qualitative, so including analysts as well seems perfectly natural.

We share common problems - for example, having a tendency to want to show all sides of the argument for the sake of honesty, and a difficulty in moving away from the data.

Actually, researchers are more prepared to allow some imagination to come into their interpretations simply because they have both qualitative and quantitative traditions. Understanding this would help business analysts to be more confident in providing insight.

An obvious difference is that the researchers go out and make their own data. Doing this purposely in order to enrich company data can transform the value of that internal data, though this is not always apparent to the analyst.

For example, a database may comprise information about each sales transaction. Obviously a count of these is not a count of customers (though this is often implicitly assumed). Using research to measure customer frequency can transform an analysis of a transaction database simply by applying the percentages from the research sample to the total transactions. How many of the sales went to first-time customers? Is this number rising or falling? Has there been any marketing and what was its purpose? What is happening to the less frequent customers and how are these changing over time?

There are really valuable ‘dashboard’ metrics in doing this.

In becoming aware that it is actually normal to collect data for a specific purpose, they will become enriched and strengthened in their professionalism. The converse is also true as, through our understanding of them, our own imaginative processes in constructing better designs would be enhanced.

Much of what I have said is well known, but my conclusion - that the two communities are different sides of the same coin and therefore that both would be better served through a common professional association - has not to my knowledge been articulated before.

I am suggesting that MRS repositions itself so that business analysts see it as their natural home. I am not suggesting changing our name, more encompassing them in our thoughts, removing the ignorant perceptions about market research and promoting the real fundamental commonality that we are both seeking insight. Furthermore we are both recruiting people from a common pool.

I have taught many analysts of major companies in the art of influencing company decisions, and it is through this contact that I have realised the similarities of the two communities. Furthermore, client companies really can’t be bothered with the differences and actually are more likely to see the analyst as their primary source of insight, and research as a peripheral one.

This increasing marginalisation is serious. As Adam Phillips said in his Viewpoint (IJMR 53, 6), ‘we risk becoming a core of professional practitioners with little impact or influence on the mass of people using the techniques we have developed’.

The world has changed. From being the major and often the only supplier of market information to businesses, we have become just one - albeit an important one. Let us welcome business/customer analysts by making our society clearly relevant to them, and let us enjoy the additional thinking they will bring.

Martin Callingham

Birkbeck College, University of London

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