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Peter Mouncey Blog

Bridging the gulf between practitioners and academics - a landmark paper

02-10-2013
In my editorial in the last issue, I described the development of revised guidelines to those thinking of entering MSc dissertations for the MRS Accredited Masters Award, and the observed apparent widening gulf in recent years between the content of dissertations and best practice market research.

To underline the fact that this is not a newly observed issue, I’ve selected Catterall & Clarke’s 1999 paper as the latest ‘Landmark Paper' (note: formerly called 'Classic Papers').


However, our recent discussions indicate that little real progress seems to have been made over the years. In fact the MRS Masters’ evidence suggests that the situation has deteriorated. 

As the authors state, right at the start of their paper, that whilst the marketing curriculum in universities is secure, ‘the academic standing of market research leaves a lot to be desired, with little fresh or innovative thinking on the scope and content of syllabus and a paucity of research in the domain’. 

MRS experience suggests that this remains the case, with academic research criteria in the ascendant, and market research ‘best practice’ losing out. This in spite of the aim of many masters students to improve their career chances as marketing or market research practitioners – a point well made in this landmark paper. 

The authors even question whether market research should be taught in marketing programmes as this limits the image of the practices to simply supporting that function, thereby ignoring the application of these methods in providing insight to aid other business activities, such as customer service and corporate strategy. 

The authors also state that a contributory factor is that practitioners do not engage with universities, to inject that ‘real world’ perspective, but current evidence suggests even where practitioners do participate, their influence is over-ridden by academic practices when undertaking research for that all important dissertation.

Catterall & Clarke identify deep flaws in the way market research is portrayed in universities, such as the emphasis on quantitative research methods supported by textbooks which they describe as no more than technical manuals, with qualitative methods being side-lined in academia as they ‘fail the test of strict scientific rigour’. 

I hope our recent series of papers on qualitative methodologies has underlined the vital contribution they make to best practice, and the firm foundations upon which these methods are built. A further issue identified by the authors is the focus on techniques, rather than the management problems to which it can bring new perspectives. 

The net result, according to Catterall & Clarke is that market research is dismissed as a technical field, focussing on data collection and analysis methods. There are masses of published ‘best practice’ case studies out there, but they are not always in the sources available to, or trusted by, academics.

The authors conclude that the ‘big picture’ should be the focus, with a shift away from research design towards ‘what and whom do surveys represent’, thus facilitating a discussion of key underlying challenges such as consumer participation, representativeness, privacy/ethics, power differentials/roles of the stakeholders in the research process etc. 

They call for more creativity in forging links between academic and practitioner communities, and the development of a more holistic approach to market research within the university curriculum.

Overall, I think that the issues, challenges and solutions discussed in this paper seem as relevant today as in the closing years of the twentieth century. 

Are we any nearer closing the gap, or is it widening, as MRS experience suggests?



Comments (4)

  • Ann-Marie Greensmith | April 2, 2014 1:25 pm

    I read Peter Mouncey's article with interest, as I asked a question on this topic at a recent IQCS meeting i.e. whether there are any actual Batchelors degrees etc in market research available in the UK. The sheer size of the industry would suggest that there should be and yet there seems to be an unnatural divide. We try to bridge the gap ourselves where we can (at Kudos Research), employing freelance quant and occasionally qual interviewers who are studying for business/marketing degrees. It can be extremely instructive for them to have experience at the data collection 'coal-face', and can provide invaluable insight into the tripartite remit of a questionnaire - namely, to answer the client brief and also be clear both to the respondent and (where telephone or F2fF is concerned)to the interviewer. We also get very good feedback about this experience when we offer it to Trainee Research Executives within our group, who get the opportunity to cut their teeth in the fieldroom and talk to real respondents on the phone. My personal role at Kudos is that of questionnaire 'doctor' - I proof and (usually!) improve every questionnaire we receive for scripting, and try thereby to ensure logic and clarity for all concerned, in terms of the question texts and the data. This role developed from Quality Control experience (along with 20 years' exposure to MR as a researcher and in management of data collection). Although experience is a vital element of my role, there are enough elements of it that that can be taught and demonstrated. I wonder if many of them are actually being imparted by professors and other teaching staff?
  • Professor Paul Baines | October 5, 2013 10:37 pm

    In a piece written for the European Journal of Marketing (see: Baines, P.; Brennan, R.; Gill, M. and Mortimore, R. (2010), “Examining the academic/practitioner divide in marketing research”, European Journal of Marketing, Vol.43, No.11/12, pp.1289-1299), we find that marketing academics and market research practitioners have fairly similar views of the salient characteristics of good marketing research. However, marketing academics have little interaction with marketing practititioners, conduct research on a part-time basis, and revere work that appears in peer-reviewed academic journals (present company excepted of course, dear reader, knowing that you also revere work published in this august outlet). By contrast, market researcher practitioners seem to worry less about methodological minutiae; the key aim of practitioners is to satisfy the research needs of the paying client, making the accumulated research knowledge in academic journals seem irrelevant because it is produced for a different purpose. This brings the discussion to our need to identify and explore ways in which these two groups can more effectively communicate their market research activities to one another, collaborate on projects together (assuming that they can) and more work effectively on areas of common interest. We uncovered some evidence to support the idea that marketing academics have the skills and inclinations pertaining to analysis of longer-term trends and underlying causal mechanisms in markets. Equally, the principal concern of market research practitioners is to provide pragmatic support for short-term decision-making. Clearly this is merely a useful generalisation and exceptions can be found: 3% of the academic respondents in our study reported themselves to be ‘highly active’ in commercial market research and consultancy; 17% of the practitioners said they had written an article for an academic journal. The great majority of marketing academics have either never done any commercial market research, or are currently inactive in this area. Concerning the possibility of greater collaboration between academic and commercial marketing researchers, we would say that our research provides grounds for both optimism and pessimism. Optimistically, we suggest that research academics and research practitioners in marketing hold similar views of what constitutes good research in marketing, and there is evidence of a degree of mutual respect. For example, academics approve of the speed that practitioners publish their findings, and think that they are presented in a readily digestible form; practitioners think that academic research is impartial and conducted professionally. Pessimistically, there is evidence that the two groups run along parallel tracks, both investigating marketing phenomena, but seldom if ever engaging with each other, meeting in their own groups at their own conferences, and communicating within their groups using their own media. Under these circumstances, how might greater engagement between market research academics and practitioners be achieved? We suggest that greater collaboration can be pursued under three headings: mutual comprehension, joint communication, and joint research. Under the heading of mutual comprehension are initiatives such as secondments of academic staff to market research agencies (I personally spent time with Sir Robert Worcester and the elections unit at MORI in 2005), and of research practitioners to academic departments (Roger Mortimore at Ipsos MORI is now quite rightly also a part-time full professor at Kings College London, internships (of PhD students at market research agencies), and greater cross-fertilisation between academic and practitioner conferences. These are inexpensive activities that essentially require the will to do them, plus a little time and money. Secondments and internships need be for no longer than a few weeks for mutual comprehension to improve and for personal networks to be formed. Joint communication involves purposeful activity to increase the frequency with which academic results are reported in the preferred media of practitioners, and the frequency with which the practitioner perspective is represented in academic journals. Such initiatives are neither particularly time-consuming nor costly. However, the third possibility – joint research – is more problematic. In principle, this may be no more than a call for a European version of the American Marketing Science Institute, which describes itself as “a learning organization dedicated to bridging the gap between marketing science theory and business practice” (MSI 2008). In practice, this would be much harder to accomplish, involving far greater investments of time and money. For the moment, we would suggest that this is a long-term aspiration that would be facilitated if the medium-term, and quite feasible, aims of mutual comprehension and joint communication were put in place. (This is an excerpt from the paper cited at the top of this post.) Professor Paul Baines Cranfield School of Management
  • Ruth McNeil | October 3, 2013 5:49 pm

    Interesting point, Annie, about the fine line between the need for lack of ambiguity in the way questions are phrased and yet the, equally strong need, for succinctness! Ideally, we should stress as practitioners that questions need both - precision but also a straightforward use of language, every-day language that means something to respondents. Let us always remember that it is "real people" answering our questions - and best practice means that they need questions they can answer and language they can understand. Thanks for raising the point!
  • Annie Pettit | October 2, 2013 3:39 pm

    I was recently delighted to overhear a conversation among a number of market research professionals who discussed in great detail and specificity exactly how a question should be worded. The end result was an extremely precise and unambiguous question and set of answers. The secondary result was that any normal person reading that survey was sure to think that Charles Dickens himself wrote it. (i.e., every question fills up a full page) Though market research does need the rigour that academia should teach us, it also needs a healthy dose of real people using human brains. Is academia making any effort to teach us how to combine 'how real people work' with best practices?

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