Filling the Talent Gap – Breaking Asia’s Vicious Circle

While market research managers elsewhere are keeping a tight lid on hiring, in Asia-Pacific, Talent Management and Retention is still remains a headache. If research agencies do not tackle this issue head on, they are likely to miss out on the region’s huge potential.

Recently, in a call for papers, ESOMAR postulated that the key questions were: How can research professionals train junior researchers to a standard that meets the needs of client companies? Who needs to fill in the strategic thinking positions in market research? And how should candidates for these positions be recruited? Such questions are important, and to find the answers it helps to step back and consider why Asian MR has such huge talent issues and so understand that recruitment and retention problems are symptoms of wider challenges facing the MR industry in the region. In the next three posts, I’ll explain what has exacerbated the problem and how it needs to be addressed but to start it helps to understand the historical development of MR in the region, compared to the US and Western Europe.

Market research as we know it today can be traced back to the US in the1920’s and 30’s with the advent of companies like Nielsen and Gallup. As the economies of Europe moved from being production-led to marketing-led, many of the practices developed in the US were brought over the Atlantic. The growth and acceptance of commercial market research was driven by the large national agencies, e.g. Britain’s Mass Observation, Germany’s GfK and by US organisations through the efforts of Nielsen, J. Walter Thompson, General Mills, General Foods, and the like.

With the Western economies growing at 3-4% pa in the main, there was ample time for the supply of trained researchers to keep up with the demand for their skills.

In contrast, outside Japan and Australasia, research did not get going in Asia-Pacific until the mid-60’s when Newell Grenfell founded the Survey Research Group, closely followed by the appearance of Frank Small in SE Asia. It needs to be remembered that China, today such an engine of growth, did not do much (or even allow in some cases) market reseach until the mid-late 1990’s. To give perspective, when Alastair Gordon, then based in Taiwan, was brought into help with an early study of laundry powder in 1991, most urban Chinese consumers still washed by hand, and many got their detergent for free as an allowance from their State “Work Unit”. Moreover, unlike Western Europe, which had a strong push from the US to ‘kick start’ the research industry, Asia-Pacific got no such boost from its largest player, Japan, some 30 years later. In fact, it was the manufacturers with the activities of Unilever in SE Asia and India along with P&G in the Philippines and North Asia led much of the development. (This, in part, explains why such a disproportionately high percentage of research talent in Asia originates from India and Philippines.)

In the past 4 decades or so the markets of Asia have grown in the range of 5-9% per annum barring the odd year of stagnation and temporary decline. This growth has provoked an ever faster increase in the demand for research. Thus, it has been much harder to keep the supply of researchers apace with demand, especially as the proportion of educationally qualified potential entrants in the working population was lower to start with due to the relative lack of higher education opportunities at the time when research took off.

The initial shortage of researchers has caused a self-perpetuating vicious circle, with the good researchers who did emerge being over-worked and hence being denied the time to train and mentor their successors. In turn, both they and their junior staff became less than satisfied career-wise and sought alternatives, further exacerbating the problem. It hasn’t helped that every other related industry has also been growing at the same pace and with many researchers tempted away from MR towards perceived “easier” jobs in Sales, Advertising, Marketing, or similar.

The challenge facing the profession in Asia is a therefore a tough one, akin to change the wheels of car while it is still in motion. The HR and management methods developed for Western markets often appear to have difficulty coping with the magnitude and complexity of the issues involved, and some are at times culturally inappropriate. There are, however, ways out of this crisis. The next post in this series will cover more recent trends and events and set the scene for our view of a “way forward”.

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2 Responses to Filling the Talent Gap – Breaking Asia’s Vicious Circle

  1. David and Alastair – this is an excellent post that really highlights the recruitment and retention dilemma facing the market research industry on both a global and regional level.

    The talent gap is indeed a crucial challenge in the Asia-Pacific region and has a direct impact not only on the way that market research is done but also on the actual outcomes that market research can provide to its user clients. It is our hope that our 2010 ESOMAR Asia Pacific conference will bring together stakeholders from throughout the region to address the unique and complex issues surrounding recruiting and retention in a non-Western market research culture.

    There are no easy answers. However, our APAC 2010 conference was designed to facilitate a sharing of strategic knowledge from local and international MR agencies and client companies and it is through this event that we aim to provide a platform for discussion to find solutions for attracting and keeping the best in the MR industry.

    We look forward to your future posts.

    • David McCallum says:

      Finn – Thanks for your comments, this is a topic Alastair and I feel strongly about having faced the training and retaining challenge from Japan, through N.E. and S.E. Asia to Australasia over the past 25 years or so. We both plan to attend APAC 2010 and so hope to participate in the forum there. Our next installments on the topic will appear during the rest of February and possibly beyond – regards David

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