Asia’s Talent Challenge – From Roots to Shoots

The depth of research talent in Asia is not as deep as the magnitude and complexity of the market warrants.  Given recent trends, if things continue as they are, the situation is unlikely to improve and could get worse. Measures are needed to both establish fundamental standards in the profession and to ensure that ongoing career development is offered to those remaining in the industry. Otherwise, even if entry levels are raised we will still suffer from the problem of the ‘missing middle’, the cadre that is the engine room of the industry and the testing ground for future leaders, especially on the agency side.

Starting with standards, the introduction of some form of certification that was broadly accepted industry-wide in the region could go a long way to help. The importance of training with respect to the ongoing health and prosperity of the industry must be generally understood, appreciated, and supported by all stakeholders in the field of market research. I recognise that it’s impossible to get complete agreement on anything like this but we should look for some minimum standards accepted, practiced, and observed by a the industry as a whole. This includes buyers on client side, the research suppliers (major international agencies, local/regional specialists, and sole operators) the industry bodies, and research professionals as individuals

Given the stage of development, we probably have both more need, and possibly more chance, of adopting such standards in this region, than in the more developed geographies. To me this adoption is crucial for market research to maintain and sustain its overall economic value, i.e. that what makes it worth doing and worth paying for. Specifically, the initiative is needed to:- 

  1. Uphold the maintenance of professional standards
  2. Keep alive thought leadership to develop, improve, and enhance the industry’s ability to address and help resolve marketing issues, i.e. MR’s economic raison d’être.
  3. Prevent MR declining into a commodity service which does not attract the talent needed to thrive (so further hastens any decline.)

I have deliberately specified research buyers as the leaders here. Can the clients help as they did in the early days of the US’s, Europe’s and parts of A-P’s development? Should they insist, for example, that where they have a global deal, the agencies on the roster must provide suitably qualified candidates to service their accounts? If not, in markets where the roster agency does not invest in the staff, the clients should be allowed to choose amongst local or regional operators who do get their people trained. This would give the smaller specialists a motivation to also qualify their staff over and above the usual reasons.

Yes, the administration needed to get started would be a challenge. So I would like to see something along the lines of, if not actually, the University of Georgia’s Principles of Market Research Certificate, which is already endorsed by ESOMAR, as the standard. The coverage of the course is comprehensive, up to date, and accessible online. Also, the supporting text books are some of the most practical and actionable I have read on both market research and marketing. I used the qualification to raise standards and encourage career enhancement in Nielsen Japan (in both the Customised and Retail tracking divisions) in the early 2000’s. Around two dozen staffers sat the exams at a time which coincided with some of the most successful performance in the business.

Ideally, I would like to see the region’s local research societies get together and take an active part in administering the system. They would be responsible for the publicity, for facilitating access, and helping to tailor the course to their market. One issue with the Georgia University course, from my experience, is that it is by nature somewhat US-orientated. They also could help in the translation into local languages, ideally by co-opting a couple of the senior industry figures from their market, many of whom would be semi-retired, but would have enjoyed thorough research training. There are plenty of ex-SRG, ex-Frank Small, and the like directors around who could ably handle the task. And translation is important; from my experience in Japan, exam grades were at times more correlated to English ability than inherent research skill.

There would need to be some central body to ensure standards were upheld at the country level and that the coverage remained relevant and meaningful to Asia-Pacific. Perhaps a forum with representation from ESOMAR, Georgia University, and a rotated selection from the country research societies could do for starters. Some form of research buyers’ representation would also add value.

But while getting basic certification and initial training in place would be a huge step, these actions do not deal with the skills shortage at the ‘mid-level’ of the industry. Even if they were universally embraced, they would only address the foundations on which the industry is built. Our industry is faced with a potential crisis around 2012-2013 when the ‘missing middle’ effect will be exaggerated as economies recover from the recent financial meltdown.  That is when we will see the real effect of the marked cut-back in recruitment that has occurred in the past 18 months.

Put simply there is an urgent need for ‘fast-tracking’ those who have entered the industry recently and those within it who have suffered from lack of training due to budget cuts since 2008. These people need more intensive and more focused types of training and mentoring as they are already dealing with clients and complex research issues.  Some of this may be done in-house, but possibly only in the larger units of the big agencies due to capacity reasons. Elsewhere, external expertise may be the more productive option as senior leaders strive to exploit the recently returned growth in the research markets around the region. Yes, this will take investment now, but the pay-off will be swift. The companies who do not invest in training now will be the ones that struggle to meet demand in a year or two.

Clearly, there’s a lot more thought needed and work to be done before this becomes a reality but at the moment the industry is running hard just to keep up. Even if it does not increase the numbers, if nothing else, improved training at entry and mid-level will increase the productivity of those who remain, thus part of the capacity and resource challenge will be resolved.

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