Most Market Research professionals like a bit of variety in their working lives. After all, it’s not the ideal career for people who favour predictability and routine. David and I have enjoyed such variety in bucket-loads (click on the David & Alastair tab above if you’re interested) sometimes because we had no choice (I recall living through seven major changes of company ownership!) but also because at various critical points in our careers we had the good fortune of having had bosses who were willing to take a few risks on us and invest time and effort in involving us in new areas.
Giving researchers new challenges and introducing them to new ideas, services and methods is a vital factor in developing our industry. It pays large dividends in producing researchers who are more flexible and creative in their approach, and less likely to get bored and change jobs. There are many ways this could be tackled, but here are three ideas I think are worth pursuing.
1. Build an expectation that jobs will change. Make changing roles and tasks part of the culture. Good company cultures/structures (in any size of company) figure out how to ensure young and mid-level researchers get exposed to a variety of influences and get introduced to new challenges in a way that allows growth (without simply getting more work dumped on them). This means resisting the temptation to leave researchers for years with the same boss (no matter how good he or she may be) and actively encouraging people to try their hands with new services or methodologies, Management and HR must regularly ask themselves “has he/she been doing the same thing too long?”, and be prepared to risk temporary disruption by pushing them onto something new.
2. The issue is not just about agencies. Research departments in many clients are in as much need of transformation in terms of how they approach developing research insights, staff development and training as the agencies. While internal departments offer extra exposure to areas such as marketing and sales, in research terms their very nature means they can easily become introverted and “mono-cultural”. Finding ways for their MR staff to be exposed to a variety of influences seems to me to be increasingly important if they are to remain innovative and flexible. There has to be a better way than simply hiring ex-agency staff and more creative policies of secondment (e.g. to other countries, companies in other sectors) and training are needed. Agencies can also play a part by involving client side researchers in more of their internal training and seminars.
3. Change needs to involve “jump not dump”. Our industry is facing up to major changes and challenges. We need to ensure that today’s mid-level researchers are better prepared for the huge changes that they are going to need to undertake in the next few years. What I notice though is a big gap in preparing researchers of (say) 3-5 years experience for the jump in new skills that is needed at the next stage of career development (when you have to not only apply your research skills a lot better but also develop consultancy, marketing, management and half a dozen other quite different abilities). With companies getting leaner and financial demands getting tougher it is at this stage that executives really start to feel the heat and it is the amount and content of training and staff development for mid-level staff that needs comprehensive thought in my view.
I am not, however, one of those who thinks that new industry trends mean that all aspects of a research career must also change completely and that we can forget old skill sets. Moving towards more flexible career paths does not imply we can ignore the fact that some core aspects of market research involve “craft skills” that require intensive mentoring to master. It is also the case that in many of the so called “new MR” areas the emerging skill sets mainly involve changes in application of existing areas of expertise: applying research and sampling discipline to new technology issues, e.g. online panels, analysing social media output etc. There are other areas however, where researchers’ mind sets need to change ‘absolutely‘ (e.g. I’d argue that the recent recession has dramatically exposed the need for researchers generally to become much more business orientated) .
So there is a need for the “new researcher” to learn totally new skills in some areas, while refining and enhancing traditional skill sets in other areas. An ability to adapt to constant change in techniques, methods and management of research, but a strong adherence to consistency and application of base standards seem to me to be key requirements of the next generation of research leaders. Producing such versatile leaders will be quite a challenge, and implies more active career management both by companies and researchers themselves.