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Is MR facing a hi-tech, de-skilled future?

Tim Macer gives the software gurus a New Year quiz on the shape of things to come

At the start of 1997, Research asked all of the major developers of software for market research for their views on what the future might hold. We put the same three questions to each developer. This is a summary of the answers we received.

The first question was "The past few years have seen several trends emerge in the software used in research: a dash towards the PC, Windowing interfaces, graphics and multimedia, distributed rather than centralised processing, along with the emergence of the internet offering e-mail and the world wide web. What other technical innovations do you see around the corner?"

Four themes emerged from the spread of answers given: much more powerful tools; closer integration; more internet and voice recognition.

Ed Ross, Chairman of Quantime (authors of Quancept and Quantum) put it like this. "The interesting changes for this industry will have to do not with the technology or 'look and feel' of programs, but will involve the content of the software and the problems addressed. We expect to see much more powerful tools for integrating the market research process and market research data into a wider scenario."

"Integration" was also picked up by Mark Katz at ISPC (developers of ITE) who predicts "The whole MR process will speed up making it much faster for data-collection and delivery", and Edward O'Hara at In2itive Technologies (developers of In2Quest), predicts software "where the user does not need to program, or write computer scripts, in order to create questionnaires and surveys."

"More use of voice, more automated coding of open-ended answers, data capture on cheaper palm-top devices" were singled out by Peter Jackling of Merlinco, also mentioned by Andrew Collins at MRSL, and echoed by Tony Hartley at Infocorp (producers of Surveycraft), who added "integration of fax in the CATI environment; network telephony servicesƒ and in the not-to-distant future, use of GSM phones in conjunction with CAPI laptops/modems to solve sample management problems"

"More reports, tables, graphs etc in electronic format" were predicted by SIA's Rory MacNeill (distributors of Blaise), who also mentioned customised query packages and readers and as a result much less use of paper. This brings us back to the Internet. Mark Katz sees that "The web is by far the most important." Ken Hendrickson, MD of Pulse Train (who produce Bellview) pointed out "one program, such as Netscape, could become the standard tool for both collection and analysis."

An interesting split emerged in the answers to our second question: "Market research packages have been slow to de-skill the process of collecting and presenting data. Too much effort still goes into these routine operations. Furthermore, there is little integration between the different packages, making it hard to exchange data or move from using one tool to another. What should a researcher expect from the MR software package of the future? Will the MR software industry be able to deliver it?"

Ed Ross replied with "Fuzzy edgesƒ software will change from merely static packages to tools that will work well when integrated into a variety of different working environments and individual agency and client situations." Similarly, Andrew Collins at MRSL (producers of QPS) said "Future research programs will be even easier to use, and will have improved interfaces with 'standard' software." Edward O'Hara at In2itive also saw the need for "interoperability of software across different computers, but added this warning "As with all investments, the caveat for software is buyer beware!"

There were some concerns about "de-skilling" from Tony Hartley, Peter Jackling and Rory MacNeill. Tony Hartley compared it to "an aim to deskill the practice of law. Word processing, contract templates, precedent databases etc-all fine, but in the end a profession needs professionals. Data collection techniques are many and variedƒ It requires experience and skill to employ the right techniques. Presentation of data is also an art as much as a science." Peter Jackling went as far as to say "We do not agree with the premise of the question. There is a large range of PC Windows-based packages for routine operations; more complex operations do require more skill, and specialist tools."

On the other hand, Mark Katz answered this question with "Correct-execs have no time (or budget) to learn faster and more efficient systems. Integration is improvingƒ It would be nice if someone developed a standard interface for questionnaire specification, data-checking and spec-writing rather than common interface or data/dictionary (as in Triple S)".

Along with Edward O'Hara at In2itive, Ken Hendrickson was also firmly in the de-skilling camp. He commented "Pulse Train understand that elements of the MR process can and should be de-skilled. However, we also recognise that certain value-added areas are likely to continue to rely on experienced professionals." He went on "Integration is another important issue. Simplifying the workflow can result in increased automation and reliability in the research process. We are very keen on the Triple-S standard, and see this as a way of improving this area in the future. Unfortunately not all suppliers are committed to it, and we feel their customers will suffer as a result."

There was greater unanimity to our last question: "As mainstream PC packages start to incorporate some of the features of traditional market research software, what role is there for the specialist package?"

Many of the comments were summed up by Edward O'Hara "There will always be a need for specialist functional packages. However, PC packages will become so common that many of the traditional market research functions will be available to non-specialists, who will be in a position to carry out significant portions of the entire survey process." Peter Jackling summarised the advantages as "Allowing flexibility of record format, editing, recoding, analysis and presentation. Also providing links between different parts of the survey processing operation, to avoid unnecessary and dangerous duplication of effort". Ken Hendrickson added "while mainstream PC packages may be comparatively cheap, the complexity of moving data into and out of them, combined with the lack of specialist features means that they impose a workload overhead that far outstrips any initial cost saving." Only SIA saw no role for the specialist package in the future.

The question perhaps everyone wanted to ask was answered pragmatically by Mark Katz, who gets the last word. "A fundamental question which underlines all of this is 'will we do away with the traditional spec-writing department and try to force the total control of DP on the research exec?'. In my opinion this has been tried and failed since one ends up with mediocre DP people and frazzled Research execs unable to do their primary task of 'survey design and control' properly."

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, February 1997, Issue number 369.

© Copyright Market Research Society/Tim Macer 1997. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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