Article #30: Internet-based research

Tim Macer reports from the SPSS MR SumIT99 Conference in Reykjavik

SPSS MR opens up to a global future

Events of the last year and a half, as SPSS swallowed up several leading players in the MR software market, had raised many questions but few answers. How could such a diverse and overlapping collection of software (three different CAPI packages, numerous tab solutions) be brought together into one unified offering. Would there be winners and losers? What was SPSS really up to?

It soon became clear that "Vision 2000" is going to be much more than another range of software products. SPSS MR's md Ian Durrell stated that Vision 2000 meant a shift to open systems based on standard interfaces. "[Vision 2000] is an exciting strategy which will be valid throughout the world of market research," Durrell said. "We are going from a fundamentally proprietary set of software to one that is entirely open and can be interfaced to any other open software". Describing it as "an evolution and not a revolution," Durrell also explained that SPSS MR, as a division of SPSS, would retain a high degree of autonomy, recognising "the unique needs of the market research community".

Few would disagree that Quantime's packages, now absorbed within SPSS MR, were among the worst culprits for their lack of openness. It was therefore all the more surprising to hear Quantime and now SPSS MR senior developer Richard Kottler announce that "We want to move to an open system environment." He explained that Vision 2000 would bring "a series of new products with one single repository for data and one single interface to avoid the existing proliferation of files. The goal is to be able to customise applications with [industry standard] OLE and even open the MR database interface [to other developers]."

Senior developer Paul Peterson, originally with SPSS, revealed details of a new model for representing market research data: the "MR data model". This will overcome the current mish-mash of file formats by coping with data from just about all known sources, including all existing SPSS MR products. and others too, including Triple-S. As an open standard, others will be able to build their own bridges to it in both directions.

Another development Peterson revealed is the "integrated standard interface" for interviewing, code named "ISE". The idea is to have a single means of creation, but many different tools, or "players" for administering the interview: CATI, CAPI on a variety of devices, web, kiosk, IVR (voice activated), possibly even paper. Players will appear from next year, with some not out until 2001 or 2002. On the data delivery side, elements of SPSS, including the concept of the data cube, will be incorporated into a new MR specific tab package to be called MR Tabs (pronounced Mr Tabs).

Never before has MR had such a powerful investor willing to make such a significant long-term investment in technology for research. We have been poorly served in the past. In a relatively small market, having a choice of thirty competing CATI systems or forty different tabulation packages makes no sense. For users, the solutions were expensive while suppliers rarely achieved the revenues needed to invest in the next generation. This is why we are often using patched-up technology that should have been pensioned off long ago. Outside of MR, who else, these days, has a DP department? Most people use Excel or database solutions, the fruits of massive, long term, money-no-object developments. SPSS has money, it has vision, a huge market share and global ambitions. The real "Vision 2000" message is the globalisation of supply for MR software. It will be good if, at last, we get the tools that will, to quote Ian Durrell "empower the research executive to complete the major part, if not all of the project him/herself". It will not be so good if SPSS try to take, or succeed in achieving a monopolistic stance in the market. Let us hope that SPSS's commitment to open standards will encourage the best of the rest to rise to the same challenge: it certainly leaves the door open.

Clients and agencies find their own global solutions

"Global business management is critically important if we are to continue to prosper in our markets. We cannot avoid globalisation and we must face the challenge." Said Jim Coombes of Proctor & Gamble's European Consumer & Market Knowledge division at SumIT 99. For him, the key issues are quality, and in particular consistency; speed and cost. These apply equally to both P&G's products and to its market research.

Coombes sees consistency of results as being one of the most important factors in research on a global scale, but fears that too much "noise" gets introduced into research data through the constant desire for agencies or staff in a different region to "do things differently". For example, small, essentially cosmetic changes to questions can render survey data useless in terms of comparability.

Few agencies that operate globally have risen to the challenges of speed, reducing costs and ensuring consistency on a global scale, Coombes contends. Local branch offices too often work to their own procedures and standards. To compensate for this, P&G invested in a technical solution, working closely with SPSS MR to develop a database of almost half a million questionnaire components currently in eight languages. Eventually this will be 36. Agencies working with P&G are required to use this database for all questionnaires..

However, technology is not the only answer. "To meet our needs, agencies need to restructure and organise themselves on a global category basis, deliver truly comparable regional and global results, and move away from having strong national management that protects their turf."

According to Research International's Richard Scionti this is precisely what his technology-led project, the RI Workbench, aims to deliver. "Our global clients are not looking for a network with pins on maps. They're looking for a global company that can deliver a cohesive, coherent service to them regardless of where it is in the world." He stressed that Workbench was not merely an IT initiative, but one that required and had the backing of the whole of RI.

Workbench director Mike Page explained "Workbench is about re-engineering our workflow into making it deliver what the client wants. The workbench consists of a standard set of tools for researchers to use through all stages of the research process, from questionnaire design to presentation." A survey builder, based in SPSS MR's In2quest, gives access to a global pool of questions, surveys and translations. Surveys on paper, or from CATI, CAPI or the web feed directly into a results database. Page feels they will be also be able to improve consistency by being able to track the history and provenance of each question, survey and set of results in the survey database. Greater consistency should also flow from being able to eliminate many repetitive tasks.

While we wait for Vision 2000 to become a reality, RI must be praised for making explicit what SPSS have only hinted at. To do research faster, cheaper and more consistently, you need to cut out the middleman, and put the researcher in the driving seat.

Published in Research Magazine, the independent voice of market research in Great Britain, June 1999, Issue 397.

© Copyright Tim Macer 1999. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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