Spoilt for choice

Report by Tim Macer

We are spoilt for choice. It has been the situation with software for collecting and processing MR data for many years now.
Flick through the pages of January’s Research Software Review and the dilemma is obvious: trying to select the best solution is like picking a winner in a 230 horse race. Even trying to find one that will stay the course is perilous, as software producers struggle for a narrow slice of a pie worth £180 million worldwide. But the oversupply of competing solutions is causing problems for the research industry and leaving many of the large issues the industry faces unanswered, such as how to shore up sagging response, or sharpen up its processes so it can take on the business consulting firms and the CRM hawkers, and win.
At least the majority of MR’s specialist software producers have been relatively sheltered from the effects of the dot.com bubble and there has been no catastrophic company failure to date. There is a cluster of reasons for this, including the underlying utility of their products in meeting a business need that customers are willing to pay for; the popularity of software rental rather than outright purchase which sustains income even when sales are poor and the predominance of established players not reliant on venture capital or seeing an initial public offer as business objective number one.
But this is not a time for complacency. A chill wind is blowing through the market for MR software. Sales are thin as buyers’ budgets get trimmed and decisions put on hold. There are bound to be some casualties among those suppliers that have relied heavily on investment finance and maybe others too, as forecast sales now fail to materialise. It may be the international sales office that goes, or more jobs are lost (there have already been a few). We may see some takeovers and mergers - or we may not.
The problem is, mergers between technology firms offering competing products are fundamentally unworkable, unless the products being merged complement each other, such as a suite of analysis
products added to a data collection platform. Unlike mergers of, say, retail networks, where the combined company can cherrypick the best outlets, the inherent incompatibility of most software means almost inevitably that one solution will be left to wither on the vine - despite whatever soothing platitudes the manufacturer provides.
This is compounded, in the MR space, by a lack of accepted standards so that systems are closed and proprietary in the way they operate. We now have the absurd situation where data, program scripts and documentation can move from Croydon to Croatia or Leamington to Lima in a few seconds. But the key to making it work is often the Word file, as the survey is re-defined from scratch for a competing CATI or data analysis system: compatibility through cut and paste.

“A chill wind is blowing through the market.”

Standards and open systems have been slow coming to MR. Most manufacturers have been unenthusiastic about such initiatives as triple-s, which is a working standard, or AskML and TabsML, both in different stages of development. MR agencies and research consumers have been mute in lobbying for change. Database technology has been slow to catch on, which has left MR dangerously outside the loop when it comes to plugging into corporate systems for sampling, event-driven research, CRM integration and more.
Yet the adoption of standards offers us the best way out of this mess.

Not only will it give customers a life raft for their surveys and data if their vendor’s package sinks below the waves, but on a day-to-day basis it will make it easier to integrate with other packages internally, when working with other agencies and with technologically advanced clients with their own software.
Open software standards create two vital opportunities for software vendors. First, fleet-of-foot specialists can emerge, as they are starting to, offering niche solutions: database panel management, report distribution, project management, coding, cleaning, weighting, wireless interviewing or whatever. Their slimmed down products can move faster from concept to execution and offer those buying them a faster payback when integrated with their in-situ solutions.
It also means existing vendors can finally acknowledge the inevitable: they can’t do everything. Partnering with niche players will let them focus their resources on developing their core products, and maybe making a profit too.
It is time that talking about standards stirred up an impassioned debate rather than a glazed look and a stifled yawn. ASC has a conference this month devoted to this very subject. The industry needs to see urgent progress made not just on defining standards, but implementing the initiatives that already exist with gusto. If ASC needs to move its conference to a bigger venue, we will know the revolution has started.

Tim Macer's website is at www.meaning.uk.com



‘Open standards: Breaking down the barriers’ ASC Conference,
Imperial College, London, 19 September. www.asc.org.uk


Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, September 2002 , Issue 436.

© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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