Sound the alarm

The world has moved on but MR tools have not. Now is the time to do something, says Tim Macer.

Our nation’s recent fire dispute, complete with the ritual trundling out of ancient Green Goddess army fire engines, and the revelations of some questionable, outdated working practices at fire stations, have an uncomfortable parallel in our own backyard beyond the green-baize door of the data processing department. Like the fire dispute, this is not the fault of those doing the job: the problem is that the rest of the world has moved on, but many of our tools and working practices have not.
My office is near an army base, so I have seen plenty of Green Goddesses close up: seen where fluorescent go-faster stripes and liberal green paint has been layered over the old proud insignia of the Defence Fire Service; worked out that the empty chrome bracket on top once supported the old clanging firebell of wartime movies. It proves that you can only go so far with incremental improvements: no amount of retro-fitting can make these vehicles go faster than 30 mph.
Yet, we have more than our fair share of Green Goddess software still in daily use in MR, especially on the CATI and data analysis side.
Speak to the old hands in DP and you will quickly learn that many of them feel like fire fighters, often putting out fires caused by other people’s carelessness earlier on in the research chain of command. We may not have an industrial dispute in the MR ‘fire service’, but we do have a major demarcation problem. Until information technology and those that live and breathe IT get to sit at the big table, our industry will continue to miss out on the opportunities to run faster and beat the knowledge management and CRM guys at our own game.
Over the years, the situation has improved and many agencies are now staking much on technology projects and new software. Some technology providers are doing their bit, introducing tools to give researchers more direct access to the traditional below-stairs activities. Yet it amazes me that software I learnt twenty years ago is still in daily use.
Moreover, the whole field of specialist software developed for MR - and on which it depends heavily - remains a closed book to successive new generations of market researchers as they complete their postgraduate degrees and diplomas.
Worse still, there is a danger of over-simplifying the problem, as the notion of IT as a life skill gets acted out by everyone relating to the IT world exclusively through Word, Excel and Powerpoint. How much time is wasted through the inappropriate use of these tools, for the lack of knowledge that there was anything better out there?
Managed properly, the DP stalwarts should have nothing to fear. The industry needs more professionals skilled in IT, not as typers of code, but as technology advocates and facilitators: and that means encouragement and a willingness to change must come from the top.

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

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, January 2003 , Issue 440.
© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.
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