The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

International work can be like conducting an orchestra

International work can be like conducting an orchestra. The leader needs to know the score in depth, so he can lead the various musicians, but remain attuned to subtle nuances that each of the different instruments can contribute to the piece.

In research this translates to a need to understand the local situation, the meaning of habits, cultural differences and values. Failure to do so results in only getting half the picture, one reason why it’s important to use local researchers.

An international group that has the same quality measurements, which trains its moderators in qualitative research and its interviewers in international and qualitative techniques, will provide an ideal framework for this type of research. But it’s the co-ordinator’s role that is the lynchpin.

They can organise, for instance, a mini debrief after the first few sessions, asking fellow researchers: would you like to stress this more, or have more open questions on this topic? This helps colleagues to model the interview guidelines in such a way that it becomes something of their own, that they can work with and feel comfortable with.

Briefing takes time, and entails a willingness to listen and learn. Half a day for two group sessions, for example, is not ideal. Preparation is half of the work, even though many clients may not appreciate this ­ nor pay for it. As an experienced moderator myself, I know that I need time to learn the background information, digest it and give it a place in the structure in which I will lead group discussions.

Lack of information can be a limiting factor, but most international work runs smoothly. There may be a big difference in language, technique and culture from one country to another, but it is up to the co-ordinator to explain to the moderator what kind of information they want ­ then work out jointly the best way to achieve it.

I listen very carefully to my local moderator or interviewer to see what kind of techniques they propose, because they know what is appropriate in that country. As long as I have the feeling that the info I get is as bias free as possible, i.e. that the moderator is not feeding words into the mouths of respondents, then if they tend to use a different technique to the one I use in Western Europe ­ that is fine by me.

As for the debrief, it is a matter of horses for courses. My ideal is to have simultaneous translation of focus groups in different countries and written debriefs, with colleagues flown in for a central debrief so that they can explain their own story. I know, however, that this is very costly, so it depends on the subject and the kind of decision a client has to make. In this electronic era, phone and email can sometimes offer short cuts.

Possibly the biggest revolution that has occurred, however, is in the length of reports currently demanded by clients. In the 90s they used to run from 25 to 40 pages. Now I provide a template of how we like information structured and this will never run to more than 15 pages. Recently I got a 50-page report back from a client and thought, my marketing managers in the UK and the Netherlands will never read it!

There is a Chinese saying: "There is little time so I will write you a lengthy letter". Those with less experience of market research tend to write lengthy reports. The challenge for market research is not to provide a mirror but a greater understanding of meaning, and to offer insights into how this can vary from one country to another.


Pieter Paul Verheggen
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001