Every three months a conference offers new ways to generate 'consumer insight', 'leading edge techniques', 'state of the art' methodologies and, yes, innovation, innovation, innovation.

And there are, indeed, some interesting approaches gaining currency in commercial 'qualitative research' ­ observation, ethnography, semiotics and cultural analysis, for example ­ although familiar in academia. Researchers also appear to want to re-brand themselves every year ­ from insight generators, to knowledge managers, business information providers and even 'inventors'.

But re-thinking of 'qualitative' rather than 'research' has received rather less attention, although it could be a more interesting line of enquiry. If we think of ourselves not as researchers who use qualitative methods, but rather as qualitative practitioners (thanks to Gill Ereaut for this term) who sometimes do research, a whole range of new opportunities becomes visible.

Qualitative skills

Let's leave aside research techniques for the moment and think about the core skills of a qualitative practitioner.

These might include:

  • Managing human interaction
  • Analysing diverse sources of data
  • Interpreting the meaning of data
  • Developing ideas and theories
  • Creating solutions to problems

This set of skills offers the potential for a far wider range of roles than that of merely 'qualitative researcher'. I suggest below three possibilities that this way of thinking makes apparent.

First, we could be cultural analysts. We don't need to talk to consumers to see consumer culture - it's all around us, in whatever medium we look at, from magazines to the Internet. Equally important, but often neglected, is the analysis of corporate cultures.

We could look at internal processes within client companies, documents, strategies, and ways of including or excluding the consumer within marketing processes. These are perfectly legitimate sources of data and, in principle, are accessible to the same skills of analysis and interpretation as transcripts or tape recordings of interviews.

Second, and following on from this, we could be cultural translators. We often think of our role as taking consumer perspectives into the client company: 'bringing the living room into the boardroom'. All too often, however, we leave it there like a mess for the client to clear up. The gap between consumer understanding and the practices of our client is often all too apparent, and we could play a far more active role in bridging that gap.

We could look for specific areas of mismatch in the worldview of consumer and client, and help develop different ways of working which would be more in tune with consumer needs. Yes, big companies all say they do this, but who actually asked for automated telephone systems and centralised call centres? Not me.

Finally, we could be qualitative creatives. In consumer research we use a wide range of techniques and original stimulus material to help consumers access their own creativity. We build new ideas, concepts and solutions to marketing problems in the process of running the groups. But we rarely see ourselves ­ or sell ourselves ­ as creative people skilled in the use of methods that generate new ideas for products, services or consumer propositions.

Qualitative researchers could be a lot more bullish about these skills, which we use widely but rarely highlight to our clients. And we could also deploy these skills within the client company; to help take forwards the results of research into practical action and real business solutions.

So, there may be a role for re-branding 'research' and developing 'new techniques'. But if we can re-think the idea of what qualitative skills could achieve outside the field of research ­ well, that Martian might just be right.