The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

What's up Doc?

One paper at Trends Day polarised the audience: that of Professor Patricia Shaw. Dan O'Donoghue explains why its topic is so relevant to the qualitative research industry

The paper by Dr Patricia Shaw at the recent trends day was shocking. The first shock at my table was that none of us had the faintest idea what she was on about. Then, slowly, as we talked about it round the table it dawned on me ­ slowly. My own company, Publicis, is trying to do exactly what she is on about ­ Living on the edge of Chaos. No shock there you may say.

Doc Shaw's premise is that the latest mode of thinking stemming from the scientific and social science world is exactly what companies, agencies and qualitative researchers should be doing: 'Intensive processes of joint inquiry'. In other words, the discoveries come from both the intense nature of the enquiry and from the fact that it is a joint exercise. Client and researcher, researcher and customer, customer and creative. Sounds like more work ... and it is. Behaviour observation, semiotics, anthropology, psychology ­ even Tao. All to find out why people eat chocolate!

And it's going to be continuous! 'Focus on creating energy not action plans'. So it's not the debrief nor the presentation, it's how excited people are by the debrief. It's not what you find ­ it's the act of finding that transforms.

Ancient Fishbein lectures slowly pass before my eyes. I suppose what is true is that the only way you learn (as opposed to remember) is by experience and this explains why all the marketing clients are these days being sent out to the shops to experience some consumer insight at first hand. 'Intensity' is an interesting concept in the context of research. Research, which is often associated with 'balance', 'intellect', 'thinking', and 'measuring', is rarely 'intense'. I suppose that's why Ginny Valentine wants everyone to change their name from sounding like a marine biology firm to something more akin to a Rap Band or LA Club ... Boombox Disquiet or something similar. And it probably explains the popularity of 'Brand rooms' in both advertising agencies and clients (and in Marmite's case ­ two rooms, one pro, one anti).

What was most interesting about the Doc's approach was the notion of gathering acceptance for the inquiry by gradually involving others in webs of connections and relationships. Now an enterprising qual agency I know has decided not to have debriefs but to have a workshop to discuss the data with the client and then to write up a debrief and give it two weeks later. 'Involvement': that's another interesting notion.

And the most shocking thing was her point about not trying to 'harvest what comes of each inquiry round' but ask, 'What is the next conversation that needs to happen?' Is this a plea for continuous qualitative research? Does she know how much a group costs these days? Especially with added Chardonnay and McVities? This conjured up the idea that clients might start to employ qualitative researchers on the staff!

The other shock was to learn that Dubya is currently operating in the recently popular ­ but now outdated ­ management style: 'Watch out'. This style is where you have lots of trend data, future forecasters and predictors and 'you're prepared for anything'. Unfortunately, as should be obvious, 'anything' is not something anyone can prepare for!

The doc's talk made me feel excited about the future. Despite the complexity, the dangers and the tyranny of e-mail, things can only get better. (A slight digression: Shouldn't New Labour go back to that strategy? What our Tone needs is a new planner to replace Mandelson and get back on strategy. Tone, like all good account people, has wandered off progressing his career with the worldwide account guy...).

At a recent lecture I attended, a very intelligent American professor explained that the only way that the developed world can get richer is by making the Third World richer first! Like the Doc said, 'we need intense and joint exercises'. Shocking.

 

Dan O'Donoghue
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2003