The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Form Filling Fiascos

Is it time for clients to look again at the whole process of commissioning research? Louella Miles sets the scene for discussion

Going after business can be a painful process. When major clients see the need to set up a preferred supplier list, the form filling involved is always time consuming and often seemingly unnecessary.

And the heartache isn’t only felt by research agencies. A major media corporation posted details of its tender process just over a year ago with a view to finalising the list mid-summer.

This January applicants were told: “We’ve been overwhelmed by the volume of documentation that we have received. It’s taking us much longer than planned to wade through it all.”

There are obviously problems on both sides, then. Clients can have an unrealistic expectation of the type of information needed on which to base decisions, and researchers often fail to see the relevance of much of the data requested.

Those who administer tenders can compound this problem especially when they’re more likely to be pen pushers and bean counters than researchers with a working knowledge of qual.

Picture the surprise of one qualitative researcher who was rung by a major confectionery brand employee and congratulated on having reached the second stage of the process.

Said quallie spluttered that he was unaware that he had even gone through the first round. Oh yes, said the bean counter, but now we’d like more information: such as annual accounts, profit and loss figures, and so on.

“But why?” said the quallie. “The client has known me — and my work — for the past decade. Why should I produce this data now?” He was told that failure to do so would mean no more work from this quarter, and no opportunity to appeal.

So we have two potential problems: decisions about qual — a form of research that, by its nature, is difficult to quantify — being taken by those who understand only figures, and researchers who lack confidence in clients’ ability to manage the process.

And it isn’t just preferred suppliers lists that are a problem. Agencies run the risk of competing more frequently en masse for work, with clients treating them like mushrooms and ignoring the concept of paid pitches.

Maybe it’s time for guidelines to be issued on commissioning research? This isn’t such a novel idea. The Social Research Association (SRA) has a set governing work in this area available on http://www.the-sra.org.uk/commissioning.pdf

These are potential building blocks that could then be broadened to produce guidelines relevant to all research. Certainly that is one area that is being investigated, and the AQR has put out feelers to both AURA and the MRS to garner their views. At the very least, says the MRS, if AQR and AURA develop a set of guidelines that are then reviewed and approved by its Professional Standards Committee (PRS), the MRS would then be happy to put its logo on them and provide a link to them from its web site.

Are there any alternative to guidelines? Well one option that has already been taken up is to produce a standard ‘researcher’s reply’ to such tenders, a ‘one size fits all’ version. The logic goes that if clients don’t fully understand why they are asking for it, then it makes little sense to devote too much time and money to such exercises.

And don’t let me imply that all clients fall into the trap of requesting inappropriate information. The COI is currently renewing its supplier list, and the process it uses seems to run like clockwork.

It has set itself a nine-month deadline from start to finish, first advertising for suitable research agencies, then using the expertise of different people in its unit to evaluate the replies by relevant criteria. Given that it has 65 agencies on its current roster, this timescale doesn’t give it much leeway but the process is tried and tested.

Compare that with others, (no name, no pack drill), who ask for details of an agency’s race policy but fail to require one on age, gender or disability. There is also a rumour of a client conducting an open online pricing bid, that researchers can enter as often as they like after reviewing those of their competitors. Or another, which wants to know how many bottles of booze are kept on site at any one time. No, sorry, made that last one up. Still, it could just be a matter of time…

 

Louella Miles
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2004