We quallies are good at lateral thinking — I guess it comes from making sense of the muddy data that is our stock in trade. You might be amused to learn that, apparently, the most ‘sure-fire’ way to protect your bike from theft is to attach a basket to it — no self-respecting bike thief can lose that amount of street cred.

With the financial meltdown about to mire the economy in recession now is the time to exercise plenty of sideways thinking to help keep us busy. Less work will emerge from some quarters. Evenings talking to cash-strapped twenty-somethings about the relative merits of, say, a 125% mortgage, a ‘friends and family’ home purchase package or a 50-year ‘lifetime deal’ are past.

Yet interesting new opportunities will open up. As investment bankers achieve what Lenin never could and bring down old-style free-market capitalism, we could just be entering a world that, when things settle down, could actually be — wonderful thought — better. For instance, the UK might start to realise that it does actually need to make things. We could harness ourselves to helping rekindle our nation’s once-famed reputation for inventiveness.

I feel there may be a more profound role we can play in the new world order: I guess it might be called helping to reshape it.

It has become apparent that we need a fresh form of corporate governance fit for a global webbed-up economy. The future belongs to all the stakeholders, not just shareholders. When governments hold large corporate assets, the rules must change.

So, the stakeholder’s voice has to make itself heard and shape the direction of an organisation. We qualitative researchers are best placed to synthesise and give voice to their views. Because in the course of our daily round, this is something we already do. Except, most of the time, we characterise the people we speak to as ‘consumers’ and frame the discourse in the language of consumption.

Consumer-think often comes from a somewhat different place to stakeholder think. One student captured this dichotomy beautifully, expressing her (personal) view that “I think McDonald’s is blatantly evil, but they’ve got a great McFlurry deal on at the moment.” To arrive at the right course of action you need to ask the right questions. Smart clients know this already. They recognise that doing what is good is better in every respect than doing what is merely expedient. The future increasingly belongs to ‘happiness brands’ that recognise that their health is intimately tied up with that of the wider world.

Shifting clients from being customer to stakeholder focused is a lateral step — but worth getting on our bikes for. After all, we might get to see what a happiness mortgage brand looks like. I suspect it won’t spend much time working out how to maximise consumer debt.