How strangely appealing international research can be. Here we are: all snug and warm, there’s a lovely cosy atmosphere and an air of organized anticipation. It’s like waiting for a cross between a birthday party and a meeting of an international security council. But beware. Appearances can be deceptive. First, let’s set the scene: it might be only 3pm but it’s pitch black and the hot chocolate is flowing. There’s copious food — ranging from beef stroganoff to vegetable lasagne — even salads for those flagging. Is that all? No, here come desserts, real desserts, profiteroles and millefeuilles from the city’s top bakeries.

Grooming rituals

Somewhere nearby assistants, an army of them, place headphones on new arrivals, summon even more technicians and, between them all, sits a smiling simultaneous translator, airlifted in from recent United Nations training. The cheerful cadence of her English tones will be the only sound for the next four hours as she carefully and with inadvertent humour mimics the rituals of the male specie’s morning grooming rituals.

This is the fast and furious world of international research. Well, not quite. The researcher, groggy headed from a 4am wake up call, conditioned to absolute and unquestioning obedience by endless airport queuing, weighed down by food and drink, sits in a large comfortable armchair with a lullaby voice filtered through their cushioned earpieces.

But it will be O.K. There are the tapes to listen to afterwards, when alert and ready. Well, err, no. Because this is for a large FMCG multinational, which wants its results fresh from the oven the next morning.

Reality dawns. Fresh-faced executives meet in the same viewing facility conference room, now stripped of its darkness and pains raisins. It’s a formidable team: marketing managers, research executives and insight officers, some unrecognisable out of their Biggles outfits the previous day.

The jargon flows…translated English verbata are cited and disputed…the native moderator, who had experienced the body language and native tongue of the respondents, seems to have disappeared with the food trays…my own expertise, techniques and reflective powers seem to have gone the same way. And it’s not just the strangled English that leads to sub-optimal communication. People, as usual, hear louder confirmation of their own bias.

The marketing decisions are made, interwoven with executives’ urgent flight check-in phone calls and computer tapping. I stumble back to the airport, a few pounds heavier but with little digested.

Qualitative researchers are employed on international projects for a range of reasons, from semiotic de-coding crafts to their senior consultancy skills. And much else besides. All employ a wide range of skills, from the immediate — the ability to moderate a group or interview an individual allowing the more unconscious elements to emerge — to the highly reflective, the going backwards and forwards in text, seeking patterns, looking deeply in the material and around it, to understand consumer motivations, rational and irrational. And of course, in every international project, there is the opportunity for the later report, the debrief, the follow up.

But, increasingly, the reality is that on-the-spot marketing decisions are made in the viewing facility. The international qualitative researcher is not able to use their moderating skills (and the local researchers are sometimes not given the inclusion they deserve), nor are they able to employ fully their reflective analytical ones as decisions are taken so rapidly.

The surface appearance is of a fully BlackBerried, sophisticated and highly engaged team, employing fast and responsive high-level qualitative research to help make practical, action-orientated key decisions.

The reality, I suspect, is rather different. And I wonder if we are colluding with a delusion that could, in the long run, carry serious implications for our sector.

In a group of sleep-deprived, melatonin-seeking viewing facility observers, there is a wonderful democracy. And, often, a seductive team spirit and intimacy. And in the key follow-up conversation, the qualitative researcher‘s opinion is just one more voice. At that moment, the researcher’s fundamental stakes — his/her independence, the ability to sit ‘on the boundary’ between consumer and company, above and beyond internal team politics and the force majeure of the decision that-must-be-made-today — can be lost.

The post-party (oops, group) debate tends to be a reactive one, with verbata employed as pro or con the ongoing marketing conundrum. The emphasis is on consumers’ actual words, the assumption that their motivations can be directly inferred.

Who is qualified?

The roles of client researchers, by dint of their physical attendance at these groups, starts to blur with those of outsiders. The sense is that they are, therefore, as empowered in their interpretations. Does attending a group as an observer mean that one is qualified in the interpretation of the results? The senior company researchers are often highly qualified — not only do they ‘tot’ up significant group mileage per annum, but their own skill sets are significant. But that’s not the same for all attendees.

Does this leave us as field work logistics experts and millefeuilles dessert providers? Hopefully not.

Becoming a fat, stressed insomniac should not be the fate of any international qualitative researcher. Antidotes must be the courage to stay ‘sitting on the boundary’, in intimate and overheated rooms. And let’s not forget the need for continuous professional development which lets us persuade and educate on the benefits of objective and reflective analysis. Even when your body clock tells you it’s 3am.