Reasons to be Cheerful
It's the job of Chair to say forward-looking, uplifting, motivating things and, despite the bombardment of bleak economic news, the outlook is certainly not all bad for the qualitative world.
We saw much more buoyant (than general) business conditions in the past two recessions of the eighties and nineties — and there is every hope that qual (and, indeed, the research industry as a whole) will survive well this time around.
I had a little look at ESOMAR's Global Market Research Report (in fact, I said I'd write an interesting qual-oriented synopsis before I realised there are over 120 pages of it) and there are a couple of nuggets I can share. Research overall is growing fastest in Lithuania, Bangladesh, Nicaragua and the Gulf States — while we, in the UK, are malingering, albeit the world's second-highest spender, at a flat growth rate.
Many recently-developing economies are, however, experiencing a particularly significant growth curve for qualitative. It looks like the "new baby" in terms of development, creating interest and excitement — and is probably keeping people up half the night, too. We have the anecdotal as well as statistical evidence for this, as we see the increasing range of countries represented at global qual conferences as well as enquiring to our own AQR.
Here, in the UK, as a more "qual-mature" country, how do we make sure our prospects stay healthy in a wider economic downturn?
Research is the sensible choice when there is uncertainty in future planning, just as it is when manufacturing and service-providing clients are in expansionist mood. Business commentators have rightly commented that research is a win, win business in this sense, and we might well add that qual is inherently well-placed to address the "diagnosis" and "strategy" challenges any business needs to focus on, in recessive times.
But that doesn't mean it can't be a real challenge to our industry when clients become highly value-minded, expect discounts for scale, want to squeeze the last drop out of that fieldwork schedule, competitive quotes, faster turnaround, longer groups for the same price, extra meetings, and quibble about the travel expenses (when you know that the hotel pool was your only hour of sanity, that week back-packing round Bradford, Glasgow and Penzance).
But quallies are resourceful and full of initiative. For example, there's rarely been a time of more imaginative and diverse methodological innovation. These range from ethnography, online, and real-time/immersion approaches to deliberative events, iterative workshop sessions, recalled panels .and those are just some of the approaches represented among the impressive Prosper Riley Smith Award entries this year. Many of us are finding that increasingly qual-literate clients are happy to contemplate more bespoke methods, consider flexibility, and allow us to trial approaches — if it attacks their issues and helps deliver insight on their problems. Genuinely, a "joy of qual" in our familiar, evolved UK marketplace.
It will, undoubtedly, be creative solution-finding that can keep our business robust, and keep value high. Just because "groups" account for over 75% of all qual commissioned in the UK doesn't mean that within this "envelope" there isn't massive diversity, a multitude of creative exploration. Too often we falsely counterpoint "groups" and "non-traditional methods" (notably ethnography) as if the former are inevitably the safe, familiar, less creative option while the ethnographer is somehow inherently more astute and the process more insightful.
Well, AQR is — happily — a broad qual church and I like to think, very porous to any manner of new thinking. Our mission is to sail right next to the wind of change, challenge the over-familiar, give members a forum for debate and competition as well as support and solace — whatever their favourite methodology du jour.
AQR itself has seen an eventful, creative and high value year for its members, including our global gig in Barcelona — which many felt was the best-yet shared conference with QRCA. We routinely sold out training courses such as Moderating Skills and both residential and non-residential Foundation Courses, and hosted some really imaginative "Think Piece" education events, including a Knowledge Sharing Day for Tutors, "Barcelona Revisited" and a Pecha Kucha evening. This last is not a South American cocktail but a sort of speak-out sprint event, aimed at the young, and young at heart who rightly feel that a bit of light controversy, a hothouse of sparky intellect (and free drinks) is the sort of successful mix AQR is justifiably famous for.
You can be reassured that these are the kinds of events that will keep on coming in "09 as will our next Trends event. The minute we mail the date implant it in your diary: it really is an event not to be missed. And I can say this, on historical evidence, without there being any firm plan or theme yet!
But there are sixteen reasons I feel so upbeat about AQR's prospects: our new (and renewed) "08/09 committee members. They are quite simply some of the most wonderful, bright, pro-active, funny and inspiring people in the research industry. No, I'm being coy — in the UK.
As they are also very modest, I won't list them here, you can check them out on our website. In fact let's get a bit more traffic on the website; have a look, have a say, comment, add, argue, complain, champion .and put that thought you're already harbouring on your to do list : "Get more involved with AQR next year"; "consider applying for Committee next time".
To end, I can also reveal the result of a personal (ethnographic) research project. St Neots does exist and when you type that improbably long AQR address on to your envelope, be assured there is a little piece of Cambridgeshire which is forever AQR. There are desks, keyboards, printers, all the stuff you'd expect — and best of all, Rose and Angela, who I observed in their natural habitat multi-tasking the way they do best. This involved laughing hysterically at the workload involved in processing entries for this redesigned Directory (we hope you like it), gossiping with members who rang up, calculating costs and margins for event venues, briefing web designers on new copy. And all this while entertaining the new Bank Manager who — currently single and with an impressive sports car — is, I'm afraid, now utterly smitten with our admin team. Much as we all are.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, March 2009
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2009