The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Stay loose until rigour counts

Unilever's decision to launch its own qual accreditation scheme sparked debate, so we've opened up the centre spread to comment. Geoff Bayley jumps in first.

In the days when Creative Thinking Workshops were called "Brainstorming", the mantra "Stay loose until rigour counts" was adopted to nurture fresh ideas against the reflex reaction to knock them down, to suspend our focus on "what's wrong with them" and to consider the merits of new proposals.

The Unilever initiative to put all qualitative research suppliers through an accreditation process is a response to disappointing research outcomes. My initial thought was to doubt if this experience applied to the UK and to ask "Why not leave this to the market?" Given this discrepancy two questions arise: Do we need it? And secondly: Is Unilever's approach a valid way to measure qualitative competency?

Do we need it?

From the perspective of training at AQR, the profession looks healthy; populated by graduates, with strong peerbased training and a highly competitive marketplace. So could I be accused of complacency about the robustness of our professionalism?

We witness high calibre entrants to the profession on our Foundation Courses, bright, critically aware and willing to devote massive reserves of energy to building a success in a job that they find offers fascination and quick responsibility. The established researchers we meet at education and training events suggest a professional culture that is always critically aware, open to new developments and to adopting new practices.

Talking to TNS's Rebecca Wynberg and Unilever's Manish Makhijani some weeks after AQR's AGM about Unilever's experience, however, suggests that my own view of the industry is partial and not necessarily as representative as I had assumed. If I stand back and consider this difference in perspective there is certainly reason to pause for further thought. The AQR has nearly a thousand members but there are many quallies who are not members and of those who are members half have either never attended a course or not attended one for the last five years (AQR 2010).

Is it a valid measure?

Accreditation is not easy to pursue; running group discussions, for example, requires the continual interplay of opposites such as empathy and challenge; freedom and control; focus and improvisation. Trying to evaluate the process in a standardised way runs a risk of misrepresenting the skill and craft. The relationship with respondents requires authenticity and researchers are individual in their approach.

My mistake was not to realise that all of my concerns were writ large at the beginning of planning the process for Unilever, which devoted painstaking preparation and consultation into devising a scheme that allows for and embraces this diversity. The qualities they are seeking match the expectations that any of us would have of a colleague. They create a hurdle which competent quallies, young and experienced alike, should take in their stride.


Geoff Bayley
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2012