Unilever's accreditation scheme in the UK is proceeding, albeit under the radar currently. The most recent news is that upwards of 350 applications are being processed, many applying jointly as lead researchers and moderators, with the results being released towards the middle of the year. Then...it's on to Phase 2.

The purpose of the scheme globally is to make sure that Unilever commissions research from people it trusts — end of story. Its intention is not to help the industry to develop beyond its own needs and, indeed, why should it?

No Assessment and Certification

Its actions, however, bring into sharp relief the fact that the qualitative industry has no minimum requirements for knowledge and skills and no set of standards or certification for measuring and acknowledging them.

If you say you are a qualitative researcher then you are one — if you can get a client to pay you to go and run a few groups, so much the better. What could be simpler than getting a few people together, talking to them and telling the client what they said and making a few recommendations? Take the money and run...

As practising qualitative researchers in the UK, we know that this is not the case. There is a substantial body of knowledge and a complex set of skills we need to master in order to be competent.

In this country, one of the world leaders in qual, newcomers currently learn their "Qualitative Knowledge and Skills" in an ad hoc system of internal "on the job training", devised and run by individual qualitative research agencies. This is often topped up by training courses run by industry bodies such as AQR and the MRS. But this raises the critical question: should an industry of our size and standing still be relying on ad hoc training?

Major Opportunity

The challenge laid down by Unilever gives us a major opportunity to grasp the nettle and implement an industry-wide, publicly-recognised minimum set of standards of knowledge and skills, accompanied by an assessment and certification process. This would provide clients and agencies alike with a transparent system which would build confidence in the industry and provide the basis for recognising if an individual qualitative researcher is well trained and competent.

Response to the scheme shows that there is a real appetite for Unilever recognition in order to be able to work for and be paid by the company. No surprises there then!

Discussions, meanwhile, have taken place between Unilever and the MRS and ESOMAR, although it appears not with AQR, for an external body to take over aspects of this training and accreditation process. These are set to continue, indicating that Unilever just wants an accreditation system that guarantees standards and preferably on an industry-wide basis.

AQR: Leading Voice & Role

I believe that AQR, as the leading voice for qualitative research in the UK, has a major role to play here. Acting alone or preferably with other industry bodies, it could begin to develop two key planks as part of this:

1) Establish a Curriculum of Knowledge and Skills for Competence in Commercial Qualitative Research

2) An Assessment and Certification Process for Competence in Commercial Qualitative Research

Make Training Count...

If AQR, as the representative body of quallies, were to take a lead role, it would begin to utilise the uniqueness of its expertise and knowledge about qualitative research. It would help not just individual researchers, but contribute also to the professionalisation of the industry.

This could then act as a stepping stone in the career development for individual researchers, providing extra incentive to take training even more seriously. Those who successfully complete the training and its assessment would be rewarded with an industry-recognised certificate.

AQR training days could continue to be one-off training days, but could also become a part of the Assessed Curriculum too. In the future, we should be thinking about training and assessment that goes further than core competences and strives for excellence and beyond. This could be reflected and recognised in higher levels of assessment and certification, for instance, to a Masters level.

Call to Action: Industry Co-ordination

In order to "Make Training Count…." we need to start to take action and to make some things happen. The professionalization and certification of the qualitative industry needs to be carried out on an industry wide basis with the broadest possible footprint. Just as there are dangers of fragmentation if a range of big global clients each start implementing their own certification programmes, there are also many potential pitfalls, if each industry body with a qualitative interest starts putting forward their own certification programme in an un co-ordinated and ad hoc way.

What is urgently required is for all the industry bodies with an interest in qualitative research to get together and begin to develop a co-ordinated approach to developing a qualitative curriculum and a unified industry based certification system. Inviting interested clients along to this meeting would also be a welcome addition, especially as it was Unilever who has been the "industry whistle blower".

If AQR wants to help "Make Training Count…" and is prepared to take the initiative in getting the industry bodies and other interested parties together, I'm sure it won't lack volunteers.

Survive and Thrive?

The rapid globalisation of our clients and their brands has already produced great opportunities and great challenges for the qualitative research industry. AQR should not be left out of the equation, helping to professionalise the industry in order for it to continue to thrive. Failing to meet this significant challenge, laid down in the first instance by Unilever, raises the question of whether the industry can survive in its present structure and form.