What ails the commercial research industry? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 10, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:53 PM, July 10, 2017

What ails the commercial research industry?

In the age of information, the importance of research is still not well-understood by many organisations. When armed with good information, they could strive for more and become even better at what they do. In fact, many global companies are reaping rich rewards from the insights gained through research. Consequently, they budget a significant amount of money for this purpose to “listen” to their key stakeholders, track demographic trends, follow competitive strategies, and monitor cultural and social trends that affect their line of business. Adapting their offerings based on feedback is basic to sustainability and profitability. Organisations that ignored information in the past, relying instead on experience and intuition, often found out the hard way why it was a bad choice: they became obsolete. 

Here is an example of an organisation that benefitted substantially from research: Courtyard by Marriott found out that business travellers needed hassle-free service, relevant information, and time to relax during their travels. They made their check-in and check-out procedures efficient; seeded their website with maps, restaurant types and locations, and promotional materials; and introduced quiet lounges which didn't have music or TV noise to cause distraction. I don't need to elaborate on Marriott's customer satisfaction ratings or their bottom line!

Research can be very beneficial for organisations in Bangladesh. However, the practice of this professional activity by many research providers in the country has room for significant improvement. In a recent meeting of research providers and their larger clients, organised by a boutique research organisation, a variety of issues began to surface candidly about issues that ail the research industry. 

Foremost in the discussions was the question of credibility. Research is a service that has credence properties. In such services, buyers can evaluate the product only after purchase or not at all. Most important to buyers of research are the suppliers' expertise and intentions. Several clients observed that research findings often did not portray reality, causing them to question their validity. A lack of connection between what is reported and the reality can shake the confidence of client organisations. Without strong methodological skills and appropriate analytical foundations, research organisations are likely to bungle a research study and hurt their level of credibility that is imperative in this industry.

Another view was that the studies were often rudimentary from which the real issues and substance were difficult to extract. The obvious question raised by clients was “why do we have to extract meaning from pages filled with tables, graphs and charts? Isn't it the job of the research provider?” Referring to the voluminous reports, one client commented “they say a lot but mean very little!” Others pointed to the fact that the findings in the reports were generally not actionable, and the reporting was neither interesting nor impactful.

It is important to point out that the senior management does not have the time to read voluminous reports. It is thus imperative that research firms provide digests or summaries that highlight key findings for senior management to peruse quickly and arrive at the relevant conclusions. It was also mentioned that objective and impactful reports must be brief – perhaps to the tune of 30 pages maximum. A 300-page report is unlikely to be even touched by senior management!

Long and tedious reports also point to another serious problem: researchers are unable to translate findings in succinct ways because of their lack of training in sophisticated analytical and communication techniques. A simple conjoint analysis (a multivariate procedure) that shows which attributes or features of a product or service customers are willing to trade off for another feature can never be captured by traditional descriptive analysis. Or, for that matter, in the case of comparing several products or services, a perceptual map using multidimensional scaling may be much more vivid and thought-provoking than producing numerous tables comparing the products on individual dimensions. 

Discussions also touched upon ethical issues ranging from data validity to matters of covert financial transactions. Who collected the data? From whom? And what are the reasons that can distort reality? Obfuscation along these lines is detrimental to a research provider's credibility. Unless these processes are made clear to the client, their trust in the research provider can be shaken.  

The duplicity of unethical organisations (both providers and clients) that inflate research budgets for unethical purposes was also mentioned, although there never was a big floor discussion on the matter. Perhaps this is one of the industry's dirty secrets! When research is construed mainly for money to change hands, the quality of such studies can be easily surmised. Apparently such practices have grown in number and volume for which the industry will suffer immeasurably.

Another concern was the dearth of budgets allocated for research even in the better-known companies. According to one research provider, most organisations treat research as an afterthought because they do not really understand its importance. Hence they are not inclined to spend on this vital service. To the cognoscenti, money spent on research is not an expense; it is an investment. 

An oft-repeated problem was the non-involvement of senior management in helping define the research study. Apparently, many senior managers stay away from research, allowing it to be handled by junior staff and leaving it to their discretion, mercy and machinations. It is then up to the junior managers to interpret and convey the information to senior management who are then swayed one way or another without having been involved with the study.

Underlying the discussions at the meeting was a serious concern about the lack of competence and professionalism in the industry, especially where standards were sorely lacking. Apparently many research providers are not interested in industry standards as it would expose their weaknesses. 

Various enterprises in manufacturing, service and the social sectors are also poorly staffed to solicit, monitor or evaluate research. On several occasions when they were approached, their response was either very dismissive (they don't need research) or they came back saying, “Why don't you give us a proposal?” 

Writing a proposal for an organisation that cannot articulate its own information needs is a difficult challenge if not impossible. Examples such as these suggest that research is not fully understood by many who could gain from it.  They must learn, and quickly, how to conceptualise research questions, understand research designs, and how to interpret and understand research results – i.e., become effective consumers of research.

Insights from research can be invaluable to most organisations, especially those operating in complex market environments. The role of research must be understood correctly and significant investments must be made to build this industry. The alternative is to buy knowledge from abroad, which can be exorbitant and can mean perpetual dependence on external sources. More critically, dependence on research from abroad runs the risk of being manipulated without one knowing that one is being manipulated. That indeed is a vulnerable position to be in!  

To invigorate itself and provide a vital service to the constellation of organisations operating in information-deficient environments, the research industry must invest in training, develop industry standards, and inculcate a spirit of professionalism. Developing trust in the products it offers is an absolute prerequisite. Who will drive these initiatives is for the industry to contemplate and act upon – the sooner the better.

Syed Saad Andaleeb is Vice Chancellor of BRAC University and Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, USA.

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