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Facing 2030 – the skills challenge

What skills do we need and how do we get them? This was the topic I discussed with a panel drawn from different strands of the Australian research world.

The panel members were Sue York (Chair of the Research Society’s Professional Development Committee and co-founder of, Frank Pietraroia (a social researcher at ORIMA Research – and relative newcomer to the industry), Lisa Salas (Head of Commercial at TEG Insights), Dhruba, Gupta (Founder and MD of DBM Consultants) and Victoria Gamble (a UX and Design researcher).

The ‘T-shaped’ researcher was the starting point for the discussion about what skills do we need, i.e. that each insight professional should have a broad grounding in research principles coupled with an in-depth speciality in some relevant aspect of insights. Frank and Lisa both highlighted the need for insighters’ broad base of skills to include being digitally literate, both in terms of using technology in their day-to-day work and in using tech to broaden the range of options for research participants.

There was agreement amongst the panel that the amount of things that we are expected to know is growing, beyond the point where any one person can master everything. Dhruba highlighted the adoption and use of frameworks as a key part of the solution. For example, frameworks for understanding and predicting customer buying behaviour – and commented that because of the number of topics that need to be mastered “the next generation will not have it easy”.

Victoria built on Kieran Flanagan’s opening keynote and her theme of ‘forever skills’. As forever skills, Victoria highlighted critical thinking (not just about research, but to the problem in general and all parts of the process). Victoria also talked about the change in the way that information is used in organisations. We expect learnings to be retained, to be developed and to be available to everybody who needs to use them – a process that is sometimes called democratising.

Sue highlighted the need for the insight professionals of the future to have a good understanding of the fundamentals of the research process, to be able to properly appreciate both the science and the art of market research. (Perhaps we should also add the closing keynote Mark Ritson’s position that market research is about money to Sue’s point.) Sue explained that “You can’t or shouldn’t design a qual at scale chatbot project – if you don’t understand qualitative research.” Sue also pointed out that “If you don’t understand sampling and representativity you can’t evaluate the usefulness of many research studies and new approaches.

Lisa highlighted the shift from thinking about methods and technology towards focusing on people, a shift that some have called Human Experience. Lisa highlighted skills such as empathy along with emotional and social intelligence – making the point that the rise of AI and technology makes the human-centric skills even more important.

Developing and maintaining skills

Moving on from the skills that the insight profession needs, the panel explored how we are going to achieve these skills. Sue outlined the things that the Research Society is doing including masterclasses, fundamentals, webinars, a new analysis course, and social gatherings via Zoom. Sue invited people to suggest additional topics to the Research Society.

The view of the panel was that there is no single route that insights should follow, we want a strong input from the academic world, we need on the job learning, we need courses that embed the frameworks that Dhruba mentioned, and as Victoria mentioned we need to draw on adjacent disciplines, such as the skills from the UX and design professions. Frank, as a new entrant to the insights profession, made the point that newcomers need to see the context for techniques and approaches, to help understand their use and relevance when learning them.

If clients and employers want our people to develop and maintain these skills, they need to make budgets and time available. There also needs to be an honest discussion about the balance of learning during working hours and learning during people’s own time. This reminds us of the old joke “Finance Officer: ‘What happens if we train them and they leave?’ HR: ‘What happens if we don’t train them and they stay!’”.

In brief

In 2030, the skills we will need are much like the skills we need at the moment, but which are not widely available. We need people to have a good understanding of the strengths and limitations of different sources of information (e.g. surveys, discussions, observations, and social media), we need them to understand how insight integrates in the wider business picture, and people who have the emotional intelligence and empathy to focus on the human experience.

Author: Ray Poynter, Chief Research Officer, Potentiate and Founder NewMR

This article also appears in the September – November 2020 edition of the Research Society publication, Research News – Facing 2030 Conference editionCheck out the rest of the articles in this edition.

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