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Facing 2030: An evaluator’s perspective

It was a pleasure to be able to attend the Facing 2030 virtual conference
from the comfort of my home office with my cat Lily on my lap,
although I missed the serendipity of morning and afternoon tea
conversations (Lily is the silent type). But, while my cat would love an
article all about her, this article is about the perspective of an evaluator.

Evaluation is a close cousin of market and social research. Evaluation
focuses on determining the value, merit and worth of policy and program
performance, by applying many of the same tools and approaches as
research. For me, attending Facing 2030 was about understanding the state of play in the market research industry, what evaluators can adopt in our own work and what evaluators can offer market and social research.

Firstly, what I found is that our industries face many similar challenges and have many synergies. Behavioural insights is as much a hot topic in evaluation as it is in market research – it’s important to helping our clients to design programs based on, as Kieran Flanagan put it, “how people are, not how we want them to be”. This idea also recalls the mantra of “realist” evaluation – understanding what works, for whom and in what circumstances. The fact that market and social researchers are asking similar questions is a productive development.

Another theme of the conference that parallels the evaluation field is the recognition of the combined value of quantitative and qualitative approaches, creating research approaches that make the best of both worlds. The mixing of methods, and how best to draw insights from different sources of data is an ongoing topic of discussion for evaluators that continues to evolve, especially now that we’ve had to adapt many of our methods to an online and physically distanced world.

The panel led by Ray Poynter also highlighted a common theme looking forward: we need a grounding in the fundamentals of our fields. This is especially resonant as, like many market researchers, many evaluators “fell” into the field by circumstance or by accident. Some, like myself, fell into both fields at different times! Investment in raising awareness of the profession and in skills development, particularly for new and emerging members of the field, will benefit both research and evaluation moving forward.

Secondly, some of the innovations in market research are going to be just as useful in evaluation. I would definitely say that, technologically, market research is ahead of evaluation. VR, physiological tracking and machine learning are things that few evaluators are experienced with let alone adding to their toolkit. It presents an opportunity for evaluators to innovate by identifying how and where these techniques might add value.

Lastly, reflecting on the theme, which pushed us to look to 2030, I realised that evaluators bring a useful perspective, given our experience in working with long-term policies and programs. That evaluation has something to teach market and social researchers was made clear in Mark Ritson’s closing keynote when he pointed out the human obsession with change for change’s sake. As evaluators, we’re used to the long game, and we’ve seen the waves of change rise and fall and rise again. When we evaluate programs, we’re often looking at timelines of three, five, sometimes ten or more years. The evaluations that we design have to be applicable across that length of time and across many cycles of change, whether that is in policy, politics or technology. It is worth considering how market researchers can take a similar long-term view to their work, whether on customer loyalty, behavioural change, or brand development.

It also leads to a further insight from evaluation (and the reversal of a classic phrase): Everything new is (often) old again. The waves of change do tend to be cyclical. Both evaluation and market research are seeing a reemergence and rethinking of existing methods that had fallen out of favour – things like passive observation and other “unobtrusive” methods, and arts-based methods, such as photoelicitation. Developing an ability to incorporate new ways of working into old methods will be a fundamental skill for both market researchers and evaluators in facing today, 2030, and beyond.

A final thought: Outside of the evaluation conversation, one element of the conference that was immensely positive on a personal level was the special session on neurodiversity. It is fantastic to see the industry celebrating the value that neurodiverse people can bring to workplaces and presenting neurodiversity as a strength.

Author: Gerard Atkinson, Senior Manager, ARTD Consultants

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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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