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Using research to predict the future in three easy steps (Lessons from AMSRS conference 2012)


There I was, seeking new ways to predict the future at the AMSRS conference 2012. It was full of people who spend their existence researching…to predict what will happen next.

Yet, ironically, some parts of the research industry appear to be struggling to adapt to the changing behaviours, attitudes and opinions of the world. Research appears to have a mixed future, statistically speaking at least.

Take a look at how research has evolved since the inception of the Internet.

The traditional survey has been morphed into the same survey, but on a screen. The focus groups and forums of the offline world have similar adaptations online (with varying outcomes). There are the occasional exceptions to this but hearing more than the odd grumble at AMSRS 2012 about how Google and Survey Monkey are stealing the industry’s revenue didn’t fill me with hope that the industry as a whole is adapting.

Research has always had an important role to play in the world and despite the perceived “Google-ogical” trends this hasn’t changed.

What’s needed is a shift in thinking, a jolt of evolutionary change and a re-imagining of what that role should be in the future. To this end, Google and Survey Monkey have already tapped into the way people are using technology, so perhaps this is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Here are three ways that the research industry can influence the future.

1. Focus on future time

The research and advertising industries are after the same thing; time with their chosen market.

We all seek time to explore, connect, sell and entertain.

In this sense, time is a concept of individual perception. For example, I could try to capture the many moments in time, finely crafted at AMSRS 2012, but your reality and perception means that this article will become just one moment in time for you. Is this a good use of your time? If so, read on. If not…you’ve probably stopped reading anyway which makes this sentence superfluous.

Researchers often tend to focus on the past to try and predict future. But imagine if research could intuitively tap into the preferred futures of the world’s inhabitants, through new and intelligent methods, and then play a role in creating it. Problem is, we are dealing with people; emotional beings with changing tastes, behaviours, opinions.

[Warning: this article may become a circular argument. We want time, so we seek it. But it’s changing, so we research how it’s changed. This means we need more time. Y’see what’s happening here?]

2. Evolve methodologies

The research industry, in order to remain relevant in the future, needs to evolve in tune to what IS happening and WILL happen technologically and the impact this will have on behaviour. But a caveat here is that maintaining the core values in which these methodologies are based is equally important.

The Internet initiated a time-shift of cultures, attitudes, behaviours and opinions. Technology has evolved to tackle the merging and expanding myriad of “big data” this has created. Can we adapt existing research techniques to the way people interact in the future (or today, for that matter)?

3. Re-frame the question

We can scientifically map our brain’s function, but can we locate the owner of the thought? Perhaps we can provide space for the thought-owner to idealise his/her own future. Maybe we need to re-frame the question.

Is this the end of research as usual? What does it need to do differently? Where does it need to be? How is this thinking evolving?

The point is not that we need to change our thinking. The point is, the way “the world” thinks is changing and if we don’t bend with it we will miss the point. Metrics are easy, but insight is hard. Insight is also far more profitable.

This is about more than research. It’s about ‘search’, knowledge and wisdom.

What good is a prediction? It can be dangerous in that it sets a path, which is difficult to veer off. Apply old thinking to this prediction and it’s a self-fulfilling non-prophecy (it will never happen because our thinking methods refuse to allow evolution to occur).

We need to have the foresight to detach from a set outcome and approach the future with an open mind. Papers such as the one presented by Duncan Rintoul at AMSRS 2012, “measuring the effect of dynamic survey answer formats on respondent behaviour”, is a step in the forward-thinking direction. Good news is that the industry seems to recognise this, with Duncan’s work earning a well-deserved ‘best paper’ of the conference award.

Whatever the future, the research industry can choose to lead the way, so long as it remains open to change. The future looks bright; statistically speaking, of course.

Ben Flavel is the founder of innovation consultancy firm NeoCogs and tech startup CheckinLine. Why not follow his ramblings on Twitter (https://twitter.com/NeoCogs) or Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/NeoCogs)? You might as well…