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The Problem with Self-Serve Research Technology

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There is an elephant in the research room, and it's getting bigger by the minute.  However, there is very little conversation on this issue, let alone any real attempts at finding resolution.

The issue I am referencing is with so-called “Do-It-Yourself Research” – online applications that allow research practitioners to run queries and perform analyses on their own. The problem is that insights leaders and practitioners are not particularly keen on such tools, yet the market is saturated with research technology companies that claim to provide a tool that is instantly usable, providing answers to complex questions on-demand.

As the CEO of a research technology company, I cannot recall a client conversation in the past three months that has not started with the following rhetorical question – “I hope you are not offering yet another DIY tool.”

In theory, I think we can all understand and appreciate the allure of do-it-yourself research technology. It could save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in annual research budgets. It could speed up the work. It could make teams more agile. It could even make organizations less reliant on external vendors. So, it is understandable that many marketing executives have pushed for the organization-wide adoption of various DIY solutions.

But the problem is that reality is rarely what it is hoped to be.

Leaders and practitioners in insight and foresight roles are always running from one meeting to the next. I have had hundreds of conversations in the last year with insights leaders who have all told me that they have absolutely no time to learn the nuances of self-serve research capabilities, let alone learn a new piece of technology every three months. And it takes time to get good at anything. Even the easiest piece of technology that one might regularly interface with, such as our smartphones, offers an almost unlimited amount of learning opportunity. I am constantly discovering new tricks, new ways of using the technology in a more effective and efficient manner. The same is true of research applications. If a practitioner is not dedicating most of their week to learning and using the application, they will never attain the skills necessary to feel comfortable and, perhaps more importantly, confident in their analysis.

Technology does not instill confidence in insights leaders the way human beings can. When an anthropologist presents an analysis and makes room for discussion and debate, it creates a level of trust in the work that internal practitioners cannot achieve, unless of course their time is dedicated to doing so. Some companies have gone the route of hiring junior staff and adding resources that are focused on using the various tools in the toolkit, but that too comes with its share of problems. Junior staff lack the experience and knowledge necessary to conduct intricate analyses, especially if any form of sociological thinking is required.

On the other side of this fence are the research technology companies themselves. Most of them are funded by venture capitalists (VCs) and angel investors who, understandably so, expect a clear path to profitability and growth. VCs want their portfolio companies to implement self-serve technologies simply because it is theoretically easier to scale - it does not require the constant addition of headcount - and it affords greater profit margins. As a result, most of these technology companies have focused their efforts on improving their use of Machine Learning tools to make their technologies as easy as possible to use. But they are solving the wrong problem.

I am by no means saying technology is not the way forward. Quite the contrary. I have personally witnessed the power of technology-led research in allowing organizations to become truly consumer-led and agile in their thinking and decision making. But technology by virtue of being itself does not solve the problems that insights leaders and practitioners need to solve. Technology does not innately instill confidence, which makes decision making harder, not easier. Technology does not innately speed up the work. If you ask the wrong questions or are constantly distracted by the trends affecting your industry, no type of technology can help you maintain your focus. Technology is not a silver bullet to better innovation and marketing. It is a tool, that when used in the right manner can create incredibly powerful results.

The reality is that most insights practitioners in large companies lack the time or the specific domain expertise to conduct and bring technology-enabled research to life on their own. They need to rely on domain experts who will instill in them the confidence of knowing that the work has been carried out diligently and without bias. A research technology company's purpose isn't just to get the research done. It's to enable the conditions necessary for decision making and instilling confidence in the work is perhaps the most important condition that minimizes friction in the decision-making process.

Research technology companies hoping for better adoption and retention need to refocus their efforts on using technology to further their domain expertise rather than simply ‘show it off’. Technology should allow us to do more, and do it better, rather than do what we used to, only faster. This is the only way that technology-enabled research will add value beyond the typical insights that organizations already gather. It is also the only way that technology will help marketers and innovators truly make better decisions, with greater efficiency and agility.

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