An interesting lunch with B, who is VP of a research software provider, visiting London. “So, what are the changes you see in research software” he asks, and I find myself answering the question at some length on the changes I don’t see happening, and how unambitious research companies are when it comes to using technology to move the research process on. We both agree that too many research firms are timid with their research software decisions: perhaps too many vested interests in retaining the status quo.
We have both been in the industry a long time, but we are both still surprised by how uninterested many rank-and-file researchers are with the data. So many seem content to allow others to push the buttons, rather than get their hands dirty with the actual data. We swap stories of surveys we have seen designed for the web which are just paper forms, with no understanding of the whole context of doing research online. Again, it is the technicians that are left to bridge the gap between intention and action. We wonder whether this goes to explain the ongoing reluctance of research companies to automate, through better use of technology – so many of the decision makers probably have only a hazy grasp of the actual wastefulness of many of the processes which are still commonplace. We think of the reality of coding, of cross-tab production, of chart preparation. I mention the reluctance we uncovered in many CATI centres still to introduce predictive dialling technology, where there can easily be a 6 month ROI, and a hike in profits thereafter (Confirmit MR Software survey).
I think back to the Online Research Conference the previous week: the subtitle of which was “cheaper, better, faster” in reference to what the research industry perceives as being the drivers from their clients (and the hope that the conference speakers might be able to provide some survival tips and thereby pull in an audience). The event was extremely well attended, yet speakers and questioners repeatedly challenged the placing of “cheaper” in the title. “Cheaper” should not be the goal, they asserted, even though there was constant pressure to bring down costs. “Better and more efficient” is the public ambition of the industry, according to the conference attendees.
But those at the conference are clearly not a representative sample of the research industry as a whole. Those fixed on cost don’t do conferences. Those fixed on cost seem content to keep cranking the same handle – squeezing out more product off the same tired production line. It was not a strategy that resulted in success for much of the automotive industry – it proved disastrous for GM, for instance.
It is not a perfect analogy. The automobile industry is not greatly threatened by customers going and building their own cars. Research is expensive and DIY survey tools are cheap, which makes professional research vulnerable at times like these. We do need to talk about cost, and we need to look to better technology to reduce cost by changing the process and making research inherently frugal. The problem is there are too many gas-guzzling SUVs being offered by the research industry at a time when customers are seeking more frugal hybrids. And what is a threat to some, is always an opportunity to others, especially those that get tricky with the technology.