Unilever Driving Qual Change through Accreditation

Two events in the UK this week highlighted the gulf that separates most researchers from the clients they seek to serve.

Research-Live.com reported that Unilever is implementing a “new accreditation programme” for qualitative research suppliers.  The program will distinguish between “Research Leads” and “Moderators.”  To qualify, research providers will have to undergo about 3 hours of testing and observation and pass the test.  There are a lot of questions that the article does not answer about program specifics.

Obviously, the the accreditation program is being implemented because Unilever is not pleased with the quality of research they currently receive.  So what exactly are they displeased with?  Ulrike Hillmer, a consumer market insight manager for Unilever Deutschland, said the company seeks “to significantly raise the quality of qualitative research in the business in order to help deliver superior consumer insight”.

Likewise, Research-live.com quotes Unilever, “This researcher needs to be conscientious; a strategic thinker; to have empathy with the Unilever context; able to provide fresh ideas and thoughts and have the ability to link up brand/category issues with consumer understanding; and be challenging and pro-active.”

Contrast Unilever’s attempt at accreditation with the new report out this week from “The ICG,” a group of independent researchers who say they are “research professionals with an average 25 years’ experience.”  The report titled “Commissioning qualitative research and getting the best from it” provides a step-by-step overview of how to conduct the research process.  It is a 36 page presentation of detail about the process with tips, suggestions and rules to live by.

The ICG document likely meets a very well-defined and understood need.  Contributors worked very hard to assemble best practices and provide a guide for the qualitative researcher.  It would be very helpful for many researchers and their clients.

My point is that Unilever is not having trouble finding people who know the process; they are having difficulty finding people who can deliver superior consumer insight, think strategically, have empathy with the Unilever context and have fresh ideas and thoughts.  As good as the ICG document is for process, it does nothing to assist researchers to meet the needs of Unilever.

The contrast of these two initiatives is simply an example of the gulf that exists between research suppliers and research buyers.  I was President of the Qualitative Research Consultants’ Association for 3 years.  We found that our conferences were most successful when we taught techniques, not the discipline of insights.

Researchers like processes.  Otherwise, they might be artists or even strategy consultants.  Meeting Unilever’s requirements will be difficult for many researchers simply because it goes against their nature.

For years qualitative consultants were rewarded for executing processes.  When qualitative research was synonymous with focus groups, many researchers made a very good income because they could execute the focus group process.

Now, the world is changing.  Methodologies are expanding and fragmenting.  Business is getting faster and faster so companies like Unilever need researchers to help them think, not just process.  The research provider industry must evolve to meet these needs.  There is a place for process-oriented researchers.  But, the time is fast approaching when companies like Unilever will value, and pay, strategic researchers much higher.  Our industry should cultivate a new breed of researcher with different gifts and skills.  If we want research to be more valued in the C-Suite, we have to provide the insights and thinking that drive the business.

I, for one, hope that Unilever is delivering more than an accreditation program.  I hope they are devising a new qualitative research business model that values, and pays, strategic thinkers who can drive business over researchers who process research.  Without such a new business model, process research will strangle research as a valued profession.

Good luck Unilever!

3 Responses to Unilever Driving Qual Change through Accreditation
  1. Doerte (Dotti) Toellner Reply

    Unilever using our thinking as their key purchase criterion – this can only be good for our industry!

  2. SusanAbbott Reply

    I had never thought to approach them before, but this is making me think we might have something to talk about.
    More seriously, you are quite right — a process is no guarantee of insights. However, I think having a good process does increase your odds of success.

    The second key ingredient is wisdom combined with experience, and that is something very difficult to codify into a process. It can, however be measured to some extent (refer Elliot Jaques work on human capability). 

    You do raise the significant question of compensation — someone who does strategy work that is solidly based on qualitative insight gathering should get more than a “moderator”.

    • Jim Bryson Reply

      I believe Unilever is addressing the difference between experience and process with their distinction between “research lead” and “moderator.”  I assume the Research Lead will be paid more and be expected to deliver a higher level of insights, whereas, the “moderator” may be more of a process person.  This is why I am hopeful that the Unilever accreditation may help evolve the qualitative business model so that experience and strategic thinking ability become more highly valued.

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