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Being in Macau for ESOMAR’s
Asia Pacific Conference gave me the occasion to reflect on the role of China in
the history of the global economy. My first trip to China was in 2007 when I
read about its present and future challenges and its history. Since then, I’ve
had the opportunity of occasionally travelling to the region to refresh my
framework of references.

Before the Western industrial
revolution in the nineteenth century, India and China together accounted for
half of the world’s GDP. When the Western countries progressed in technology significantly
ahead of these two vastly populated countries, their relevance fell dramatically
(see Table).

Source: Angus Maddison University of Groningen

Resurgence

Deng Xiaoping, the
leader of the People’s Republic of China between 1978 and 1992, knew how to
read the signs of the time. He perfectly understood that the only way back to
relevance was to command technology. This was the core of his ‘Socialist market
economy’. Four decades later, the fierce dispute about technological dominance
between the United States and China can be explained by this fact. The supremacy
of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, cyber-security, apps platforms and
the 5G network will determine who has pre-eminence in the worldwide economy.

If we think of the
market research and insights profession, what are the signs of our time? Let me
suggest two avenues: the digitisation of our societies and the ethical
implications it brings.

The accelerated digitisation
of our societies bring a never imagined capability of collecting information
about people’s lives. Today, technology gives us the chance of collecting data
about what people do, like, view, think, prefer, share, purchase and share in both
the digital and physical spaces. Never before, have customer centricity and
customer understanding been so central and at the core of businesses and organisations.
Never before, have we, professionals in deciphering people’s motivations, had
so many typologies and sources of data to work with. And therefore our
profession is experiencing a deep transformation.

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We are entering a new
paradigm: ‘Traditional’ market researchers are no longer the gatekeepers of
information; data collection and its treatment and analysis benefit from the
new technology available. This is why our profession has extended into the
world of analytics.

New capabilities

Our challenge is that
today, the hat of consumer and customer understanding, is not only worn by
traditional market researchers. Today, new professionals endowed with new
capabilities also wear it.

As a sector we have
the great challenge of combining the best of more than 100 years of professional
expertise with the new capabilities that technology and new professionals
bring.

We are talking about
two approaches to the same objective that must be complementary, merged so that
we obtain the best results from their symbiosis. For this, both sides have much
to learn from each other, without fear or complexity. A new professional identity
is emerging: the Data Translator – the professional who brings domain knowledge
to the unstructured data; the professional who understands what the relevant
business question is and establishes the most pertinent approach for
methodology and datasets; the expert who separates the wheat from the chaff and
overcomes the so feared final “so what?” question.

We are heading towards the ‘democratisation’ of data and insights.

We are heading towards
the ‘democratisation’ of data and insights. Automated DIY applications, data
pipelines feeding multiple platforms and the implementation of AI in data
collection and analysis processes encourage people outside market research to
access data and insights directly. The emergence of black boxes, the prioritisation
of speed and price and the ‘good enough is good’ approach makes us question:
what about rigour, provenance and quality control?

Ethics

We all know that technology
is not neutral. Technology is the reflection of the knowledge of the context, the
objectives, the ethical code and the biases of its creator. Market research,
and in particular ESOMAR, have a proven record of self-regulation based on
strong ethical principles; ethical principles applied to the management and
treatment of peoples’ data. With the multiple scandals about how the tech
giants treat personal data, shouldn’t we take the lead in the implementation of
ethics and our code of conduct in the insights industry at its broadest scope?
Shouldn’t we take the lead in the proper development of these technologies in
our extended realm?

Most recently, ESOMAR has
taken the leading role in negotiating the outcome of the EU GDPR as well as the
Copyright directive which threatened to deeply harm the practice of social media
research and text mining – the latter of course, being the fundamental starting
point of any machine learning capability. As a collective we have power, the
power of being influential in the formulation of these laws that affect our
profession. As individuals, the legacy of the insights profession today takes on
an even greater value – the value of identifying the relevant questions and
providing the relevant answers to make the best decisions.

Together, let us read
the signs of our time, embrace the evolution of our industry and steer our
profession to a promising and sustainable future.



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