The ship is loaded, now a voyage into the future of qual

No sooner had a couple of ships left the harbour here at Shore than a couple more have hoved into view to replace them.

Busy at the Shore
Busy at the Shore – and also blurry and pixillated. Would you believe this is a pic of Brendan Rodgers’ home town? You should, it is. Lovely place, Carnlough, Co. Antrim. Limited footballing opportunities though.

A busy summer and autumn await. Thanks to all who responded to last week’s message of availability. In no particular order, I’m going to be getting more acquainted with garden equipment, health products and meat in the coming months.

As for now, I’m looking forward to Monday’s big AQR meet-up to discuss the small matter of the future of qual research. Like a lot of agencies, Shore chipped in some dosh to help sponsor the day and I will be taking part in the session myself. It will be fascinating to see how others in the industry are seeing it. Qual in the UK is, in many senses, in rude health and has a fantastic future – but there are some strategic challenges facing qual researchers. Some senior qual practitioners are concerned our ability to continue to do great, transformative qual work is threatened, now that a new tendency to commoditise qual has been added to the age-old undervaluing of qual by people who don’t fully get it.

Have you guys never heard of swimming against the tide?
Have you guys never heard of swimming against the tide? I’ve always felt a bit different from the rest of you anyway.

In my view, it’s because of our main strength – we are, in a business or public sector project context, genuinely disruptive. We do things differently, we often think very differently from the people we advise. That’s because we carry in our heads, when we walk into our clients’  business and government environments, an acute awareness of how people really think and act out there, across a range of activities. It can make us sound jarring or even awkward at times – our discourse is different from the usual language of business or government.

Sometimes clients even mistake what we have to tell them for entertainment. Qual debriefs can be very engaging, we hope, but they are also often addressing fundamental issues for our clients. The shame is that the potential for a qual debrief to be taken further to change thinking within client organisations is often missed.

But as I said in my talk last September at the AQR event at Wallace Space, I do think the idea of developing a clearer and more recognised professional status for qual researchers has much to commend it. Having a recognised professional status, as I had when I worked as a solicitor, cuts out a lot of the unnecessary crap you otherwise have to deal with.

Give us some space to do our thing. We're better at it than you.
Give us some space to do our thing. We’re better at it than you.

People using an unfamiliar lawyer can rightly assume, at a base level, that she has proven herself as bright and knowledgeable enough to be accepted into the profession by senior guardians of the profession. She will have worthwhile expertise on the areas upon which she advises clients.

Having a defined area of expertise as lawyers have, non-lawyers are largely prevented from dabbling ineptly in these activities. This helps lawyers of course but it’s also for the benefit of anyone using legal services. In qual, we could do with more of that respect sometimes – and our clients would be the ones who would benefit in the long term.

They are sold short when they are offered ‘qualitative insights’ by people without substantial qualitative research training or experience.

What clients don't see - we have to write everything we're thinking out in the air first. Bloody difficult skill, I can tell you
What clients don’t see – we have to write everything we’re thinking out in the air first. Bloody difficult skill, I can tell you

Qual seems beguilingly simple at first – then you realise the mental gymnastics required to produce proper insight and it takes most of us a few years before we get our heads around how to consistently do that and become the finished article. That’s years of focussing solidly on qualitative thinking and insights. The difficulty of getting to that place is not, I think, always appreciated, especially when we make it look simple.

How the accreditation is done is more of an open question. I look forward to thinking through the ideas on Monday.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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