Innovation without Technology? – Impressions from IIeX 2018

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I have been visiting the Insight Innovation conference for a couple of years now and my expectation was to celebrate the latest technology trends in our industry yet again. However, to my utmost surprise, technological inventions almost seemed to be a side issue this year. Some really inspiring showcases were still presented, but most speakers had one common concern: What if we, as a research community, cannot keep up with the imperatives of the technological progress?

In the very first presentation of the conference, Didier Truchot (CEO and founder of Ipsos) left the audience with a sentence, that became one of the most repeated quotes of the conference: “Our industry will change more during the next five years, than it has changed during the whole last fifty years”. This statement was probably meant as a promise, but it somehow also sounded like a bad omen. Everyone in the audience knew that organizations can be quite resilient to fundamental changes. And exactly that was the elephant in the room: What are the human challenges associated with the technological progress?

Intelligence Augmentation

This question became very apparent when discussing the role of Artificial Intelligence in our industry. Is AI really giving us more control over what is happening during the research process? Or is it actually starting to go beyond our control, as insights will be created in some sort of black box and, therefore, become more and more independent from human interaction?

Several speakers discussed the remedy against our loss of control and labeled it with the term “Intelligence Augmentation” (IA - a hot candidate for the market research buzzword of the year). The general idea is that IA-technology can help teams to find answers to their own questions of interest, to share their knowledge with others, to act upon their insights and ultimately to create a business impact. As IA is empowering the human capabilities and ease cooperation, it is the perfect answer to our fear of losing control in an overly technological world.

The New Role of Cooperation

In fact, the signs indicate an increasing need for cooperation in various areas. Every time, there are more and more players in our industry which doesn’t only increase the competition but also offers more opportunity for cooperation. One challenge, when two different teams start cooperating with each other, can be aligning the different technological platforms they are operating on, but usually it’s more a question of both organizational cultures fitting together that decides whether the cooperation becomes successful or not.

More players in the market also means more differentiation in the provision of services and products. Therefore, it becomes increasingly necessary to bring very different players to one table when doing research projects, e.g. a software provider, a data provider, advisors and, of course, a client. These constellations can require strong communicative skills from all participants to keep everyone in the loop, to get every voice heard and to align all the (possibly conflicting) interests. So especially in the context of new technology, interpersonal skills are becoming more important than ever.

Democratization of Research

And this leads us to a third topic that flared up in several presentations: the democratization of research. It has become easier than ever to buy interviews and apply some of the most advanced methods and technologies. This is why some end clients started to pursue the “in housing of research”, which means that the internal research teams collect, analyze and interpret data possibly themselves. This can have several advantages for the company, especially an improved transparency and control over the research process. However, providers of self-service tools also reported that they are increasingly asked to offer trainings and help their clients to draw sufficiently valid conclusions when using their software.

In a more general perspective, the barriers for doing research have become incredibly low and made our services accessible to a broader audience. Basically anyone can apply quite sophisticated research methods without having profound experience in the field. On the other hand, the democratization of tools in other industries may also allow the most experienced market researchers to choose a different career and start in a different field. Hence finding and retaining talents in our industry may become a challenge, as technology is taking over. This dynamic raises various questions about the sustained quality of our research and the importance of having experience in our profession.

Admittedly, these are only three human-centered topics that shined through in many presentations about technology, while talks about GDPR or Behavioral Economics are naturally focused on human matters. So, even though this conference is mainly about technological innovation at the first glance, to me the actual focus was on the people working in the industry and how they can cope with the technological change. It doesn’t mean we must be skeptical about change and innovation, but we should definitely find a more balanced and less-naïve relationship with technology. And maybe the human implications of technical innovation have been underestimated for a long time.