I recently read two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal about Automation that started me thinking about the impact of automation on Market Research.
Key summary of the articles: The Georgia Institute of Technology has a team of robot builders who work “with industry and the military to find dull, dirty tasks that could be performed by a robot,” and who is right now working on automating poultry deboning. (WSJ, Page A1, May 29. 2012) ABB, who is developing robots, says “the aim isn’t to shoo humans out of factories. It is to give people more efficient tools.” (WSJ, page B4, May 31, 2012) The articles continue that robots are going to save money/time and, one claims, bring the defect rate close to zero- something that can’t be done by humans.
Both of them agree that people can do things that robots can’t. People are more flexible and can adapt. They can also respond more quickly. They also can handle intricate tasks that are very challenging – one article talks about how they didn’t realize how intricate cutting up poultry was, and another how people can adapt to things not being where they are supposed to be and to quick changes, while robots can’t. But both articles stress that the latest developments are to try to address these challenges and make robots to handle these issues. One of the inventors believes that this will reduce the allure of low wage countries and potentially bringing back skilled work to the US.
Market Research has seen some changes due to automation, which mostly fits into replacing the “dull” category of work with errors. I remember, in the 1980’s, when human beings posted data from computer printouts onto tables. It was dull and boring and there always was at least one error in each slide deck. One supplier hadn’t yet become computerized and was hand tabbing stuff – you could count on mistakes in his work! You were never sure you caught every mistake but there was always an odd looking number that usually later turned out to be wrong if you challenged it. And it was a big deal for them to check it, it would take days to retab stuff. So, I can definitely concur with greater accuracy and less boring dull work.
Automating the syndicated data is also a big advance in accuracy and speed. IMS data is available early on Monday – it used to take days to get it to the client. I remember needing to write up the monthly report and how tedious it was to do. I made mistakes (I’m human) but it could create serious problems if you made a mistake. I also got bored very easily so I did things to liven it up like putting survey data results in it to provide greater insights.
Conducting surveys is another area where automation has had a big impact – in the 1970s and 80s the only way to get a true sample of households was to go door to door. Then the gold standard shifted to telephone interviews. Many employees worked part time, it was a way for women who had been out of the workforce due to child bearing to have a part time job. Now those jobs are mostly gone, replaced by surveys on the internet. Again, greater accuracy, greater speed, less boring dull work.
I don’t have the data to back up my claim (which makes me uncomfortable as a market researcher) but it seems to me that all these developments have reduced the sheer number of people doing the work of market research. Just like the robots mentioned in the WSJ articles, these developments took away jobs that were comprised of dull repetitive tasks and freed up the people who were left to do more interesting, challenging and thoughtful work. The result is fewer people but more interesting work, at a faster pace with more accuracy.
What did we lose? I think we lost intimacy with the data and the opportunity to innovate. If I posted the data, I knew that data backwards and forwards – I don’t think that happens today. Also, because I got bored, I looked for ways to make things interesting – as I said earlier, I integrated primary research findings with secondary in my monthly reports.
But we can’t stay complacent- just like robots are being developed to debone chicken, I am sure that some tasks that today are done by humans will be automated in the future. As the McKinsey Consulting group says, the work that has the greatest likelihood of remaining in the developed world is Interactive work –work that changes based on conversations with people. So for career development, I suggest people focus on those skills. I’ve written earlier blogs on those skills, I won’t repeat them here but here is a link to one of those posts.
Readers what developments have you seen in automation in Market Research? How has it played out? Is it faster, better, cheaper? What impact has it had on people? What do you think will be automated next? What do you recommend as survival skills for the future?