Market Research in a VUCA world

A VUCA world – Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  While you may not have heard the term VUCA itself, I think most of us resonate with those descriptors of today’s world.

The term VUCA was originated in the military in the 1990’s and is now being used in management circles.  One of the first steps an organization can take in ensuring that it responds appropriately to VUCA situations is to understand what is going on.  That is exactly what Market Research is so great at!  But how well does Market Research take into account the VUCA dynamics?  Let’s look at the various components of a VUCA world and think about how Market Research can help.


A lot of times in Market Research we work with averages.  We describe the majority of responses and use terms like most and many.  That is valuable work and we shouldn’t stop doing it.  However, volatility comes from the non-majority.  Volatility comes from the outliers that may have been there to read but we might be ignoring them if we only focus on the norm.  A scan of the social media universe would be helpful in uncovering some potential volatility. After all, we know what one well placed tweet can do to upend a long term strategy.

One of the studies I did for a client illustrates the kind of work that might help in a VUCA world.  In the year 2000, there were starting to be rumblings about vaccines causing autism (today’s equivalent might some tweets).  A large scale segmentation study was able to identify how many people held these anti-vaccine attitudes and how those attitudes fit into their life view.  This group was a potential VUCA type event waiting to happen and we can hypothesize that that group has grown in size today.  (This study was published by the client, Merck, and can be found in the journal Vaccine in March 2005.)  Conducting these types of studies to understand the entire landscape and then following negative groups can be the key to understanding the potential sources of volatility.

Another area to consider is how we forecast trends.  We spend a lot of time uncovering potential events (competitive new product launches, potential legislation, etc.)  We take trend curves from various other historical launches into account and then adjust them for those events we anticipate.  That’s useful, and well and good.  But those are for things are continuations of what is going on today.    What are the things we can’t know about?  Perhaps this is only a topic for war gaming but is there anything market research can do to uncover what some potential sources of volatility might be?

Uncertain-This would be an interesting area to explore how well Market Research can pick up the uncertainties.

Complex- We all want things to be simple, we want to understand.  But we need to walk a fine line between creating a comprehensible story line so people can make sense of what is going on and simplifying too much, so that they lose the texture of the events.

Ambiguous– Market Research can certainly help reduce ambiguity.  We can describe the world as it is and try to figure out what might be.

So perhaps a plan for Market Research in a VUCA world should include an annual scan of the social media world, followed by a large scale custom study to assess the resonance of the negative items, if any were found.

I’m just beginning to think about the types of studies that we would need to help management better understand the VUCA world of today.  I’d love to hear some more ideas from readers.


One response to “Market Research in a VUCA world

  1. A brilliant and fascinating article, it is certainly something I will take into consideration when dealing with my own clients in the future, especially the ‘complex’ aspect. As your rightly say, clients like to see market research as simple to understand, but it is not always about the simplicity of the story/research, the research needs to be credible as well.

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