By Helene Protopapas
Are we young researchers ready to face the automation era? One thing that I learned interviewing the CEO of ZappiStore, the first automation research shop, is that we are now shifting from how to what.
I have always been intrigued by breakthrough technologies that re-define the rules, changing somehow the world. Automation is undoubtedly a revolution that leads the way, enabling better, than ever, agile solutions. While I was doing my research on the subject, I came across the first market research shop in the world, founded by Stephen Phillips that I had the chance to interview and discuss with him the exciting area of automation in market research.
Automation refers to “the use of systems with minimal human intervention, reducing or eliminating unnecessary human labour activities and thus allowing people to focus on high-intelligence processes”. Automation in market research is being used for a while for single tasks only but never for the entire process. It’s ZappiStore, in collaboration with industry leaders, that for first time provides full automation services for the end-to-end research process, aiming for a more efficient and effective type of research. This initiative is a great venture that shows that the rules are changing: new values and new business models walking away from long established processes, challenging the unknown. What are the benefits of automation? What are the fears? Is it truly revolutionary? How does it influence young professionals?
According to Stephen, “automation provides faster, cheaper and better solutions, promoting a better thinking of the research world with less waste on time and cost-consuming tasks”. Automation, he explains, means “more research with less budget, leading to greater impact on accessing more and more information”. Spending endless hours in the field, cleaning data, or checking tables is pretty much unnecessary when all these tasks can be done faster by a machine. Using human resources for high intelligence tasks is what is going to deliver growth. Researchers are not replaced, nor become less important but their roles are upgraded and are becoming a valuable asset for the organisation. Researchers are now free to focus on what it really matters: not “how to do things” but on “what things to do”.
So what are these things that really matter? Finding the perfect design for a study does matter. Determining the framework for a neuroscience study does matter. Spending endless hours cleaning data does not matter at all, because it’s just a computational series of steps. I could list hundreds of tasks to prove my point that it’s not about processes anymore, but it’s all about objectives. It’s now a critical point for every researcher to recognise the change and to adapt, seeing automation as a collaborator and not as a threat. Similarly to automation, revolutionary trends like social media and big data have landed nicely in our lives without many adoption obstacles, establishing a new era in communications, marketing and data generation. Automation, though, has not convinced everyone yet and not all societies have fully comprehended the benefits of its usage: the fear of substituting the role of the human factor is still dominating the general public. I don’t think it is absolutely irrational to be anxious about the future of automation and to what extent it can truly complement and not substitute the role of the researcher, but I want to be an optimist. According to Stephen, the researcher’s role is changing and needs to change, just because businesses are changing towards more technology driven solutions. He overlooks the future of our profession towards three distinct pathways: consulting, R&D and data science.
I very much agree with him, in terms that we have seen several new professions coming up the last few years, moving to step away from traditional research and actually providing support with all means. Trying to group all in the three main categories, as Stephen suggests, would help us understand the reality. So we have the business driven people who are passionate about delivering growth at the core. These are the new consultants, like myself, who need to develop a passion for their client’s business: to fully comprehend the problems, the trends of the industry and what’s happening at the heart of the business. Next, we have the people who are passionate about research; the so-called R&D people who spend endless hours coming up with new models to improve existing methodologies. They bring in new ideas, even sometimes from different disciplines, attempting to understand the human nature: what motivates us, where our desires come from, how we reward ourselves etc. Last, we have the data scientists that do not actually belong in research but have a passion for data and can add value from anywhere within the organisation supporting consultants and developers.
Having these three groups as main levers, the technical part is effectively eliminated and the focus is placed on “what really matters”. We are seeing this shift happening already with automation replacing gradually many “manual” tasks. There are undoubtedly several factors to consider before getting fully on board, such as the accuracy of automation or whether there is a risk for statisticians to loose their jobs, however.
With regards to the next generation of researchers, I think it is pretty straightforward that we are the first ones to be affected. Our role changes dramatically in terms of starting our career without doing all the “boring” tasks that are considered unnecessary today but not by traditional researchers. I think that namely traditional researchers would argue that it is important to experience them too so that we have a better understanding of the processes. On the other hand, I strongly believe that having a different and high-intelligence starting point shifts the entire learning process, resulting in much higher quality outputs from an early stage.
A last word from Stephen trying to inspire all young researchers, including myself, is “to do whatever you do with passion, trying to understand the topic better than the specialist”. My advice is to have your eyes open, find your passion, work hard to excel through objectives and don’t let give up!
Helene Protopapas is IE Business School graduate student and is currently Senior Research Analyst in Innovation Practice in Nielsen in the UK. Connect with her via @elenaprot