Despite all the things market researchers disagree about these days, one thing we all agree on is that the industry is changing. And I don’t mean predictable little evolutionary changes. I think we all agree that there are big, disruptive, revolutionary changes taking place.

Right? Right.

These changes are creating stress on lots of industry stakeholders, but the group facing the greatest challenge? In-house market research departments. In-house market research departments are being bombarded with extra demands on top of the normal challenges of budgeting, project management, internal client support and supplier management. Those are long-standing issues that in-house research departments have been dealing with for years. But now, on top of that, they are dealing with:

  1. An unmanageable number of market research-related associations, social networking groups, events and interactive “media”—too many to keep up with, too many to ignore.
  2. Proliferating pockets of unsanctioned research, often done by well-meaning but untrained colleagues.
  3. Increasingly sales-hungry research suppliers, making the risk of answering a phone call almost unbearable.
  4. Insufficient time to truly assess the options and merits of social media-related research methods.
  5. Insufficient time, and in some cases authority, to establish and enforce customer research policies (which are of urgent importance because of the unsanctioned research that does take place).
  6. Internal clients becoming aware of numerous “market research” services and solutions, many of which are at best distractions and at worst disruptive.
  7. Internal clients who are reading about “free” market research options, when in reality the phrase “market research” is being used very loosely.

It’s a battle out there, and our hero (the market research department) needs a mighty sword to keep the kingdom afloat. What to do? I suggest that the first step is to rethink and re-document the department’s functions. For the sake of precision, let’s say that there are four major functions that research departments provide, for the overall market research and customer insight function to be successful:

  1. Project Management. Including the very time-consuming management of suppliers and clients for custom research studies, especially for high-end, organization-wide projects and trackers.
  2. Policy Creation and Enforcement. For example, how many times a year customers can be invited to research events, and what types of incentives are permissible. Other polices around approval processes, for example, “Any questionnaires over 20 items long must be approved by (name of the organization’s market research director),” or “any survey of customer group X must be approved by sales executive Y.”
  3. Resources. Finding, developing and maintaining centralized access to research tools, secondary reports, in-house research results, standardized questionnaire templates, sample sources, in-house panels and communities.
  4. Training. For example, either producing directly, or through partners, training for in-house researchers as well as internal clients (such as “product concept testing” for product development groups, and “message testing” for marketing teams).

In most client organizations that I work with, the convention has been to spend about 70 percent of the department’s time on item 1. But given the changes taking place, and the criticality of market research excellence in today’s highly competitive markets, I argue that this should be reversed. Project management should be 30 percent of the department’s time; the bulk of this highly skilled, experienced function should be in policy creation and enforcement, resource delivery and training.

How could this even be feasible you ask?

  1. In organizations where applicable, embrace the rogue researchers and provide them with training, skills and support so that they can handle ad hoc projects. Sure, these folks wouldn’t handle high-end studies and trackers, but just getting ad hoc studies into the hands of the departments that actually use the results can be a time saver.
  2. Challenge assumptions about current supplier relationships. Are you spending too much time managing your suppliers? Maybe it’s time to change them. Or maybe it’s time to challenge them as to what they can do to reduce your time spent managing projects. Ask your suppliers to get creative – if they are truly your allies, they will.
  3. Invest in tools that automate. I know too many market researchers who still spend 30 or 40 hours a project creating charts and graphs, and it just isn’t necessary anymore. Question libraries, reporting tools and research workflow management can all be tremendous time savers.
  4. Use collaboration to your advantage. As researchers, we are stuck in a rut; we assume that at the end of the project, we go off to our office, think hard, get brilliant and create a report. Instead, we could more often start the data sharing early on, get client input in a collaborative analysis process, delegate some of the analysis and writing, ask internal clients for help, and not only save a lot of time, but get even more buy-in to research results (people who are close to the analysis process are more likely, in my experience, to find the research recommendations credible). Let the internal clients be an ally, too.

Market research departments and their leaders face a battle given the market research industry’s changes, and for that, they are the real heroes. To overcome the big challenges, we will all have to make big changes. Indeed, the real enemy is the status quo.