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Can Market Researchers Save The Day By Becoming Decision Scientists?

Erik Larson Feb 1, 2022 9:15:00 AM

Decision-making is both the most important and most poorly managed business activity. These two numbers tell the tale:

  • Decisions drive 95% of company performance.
  • Decision-makers fail to use best practices 98% of the time.

It once seemed that data science would save us from our human failings and blaze a path to better decisions. However, it’s clear that data scientists are too far from real decision-making problems to provide workable decision-making solutions. Instead, businesses need new decision scientists who focus directly on tracking, understanding and improving business decision-making.

But where can companies find these decision scientists?

From Weak Recommendations to Powerful Decisions

Elyse Kane may have the answer. She is a marketing and strategy consultant and college professor, thirty-two-year executive at Colgate Palmolive and advisor to Cloverpop.

“Market researchers have to transform from insight and recommendation generators to evidenced-based decision enablers,” she said. “Decision-makers don’t need recommendations. ‘Recommendation’ is a weak word. It means suggestion, proposal, advice. It has no urgency or power. Decisions are urgent and powerful.”

That is attention-grabbing. Everyone knows that decisions are important, and we are learning more and more about how decision-making is broken and the many ways to fix it. But who in business today has the right motivation and skills, with the right role, to help leaders make better decisions? Ms. Kane suggests that market researchers have what it takes to become the decision scientists of the future. 

Motivation: Market Research Is A Burning Platform

Without motivation, it’s hard to spark change, and market researchers are motivated for change, or at least they should be. As Brandata CEO Josh Braaten pointed out, interest in market research as measured by Google Trends has declined by 80% over the past 15 years. The rise of big data and tech-enabled DIY surveys combined with a lack of trust from recent political polling inaccuracies make it reasonable for companies to ask whether relatively expensive market researchers and analysts are worth their salt. This declining relevance is a direct threat to the market research function, a proverbial burning platform.

Market researchers are well aware of these trends – not surprising given their prognostication-oriented jobs. As a result, they’ve been shifting from a focus on gathering and analyzing consumer data to providing insights and recommendations to business leaders. Unfortunately, while this small step up the decision value chain makes sense, it’s not enough, since their generalized insights and recommendations are ignored by decision-makers almost 80% of the time. To increase their business impact and stop the slide into irrelevancy, motivated market researchers must take the next logical step and apply their skills directly to analyzing and understanding business decisions.

Skills: Evidence-Based Analysis And Business Communication

Some leaders in the research and analytics world may still be reluctant to embrace a new focus on decision-making as a step too far. But forward-thinking market researchers who are motivated to make changes to increase their business relevance will find that their two primary skills are a near-perfect match for a decision scientist role.

First, and most apparent, they are skilled at end-to-end evidenced-based analysis. Market researchers and analysts are well versed at identifying and sourcing the data needed to understand a situation and how to analyze the data to glean meaning from it. Data-driven decision-making is a safe bet as far as long-term trends go.

Secondly, and equally important, market researchers are also skilled at communicating in a business environment. The role itself focuses on the “market,” the primary business playing field. Further, as market research has evolved from survey readouts to insights and recommendations, market researchers have gotten better and better at translating graphs for their business leader, aka decision-maker, audiences.

Role: Valued Advisor To Business Leadership

Ms. Kane makes an evocative argument that recommendations are weak sauce, but that hides a vital point: market researchers have still managed to uplevel their roles over the past twenty years from surveyors and statisticians to valued advisors. Their associated data, analytics and insights groups are now an essential part of almost every commercial organization today. They regularly contribute their recommendations to decision-making conversations, weak sauce or not. Now, before their influence fades further, they need to leverage their advisory roles more effectively by focusing directly on decision-making, the most important activity of business leaders.

Using existing advisory roles and relationships with decision-makers is much easier than trying to force an entirely new player into decision conversations. However, the position will have to be redefined, and market researchers will have to see their work through a new decision-back lens. As Ms. Kane wrote, “The questions they ask, the goals of their analyses and even their stakeholders will have to uplevel from the concerns of more junior people to more senior-level decision-makers.”

Such upleveling is pretty easy to imagine since the value and usefulness of their work will increase significantly when done in direct service of critical business choices, such as decisions about investments, brand health, omnichannel strategies, or pricing.

The Decision Scientist Future

This vision of the future is already championed by decision scientists at innovative companies like Instagram, Facebook, Best Buy and Starbucks. 

Market research and analytics leaders may think their teams aren’t ready for this change from pure service providers to data-driven business leaders. However, Ms. Kane argued that it is incumbent upon them, as leaders, to drive this transition for the sake of their companies and the future of their departments and their careers. 

“The transformation from insight identifier to decision [scientist] will not only enhance their companies’ decision-making capability,” explained Ms. Kane, “but it will also increase the power and the influence of the market research and analytics functions and the people who lead them.”