Most industries have experienced significant changes through the pandemic and now we’re facing uncertain times in 2023 with inflation, a forecast recession and energy market volatility. We sat down with Founder, Aaron Cruikshank, to get his perspective on what some of these changes and trends may mean for businesses and how market intelligence can help navigate these challenging times.
Trend #1: Is AI Something Companies Need to Watch? Is it Something Businesses Need to Incorporate Into Their Own Market Intelligence?
Machine learning continues to evolve and get better and better at what it does. I’ve seen some tools that code open ended questions from surveys pretty effectively using AI. The best versions of these today are human augmented – like Avalanche Insights – but the human touch will not have an advantage for long. II don’t think we’re too far away from software being able to do things like audience segmentation and research design. Those are things a lot of traditional market research companies do, so that can be concerning for folks in that industry but it’s not time to panic yet.
Eventually I think these tools will be sophisticated enough to do competitive intelligence research and at least the initial stage of strategic analysis. It will start with the part where you’re trying to sort out what the themes are, maybe make some directional suggestions on where to go. There are competitive intel products out there in the business to consumer space like Klue, that are getting very sophisticated and supporting sales functions.These tools are not quite replacing an analyst yet though.
There are also some amazing tools built on the GPT-3 platform which is an open source artificial intelligence engine that sort of scrapes everything that’s on the internet to help the AI answer natural language questions. I think there are some neat products and solutions based on GPT-3 that have the potential to improve academic outcomes for students who have learning disabilities or maybe for whom English is not their mother tongue. But until we start to see some better performance numbers in natural language processing, I don’t think these tools are going to be able to replace human analysts in our field anytime soon. There are also issues with biases in the systems like GPT-3 because they’re trained on the collective output of the internet including the views of the weird uncle who spews off conspiracy theories and internet trolls, so you might get some weird answers if you rely on GPT-3 entirely.
To make my long answer short, until there is an AI that can do everything, I recommend working with a research firm and looking at the ways some of the early tools can take care of easier stuff. It’s certainly not a silver bullet yet.
The Advantages of Using Humans in Combination with AI
The thing that humans excel at is pattern recognition – that is probably our number one skill as an animal subspecies. It’s allowed us to survive over centuries, and it makes us really intuitively good at recognizing patterns and trends.
Now there is false equivalency stuff that can happen sometimes where people will be like “oh I think I see a pattern there” and in reality it’s not a pattern but rather your brain tricking you. But a good analyst can recognize these patterns quickly, so I think it’s really hard to program a computer to do that as effectively as a person because at this point we don’t really know exactly the way that our brains work and make that incredible stuff happen. That’s where a human is going to beat a computer, every single time. At this point they’re going to make an intuitive leap and they may be going to connect ideas that are seemingly unrelated – something that a computer would not think to connect. For example, in this sector they do xx but a GPT-3 engine or something like that might limit the thinking to the domain you ask the question about and they’re not necessarily going to make those intuitive leaps to another field.
Market Intelligence: Humans vs AI
With market intelligence in particular, there is a lot of interpretation involved. With a human, you could say “well this is how I interpreted it” or ask “how did you interpret this?”. A person can also have the discussion around “we determined this to be important for these reasons”. This is a key concept – humans have the understanding on how to interpret data and can often explain their logic behind their thinking. For instance, there are scenarios where clients ask us for our expert opinion and interpretation of something in a certain way but having a computer attempt to do that would be very different and challenging. AI is not quite there yet in terms of interpretation.
An important element of the work we do at CTRS Market Intelligence Agency and the work that other researchers do, is the ability to defend your outcomes and say when somebody says show your work or show us the math – you do just that. You can say this is how we arrived at this conclusion. Right now, unless you’re a pretty crazy good programmer, that is something you can’t really do with AI tools.
You can’t necessarily read a piece of software and get that result. Some of the software might be proprietary so you don’t get to look at the code even if you knew how to read it. For those who don’t know how to read the code, that’s not necessarily going to be super informative. There is also a little bit of that ghost in the machine aspect that’s happening with some of these tools where even the people writing the code aren’t always one hundred percent sure how they make intuitive leaps from one topic to another. This can lead to discrepancies in data interpretation.
It’s almost hard to picture what it’s going to look like in 10 or 15 years from now. Are some of the AI tools useful to have in your toolkit? Absolutely. We have tried out some of these tools and some can handle specific types of data sets and specific tasks. But for specialized data sets, we trust our humans. It’s easier to get a human to interpret something that you would struggle to code a computer for the task. These tools are still in the early days, so in the future, there is probably a lot of good stuff to come. But for 2023 and the next couple of years following, I think humans are winning this battle. These AI tools are definitely something to watch for and we encourage those in the research field to play with these tools now. Use the opportunity to get familiar with them and then you can get a firsthand look of how they evolve over time.
Trend #2: Social Purpose Research – Fad or Future?
There are some very cynical analysts that think the whole environmental and social governance (ESG) / social purpose / diversity equity inclusion movement is going to fall apart now that we’re facing a potential recession in 2023. They say that all of this stuff seems great as long as the economy is doing well. But if the economy is going to tank, the cynics say all these movements are going to go out the window.
I am not one of those cynics so I honestly believe this stuff is here to stay. I think the citizens – the people who buy and vote and move markets with their dollars and their ballots – they no longer seem to believe that money is everything. Their belief is increasingly that we should be able to use our resources to make our communities better and save our environment. I think society sees companies today and expects them to act with a people, planet,and profit mindset.
I definitely think the pandemic, hot heels of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Greta Thunberg movement, got people thinking more about this. A lot of this stuff just really made people question the interests of corporate players and question if the government is really looking out for us. Do these people have our best interests in mind? I think it’s made people focus a lot more on these important issues.
So, yes. Research into social purpose issues is important and I think it’s here to stay. Especially if you are doing business with the government. We have noticed that many of our public sector clients are now asking how the private sector firms they are hiring can demonstrate that they are an ESG-oriented business.We tend to focus on the social impact side of ESG at CTRS because that’s where our expertise lies and this definitely wins us points with our public sector clients.
What Do You Think Social Purpose Research Looks Like in Practical Terms?
It’s not just researching how the public feels about social impact issues, it’s also about how we do the research itself. Today, we are researching social impact issues from the perspective of how are you going to change your customer behaviour to reduce pollution or increase recycling. Sometimes we are wondering if consumers are willing to support brands that support equity seeking groups. Stuff like that is research that’s been happening for a while. The big change here is about how we do the research ourselves.
One of the big things researchers need to consider is how to ensure that the voice of the research subjects are heard and that their intersectionality is considered. Intersectionality is this idea that we all have multiple aspects of ourselves we bring to our life. For instance, you can be a woman, but you can also be a woman of colour, a queer woman of colour, and a queer woman of colour with a disability. That intersectionality is where all of those aspects of self overlap and might amplify certain barriers that you have or may make challenges you already have more complicated. We have to make sure that we’re thinking about that intersectionality when we’re doing research design. The best way to do that is through direct consultation with equity seeking groups.
So if you want to know how Indigenous people are going to respond to a research project you are doing, you need to consult with Indigenous people at the design stage. You need to say “this is what we are thinking about doing, does this make sense?” or “how do you think people are going to react to this?”.
It’s important to make sure you are factoring in their feelings and thoughts. It is also a great idea to bring in a subject matter expert on niches within diversity, equity and inclusion, and environmental social governance topics whenever necessary. This can help ensure the work is fully informed.
For example, we have done some work at CTRS in the LGBTQ+ community and we actually worked quite closely with people from the queer community. While we do have staff that are part of the queer community, it’s a little biased because we’re the researcher and we might be wearing too much of our researcher hat and thinking about things from the researcher perspective rather than as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. For that reason and more, it’s always a good idea to bring in that outside voice to make sure that you’re thinking about those particular nuances to do with that community.
Removing Barriers for Participants
You also need to make sure the research methodology itself and fielding of the research is not creating barriers for full participation by equity seeking groups. A classic example is a lot of folks who are older are not super comfortable with online interaction tools. I participated in a focus group one time where the average age of the participants was probably sixty and they were trying to use a tool which allowed people to use an interactive white board.
For the first thirty minutes or so, the moderators were trying to teach the group how to log into the platform because they had never seen anything like it before and they didn’t know how it worked. Sometimes with things like that, you need to instead look at alternative methods. Should we just do this by phone? Should we be using scribes? Another barrier with the online whiteboard is for someone who may be visually impaired – they can’t utilize the interactive tool. All those considerations are crucial.
Especially for socio economic equity instances, it’s easy for us that live in a major urban center to assume we are going to have a reliable internet. But it’s important to recognize that a “good internet connection” varies and is not available in every community.
One last tip for this topic is about complexity. If you have a topic that is complex, make sure it can be understood and accessible to everyone. Use language that can be understood by all – avoid the use of jargon. A tip from years ago is to think of having everything understandable at a grade ten reading level. For those researchers who are conducting research with people who don’t have English as their mother tongue, there are tools that you can run your questionnaire through that checks for compliance. Our job as researchers is to make ourselves clearly understood and if we are not clearly understood, that is our fault, not our audience. A best practice is to always use the tools available to you and make sure everything is accessible.
Trend #3: What Does the Shifting World Mean for Businesses with Existing Market Intelligence or for Those Considering Getting Market Intelligence?
The pandemic changed our world very quickly. Businesses needed to pivot and many were faced with challenges they could not overcome. As time progresses, the world and the ways and spaces we conduct our businesses continues to evolve and shift. The pace of change is accelerating.
One of the big outcomes of the pandemic for individuals and businesses was that it disrupted the working relationship between employers and employees. That has had ramifications – there is this push and pull tension between working from home versus working at the offices. Businesses have offices that are expensive long-term lease spaces they don’t want to see underutilized, so they are requesting employees to come back to the office. Many employees don’t want to return to the office because working remotely provides greater flexibility. Combine this changing dynamic with an ongoing labour shortage – employee retention is harder than ever. This is creating a lot of tension.
Despite the tension, one strategy that has been positive for businesses is what some people are calling inshoring. The pandemic has shown people they can do inshoring – where you can actually work with people in your home country that just aren’t located in the same city. You can now recruit employees from anywhere in the country and that is creating amazing economic opportunities for individuals who maybe couldn’t participate fully in the economy before. The bigger picture here is that PESTLE shocks – political, economic, social, technological, legal, or environmental disruptions – are impacting economic systems at the international, national, and regional levels. The pandemic is a perfect example of one of these PESTLE shocks playing out in all industries. It smashed a number of systems and caused a lot of turmoil for employees and businesses. Every impact has a different ramification for a different reason so the question becomes what are we going to do next?
Some businesses were able to respond very effectively to these shocks and others lost their minds due to the challenges. The ones that were able to ride this out were the ones who were able to look ahead and recognize the shifts and trends, along with the acceleration of the pace of change. Businesses need to focus on trying to see what’s next.
Market intelligence has always been in the business of seeing what’s next. With the pace of change, looking at external factors every two or three years isn’t going to cut it anymore. Typically we see companies looking at what is happening in the external market every couple of years to see what’s happening. That’s just not going to cut it anymore because things are changing so rapidly. Given things like the pandemic and now the possible recession, there are going to be more PESTLE shocks and they will keep disrupting things. The best way to respond is simple: companies need to engage in continuous monitoring of the market and engage in strategic planning on a regular basis to make effective changes. Companies who follow this process annually, with quarterly updates to say what’s going on and to constantly keep an eye on what’s happening, will be able to pivot and succeed.
Where Should a Business Start if They’re Wanting to do MI Annually? What Should They Look at First to Make Sure They are Keeping Up with the Times ?
If you’ve never done market intelligence work at your company before, you need to set a good baseline. The baseline should include the current state and where things look like they’re going in the next 3, 5, and 10 years. It should be an ongoing process. Being vigilant and thinking about how those changes are going to impact your business and having some questions that you’re trying to answer internally, is the best way to actively keep up with changing times.
Let’s use the work from home example. If suddenly work from home becomes the norm for employment and everybody’s expectation is to work from home, the questions for the business become:
- How can we pivot?
- What does this mean for us? Would we have to give up a lease on a building? Would we have to change some of our employment policies?
Having the base intel so you can do scenario planning and think of what would happen if this change occurred, is a great way to operate your business. It gives you a leg up for if and when you need to react to a trend or change in the market. You have the plans to pivot quickly and have the knowledge to make quick decisions that are more likely to succeed.
So How Does This All Relate to Market Intelligence?
Research begins with asking a few basic questions. You want the researcher to find the answers to simple questions, and the complex ones too. Market intelligence is the investment that provides you the opportunity to uncover the answers to your external questions that impact you.
What are your next steps?
If you’re strategically planning for 2023 and beyond, market intelligence will give you the solution to both straightforward and challenging questions. Guide your business forward, with the clarity and the confidence required to execute your action plans.
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