Consumer Insights and Analytics: To Generalize or Specialize – That is the Question!

Dixon Smith and Virginia Roher recently represented O’Connell Group’s consumer insights and analytics recruitment team at The Market Research Event. They share their observations based on conversations at this leading market research industry conference.

Attending The Market Research Event (TMRE) once again provided us with the opportunity to step away from the recruiting desk and gain industry insights in a completely different environment.

Now, back at the desk and reflecting on the sessions and conversations we experienced, it’s clear to see that key themes emerging in our industry will impact insights and analytics professionals as they navigate their careers.

The Neo-Generalist: Is Generalization the New Specialization?

Specialization has been one of the long-term trends we have noticed. In the past, being a generalist was a very common career path, especially in a corporate environment. Today, market research and consumer insights and analytics professionals are focusing on specialized areas. Just as young athletes used to play two or three different sports, today they focus on honing their skills and development in one sport.

The trend is driven by the need to access multiple and myriad sources to deliver consumer insights in ever faster, smarter and more actionable ways.

We see it in our practice: many of the companies we partner with now have dedicated functions for Shopper Insights, Advanced Analytics/Data Science, Consumer Insights, Category Management, Business Intelligence, Digital Analytics, etc. to develop the expertise needed to deliver consumer insights, organizations are investing in each of these specialties. As a result, professionals end up focusing for years in one specific area in order to have an impact.

Simultaneously, business leaders are struggling to find ways to effectively utilize all the different types of data and insights generated by each function, in addition to the massive amounts of secondary and passive data available. Who is going to pull together all of this together into cogent consumer and business points of view?

Is the role of market research generalist disappearing, or is a new role emerging?

The drive to synchronize disparate data into usable insights is intensifying. “Big Data” is one approach and, of course, it was discussed extensively at TMRE. We see an increasing demand for folks with both the technical – and very importantly – the strategic skills to use data from many sources to deliver usable insights and develop actionable plans for their brands. As organizations evolve to bring all the various data and information together organically into cogent insights, some companies are creating new roles focused on this effort alone.

As we talked to colleagues, clients and candidates, it occurred to us: Maybe we should call these new roles “Neo-Generalists.”

Are Soft Skills the Secret Sauce?

The beauty of TMRE is the opportunity to sit down with leaders from packaged goods, financial, insurance, and digital companies – representing the range from corporate conglomerates to smaller, more nimble organizations.

They opened up with us about their struggles to find the right talent for their teams and the frustrations they have in trying to find the right person in the limited amount of time they have to do so. Naturally, they gravitate to online sources; that seems logical, right? Within a click or two, these sources deliver resumes front and center and provide a “cheap” way to post a job opportunity to a large audience – the world.

Here’s the twist: they now face the same challenge of gleaning insights about their brands from vast amounts of data and various sources. But in this case, the challenge is to quickly and effectively find the right person by assessing vast amounts of candidate data (a digital stack of resumes that would weigh a ton if printed).

As one hiring manager said: “We had a great response from truly talented people, exceptional schools and training. But, you cannot see or assess from a resume the ‘fit’ and the soft skills that are critical to our success.

“It took me over 9 months to find someone and I’m still not sure this person is right; but I don’t have time to waste to continue looking.”

If candidates can demonstrate the ability to do research in some form or fashion, good managers can train them on much of the basic research. But, what they truly seek are natural leaders with the innate skill to influence.

Candidates sometimes confuse their desire for a management title and compensation package with the desire and skills to be a leader. As another hiring manager said: “Candidates tell us they want to lead, but then on the job they don’t. It is so frustrating. I don’t have time for this; I barely have time to get my job done.”

The research world continues to explore and work together to figure out how to use the mass amounts of data they have collected on their consumer and shoppers. At the same time, they realize they need talented people on their teams to analyze and look at all of that data and make the judgments necessary to create a dialogue that is productive for their brands.

In their quest to build teams, they find themselves drowning in a pool of more data (resumes) that is incomplete because it lacks insight. They then struggle with how to efficiently access the talent that is critical to their business success.

…The circle of frustration continues to turn!

Converging Themes

What was clear to us from our time at TMRE is echoed in our daily work with our clients and candidates.

Technology that is now capable of delivering vast amounts of data may be out pacing the supply of people with the skills to make decisions with it. This feeds the growing demand for the both the specialized technical skills – and the broadly applicable soft skills — required to succeed in any key, strategic role.

Caryn Akon, Senior Vice President at Citi calls them the “3 Cs: Curiosity, Collaboration and Communication.” In the ever changing world of insights, professionals with an interest in ROI on research dollars and the ability to communicate effectively will have an edge in their company and the market.

Ironically, the challenge for people leading these teams of research and analytic professionals is efficiently integrating the volume of “candidate data” gathered from resumes, references, panel interviews and skills testing into a cogent, insightful and accurate picture of the person you want to hire.

Let us know how you are balancing the need for specialists and generalists – and assessing both their hard and soft skills – as you build your teams.