When Charles Babbage started working on designs for his mechanical computer, he borrowed, conceptually, from the prevailing belief in the “division of labour” as the most efficient way to get anything made. In the 1800s, for example in Paris, there existed data factories whose role was to generate things like logrithmic tables. These factories employed a few mathematical gurus plus an army of hundreds of low-paid, low skilled workers whose role was to do the simple arithmetic, layers down within the calculation process.
Henry Ford, of course, took the division of labour idea another step further by building the production line where – if your job was to screw on the right-front mudguard – the work came along to you as if to say: “Screw this!”
The business model went unchallenged until the 1970s when Swedish manufacturer Volvo rethought the workplace and started assembling cars not by production line – but with work teams. Everyone multi-tasked in small work teams, so as a group you’d assemble the car from the basic shell through to the final finish. It was not only a more rewarding, more engaging way to work, it proved more efficient and enabled higher quality production.
The question I pose today is: why do market research companies retain the production-line model? Is the division of labour really more efficient? Is it really more engaging? Does it deliver better quality research?
In seeking more efficient output, greater productivity – but also research that is better value for the client – some research firms have chosen to go the Volvo route, and instead of routing their projects through one department and then on to the next – thanks DP, now lets hand it on to the PPT producers – they entrust the whole project to one group of researchers who handle the whole process (albeit as soon as the data comes back from Field.)
I’ve worked in both systems – 5 years on the production line, and 15 years as a multi-tasker – and would argue that the latter approach is quicker, less prone to errors and mistakes, more engaging and – ultimately – more tailored to the needs of the client.
My belief is that the production line model – implemented during the latter half of the 20th Century – suited well the dominant type of market research being conducted. For stamping out monitors? Perfect. But if the Market Research industry considers where business is being lost – over to Big Data or in-house departments – it is precisely those same monitors. In other words, relatively speaking, we do less of the basic assembly work, and a lot more of the customised, ad-hoc projects. We’re becoming more Volvo (or if you want a more exciting team-assembly example: Ferrari) and less Detroit.