Sunday, 4 November 2007

From The Heart Not The Head - Research In Asia

Not so long back I was doing a depth research interview with an Asian pharmaceutical salesman at a hotel in the Hilton at Gatwick Airport. It was like pulling teeth. The ethnicity is relevant in this instance because of an opinion I’ve held for some years that I believe Western research methodology imposed on Oriental cultures is deeply flawed.
It made me remember a topic I've been meaning to post about and which might be of interest to international planners, and also I'd like to open up the debate on research methodology.
I first began to think about this some years ago because I was having a chat with the MD of a research company in Asia who said something that stopped me in my tracks. When I raised that the respondents in the focus group were very reluctant to speak, and could he think of ways to stimulate discussion he responded without hesitation, ‘use a cattle prod'.
At the time I thought this was quite a cynical view coming from a research professional that we had commissioned, but over the years I've regretted not changing the company immediately. The recruitment was bad, the research was bad and the reporting was bad. I guess I’d been warned from that off the cuff comment but wasn’t listening properly.
‘Any road’, as they say in Coronation Street. I got thinking about the whole methodology of qualitative research in Asia because of this interview with the pharmaceutical salesman. Early into the process the respondent’s behavior was guarded at best and more often not, just plain evasive in a garrulous way. I sensed that all the answers being giving were measured and unforthcoming for a strong reason. He refused to say anything negative about the organizational structure as if the discussion were a test, or a job interview.
Not content to go though the motions I tried to think of another way, because there is a propensity in Indian culture to use talking as a means of stalling for time to to think about the answer that is wanted. Often it’s an over compensatory willingness to be helpful on their part, although it achieves the opposite effect.
I tried an alternative approach, which was Socratic in so much that I waited for a clear contradiction of an earlier statement, and then asked questions that made this self evident to the respondent. Not normal interviewing technique but I’m glad I persisted.
People are contradictory by nature, Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent and that I'm afraid also applies to truth in a temporal sense. I hit jackpot when like a sudden tropical downpour the real stuff began to pour out of his mouth. I grabbed my pen and began madly scribbling down verbatim as much as I could get. It was priceless feedback. The respondent addressed the imbalance by being extra truthful and I realised from that point onwards he was talking from the heart and not from the head.
Getting to this point in Occidental cultures is no easy task but with a stranger in Oriental cultures, even within a validated research environment is not working with Western research methodologies. The hierarchical nature of their society, the desire not to stand out or be the exception to the rule, the value place on guarded responses that is instilled from birth all contribute to much research in Asia as little more than worthless. All the more frustrating because many research professionals in those countries, by their own cultural values are conditioned not to question the validity of the methodology. The evidence for this assertion, is the non existence of indigenous research methods in this part of the world.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but they are few and far between.
So what is the solution?
We now know that location based and user research, such as ethnography, is much more revealing than the sterile environment of a research agency or conference/meeting facilities or a hotel.
Here are some more suggestions that I’d urge the research industry to consider urgently in this amazing part of the planet.
Focus groups – Set up respondents to CONNECT with each other before hand, either through a moderated media like instant messaging or a more laissez faire approach like a Facebook group, allowing them to develop bonds about who they are, what they do while letting them reveal a little of their personality.
  1. Depth interviews – Let the respondents get to know their interviewer through a Blog or an updated page on the website. Encourage them to join the interviewers twitter circle, an easy thing to set up for a work profile that fosters a sense of intimacy.
  2. Use the low cost of doing business in Asia as a powerful follow up tool. Do focus groups that use stimulus material such as visual boards and if the first round is inconclusive, then get the creative team to work on them further and dispatch them to the respondents by COURIER for further discussion over the phone.
  3. Take hard to find high income business leaders to a high end restaurant and use the occasion as a forum for them to network before moving onto the topics that the research has been commissioned for. Give and you shall receive.
I could go on. In this age of ubiquitous internet the ability for people to develop the trust that is needed to speak from the emotional heart, rather than from the rational head which is culturally conditioned to be reserved opens up opportunities that research companies need to embrace. I’ve spent far too many research debriefs observing the interested parties (anxious clients and ‘wannabe creative’ researchers) using qualitative research as mini quantitative tests. Its time to listen to planners again and be a little more creative about how we problem solve.


  1. Bloody useful that. Thanks Charles..

  2. Thats really interesting.

    I remember hearing that in Indian culture they consider knowledge as power; therefore people will often tell you as little as possible to get a job done, as they don't want to give away their knowledge.

  3. Thanks Will. Glad you enjoyed it.

    That's quite right Rob, Asian cultures including India see transparency as foolish. But everything is contextual (which is the name of the book I'm not writing)

    However, leading edge culture is open, transparent and collaborative. In the future people will look back and wonder how we got anything done. If we have actually even begun to achieve our potential given the size of this universe.

    So - In short Rob, Asian cultures do keep their card close to their chest and this post is about going the extra mile to wrestle them away. All in a good cause of course.

  4. Very interesting topic. I wasn´t really aware of how much impact culture has in focus groups (even though I often tend to think that they are seriously flawed the way most clients, researchers and agencys use them nowadays). But yes it makes total sense.
    Mar Earls mentions something similar in his book "Herd" on page 81. If you haven´t already, you should read it.

  5. Hi Tim. I confess I haven't read Herd yet but I feel I know it so well that I've recommended it to many people. I intend to hook up with the Herdmeister v. shortly.

    Only today I was listening to an interesting woman talking about phatic language and I concluded we'd been reading the same blogs. Mark was the first to blog about this topic.

    I'm missing that tropical heat action Tim :)

  6. It does seem ironic that a culture that doesnt like to impart knowledge is where we are sending our support services to..!

    A good cause indeed Charles!

  7. Whenever i see the post like your's i feel that there are still helpful people who share information for the help of others, it must be helpful for other's. thanx and good job.
    Research Methodology