The surgeon’s hands. The detective’s analysis. The market researcher’s in-depth interview. Historically, human brilliance, practice, and skill have been essential to specialized professions. Artificial intelligence is about to change all that.
Will Market Research Jobs Survive the Artificial Intelligence Revolution?
Luckily, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts gives hope for staying relevant.
The craft of professions is expected to be heavily augmented by artificial intelligence, automation, and the democratization of information. This book covers what we may someday call “the industrialization of the professions.” For anyone who works in B2B tech, this is book is a must-read.
According to the authors Richard and Daniel Susskind, professions have four key aspects in common:
- “They have specialist knowledge.”
- “Their admission depends on credentials.”
- “Their activities are regulated.”
- “They are bound by a common set of values.”
“It is the role of professionals to curate the knowledge over which they have mastery, on behalf of their professions and the recipients of their services,” they explain.
This applies to everyone in the B2B tech industry from market researchers to marketers, product leads to sales executives and more.
Take corporate researchers. They have to have specialized knowledge of the industry and market to provide worthwhile insight. Researchers must have the education and training to know how to effectively conduct studies. They are also bound by professional ethics, like the SCIP Code of Ethics. Common values are discussed in person and online in professional communities such as the Marketing Research Association and QRCA.
How New Technology and Artificial Intelligence Is Changing Professions
In the book’s second chapter, the authors give a wide and far-ranging overview of how technologies are impacting professions. This is really where the book hits its stride.
The authors give a number of fascinating examples of how technology is transforming medical practice. You’ve all probably heard of WebMD, but there are also a number of search engines for doctors like Better Doctor, ZocDoc, or Doctor on Demand.
It’s easy to see how human pharmacists may soon be competing with artificial intelligence for their jobs. The authors give the example of the robot pharmacist at the University of California San Diego. It has completed more than two million prescriptions without error.
The authors also talk about the power of crowdsourcing platforms such as Wikistrat, an online network of about a thousand experts with backgrounds in politics, the military, and academia. Clients of this service give questions to the crowd of experts who then work through the problem together.
Market research has been impacted by technology as well. Think of how many different types of news scanning services, social media analysis options, and self-service survey platforms are out there. There is also a wide range of services that support the creation of insight communities. Many companies have taken advantage of insight communities to solicit feedback and ideas for new products directly from their customers and potential customers.
Will Artificial Intelligence Push Research from a Craft to a Commodity?
We can expect technology to continue to transform our jobs.
In chapter 5, the authors provide a handy framework that illustrates the changes that are about to come. The outline traces a craft-based approach that evolves into a standards-based approach, followed by a focus on systemization, and, finally, a focus on externalization.
This quote summarizes the authors’ overall viewpoint quite well:
“In the broadest of terms, our claim is that market forces, technological advances, and human ingenuity are combining to drive professional work… away from being provided as a form of craft by human experts, through various stages of development that will result, in due course, in much practical expertise being available, in a variety of ways, on an online basis. We regard this movement… as capturing and characterizing a fundamental transformation across the professions.”
The authors of the book aren’t arguing that craft will disappear entirely. Instead, they’re saying that it will be reduced to a smaller percentage of the average professional’s output. The reason for this change is the power of artificial intelligence platforms, web-based communities, and the overall democratization of information. (The authors cover these examples in-depth in the book.)
The next phase in the evolution of professional services is standardization, according to the authors.
Standardization has already been embraced by a number of professions. Most fields have a standardized way of performing at least certain functions.
For example, management consultants use a wide variety of standard frameworks. From old standbys such as Porter’s Five Forces and Four Corners to theories that are focused on the diffusion of innovation, management consultants use standard frameworks to inform their daily tasks.
In the education sector, standardized tests are used to gauge student and school performance. “Teaching to the test” could be viewed as a move away from craft to standardization.
The trend toward standardization can be seen in market research. For example, survey platforms force a degree of standardization in survey output. Also, studies on market segmentation, brand equity, or win-loss tend to follow a relatively traditional and standard approach.
Standardization is not as fixed as it may sound. You can keep a checklist without ever truly depleting it. You can always add to the list. It’s not a finite resource. Secondly, the more often you utilize that checklist, the better it becomes. Errors and omissions are rectified with ongoing use. Take the flight checklist that airline pilots use. These lists are always in use and continually being improved. This form of standardization improves the safety of the flight.
The third step on the evolutionary path is the move from standardization to systemization.
Once data is standardized, it becomes easy to store in systems that allow for faster retrieval of the information and broader sharing.
For marketers, an example of systemization would be the tools that mine sentiment, social analysis, or even content shares. In most cases, these tools leverage an API or set of APIs which provide access to the system of underlying data at scale. As mentioned before, this access can’t really be worn out. We can request information from an API with far fewer restrictions than when asking a human. (Think time of the request, the quantity of information requested, the complexity of the information requested, how many requests can be made, etc.)
The final step in this evolutionary model is the move to externalization. In this stage, the authors say that human expertise will be made available to non-specialists online.
They say that there are three ways this externalization will present itself.
One is the “charge online.” This is where access is financed by direct cost or subscription fees to access higher tiers of content and information. There are plenty of examples of this type of business model on the internet today. Most SaaS providers would fall into this category.
There is also the “no-charge online” model. This is where access to the information is financed by indirect cost. Online ads are a good example here.
Then there is the “commons” basis. This is the way information is widely available and accessible on platforms like Wikipedia.
The authors think one or more of these models may drive down the price of professional work.
They write of the move toward externalization,
“…if the competition is strong enough, this will drive down the price of professional work towards the cost of producing one new copy, its marginal cost.”
Frankly, this is only to be expected. If what we are doing as professionals isn’t craft, and it isn’t even standardized delivery of expected services, we shouldn’t expect to be paid any kind of premium or fair wage for our work.
The AI revolution is going to turn a lot of what was once a craft into an API, a bot, or a web-based asset or community. Those who focus on craft-based delivery models will need to zero in on specific problems and challenges that AI, APIs, bots, and the web won’t be able to solve for our clients in the future.
What Does Artificial Intelligence and Externalization mean for market research?
How will externalization impact disciplines such as market research? We think the impact will be significant, but not as harsh as what will happen to some professions such as law and education.
Businesses will always challenge themselves with how they might better serve their clients or customers. These challenges present new areas of inquiry that, in some cases, have never previously been considered. Hence, we believe there will always be a place for creative research approaches.
Research Methods Will Evolve
However, how corporate researchers go about getting answers to questions might change a great deal. In the future, we’ll be leveraging more of the platforms that analyze social sentiment, online communities, APIs, and even artificial intelligences that are actively mining customer perspectives on our behalf. Will this leave room for the craft of conducting in-depth interviews, designing a survey, or running a focus group? Certainly. But these activities will be in partnership with the tools, platforms and artificial intelligences that can help us share the load. This partnership will take some of what was previously a craft and turn it into something that is either more standardized or systemized.
It is unlikely that B2B market research studies will become fully externalized. Companies that commission these research initiatives have a vested interest in ensuring that the results remain private. For that reason, we doubt that the expertise and findings of market researchers will ever become fully public and available online.
Market Research Evolution
Still, market research professionals will need to adapt.
We can’t simply keep doing the same old thing day in and day out. There have been a number of times over the last 15 years of running professional services firms where we’ve made the decision, in advance of the broader market, to retire a service or activity because we felt it was becoming too commoditized. Or, in the or authors parlance, it had become systemized or externalized.
For example, we decided to retire our popular e-book, “Going Beyond Google: Gathering Internet Intelligence.” In its sixth edition, this book was still getting great reviews and CEO Sean Campbell was regularly asked to speak on it.
However, we realized that the techniques in the book were being overtaken by many of the same things Richard and Daniel Susskind discuss: APIs, Bots, and Artificial Intelligence. The human effort involved in the techniques described in the book were about to give way to standardization, systemization, and externalization.
We like to focus on the craft of market research, where we can provide a high degree of value to our clients. So it was time to retire the book and focus on the B2B Revealed Podcast where we publish popular content on the human skill and creativity required for various market research & marketing pursuits.
It has been nearly a year since we retired “Going Beyond Google,” but we still get requests for it. People still ask why we retired it. We tell them the same thing every time: the techniques are being standardized and taken over by automated tools and processes.
Preparation, Not Fear
As hard as it is, when what you do (or even love) is no longer a craft, you should let it go so you can devote your talents to the tasks that continue to require human ingenuity.
Our future business partners will be AIs. Since two have always been better than one, partnering with AIs isn’t a future that we fear so much as one that we’re actively preparing for.