Reflecting on the 2020 Research Society Virtual Conference

Recently some ARTD staff attended sessions from The Research Society’s virtual conference, organised under the theme Facing 2030. Presenters shared their insights on where they thought the research industry was heading over the course of the next decade. Our team reflected on this idea and considered how it might impact our work as program and policy evaluators.


A central theme of the three presentations I listened to was the need for regular engagement with stakeholders at different stages of a program. Their input into a program’s design and feedback on how it has been implemented can be critical for understanding how, why and for whom it has worked (or not worked) and should be widely encouraged.

When conducting research, participants were encouraged to adapt, engage online platforms (particularly because of COVID-19), make use of new technologies and seek diverse views. Given this, it was fascinating to learn about the ABC’s internal Quality & Distinctiveness program. Making use of the ABC YourSpace community of over 16,000 members across Australia, and conducted three times a year, managers, media content creators and other staff and stakeholders are able to seek and obtain diverse feedback on five core measures for different TV, radio and online content. These include overall appreciation, quality, distinctiveness, a net promoter score and diversity.


The opening keynote of the conference was given by Kieran Flanagan who (together with Dan Gregory) are the Founders of The Impossible Institute, and author of the book Forever Skills. An incredibly captivating presenter, Flanagan delved into the crazy and fast-changing world we live in. She offered a framework for ‘changing how we do change,’ which was recently covered in our Business as Unusual webinar series. As we forge our way through the uncertainty of 2020 and our future as a business, as an industry and as individuals, we need to focus more of our attention on what is unchanging. It was such a thought provoking, and somewhat cathartic, session to attend—so much so that I wrote a blog contemplating Flanagan’s ‘Forever Skills’. In short, Forever Skills are certain transferable human skills that she suggests are timeless: creativity, communication and control.

Fittingly, a later panel discussion with several clients about their perspective ‘on getting a match fit’ with researchers reinforced the importance of these forever skills. While several topics were discussed, there was one prominent agreement among all clients on the panel; when they are reading tenders, the sales pitch promoting the use of the greatest and latest technologies was not all that persuading. What these clients wanted more than ever was a creative relationship with researchers who want to come along with them on their specific journey. The research needs to be ‘right sized’ in approach and scope, and clients do not want the one-size-fits-all sales pitch. Flanagan’s voice was in my head yet again, as the importance of creatively engaging with our clients and communicating and building strong relationships were the skills these clients were looking for the most.


The Customer Experience presentations covered a range of themes. The first presentation was a reminder that, while big data is important and all the rage, qualitative insights can provide us with an opportunity to understand the customer and learn about their emotions and motivations. These insights bring the customer to life and allow us to create a picture of a person who has needs, fears and worries. Clients respond to this as it is more personal, relatable and tangible. Building in the customer experience can shift the imbalance of power for consumer groups and create more relevant and meaningful services.

The final presentation was a reminder of good practice for customer experience programs. This included some handy hints—send the survey in a timely manner at a suitable time with the essential questions only. Personalising the survey and ensuring a mechanism for complaints and responding to these, lets the customer know they are heard. And, as always, acknowledging issues and being responsible for outcomes through the transparent reporting of findings was recommended. Communication through surveys and findings can be highlighted by using visual cues, icons, crosstabs and graphs with colour. Finally, driving change when others have gotten stuck can be challenging. There was much food for thought!


It has been refreshing to be able to attend a conference from the comfort of my own home, with a cat in my lap! Across the conference I got to see some great and interesting presentations on key trends in market research, especially the adoption of VR, big data and behavioural insights to better understand how people interact with place.

However, Mark Ritson in his closing keynote reminded us of the tendency to overstate change and become obsessed with change for change’s sake (especially when it comes to new technologies and methods). It spoke to some of the conversations I was seeing across the conference, where there is a renewed interest in established approaches that, while being less sexy, remain powerful. A great example of this are unobtrusive methods (such as observation), which can still elicit powerful insights and avoid many biases observed in direct questioning.

The biggest highlight of the conference for me though was the session on neurodiversity. The value that neurodiverse people can bring to companies cannot be understated, and while there still remain barriers to overcome in terms of discrimination and employment, it was incredibly positive to see neurodiversity presented to the market and social research community as a strength. At a time when addressing diversity is front and centre in public discourse, it is important to reinforce the incredible benefits that diversity can bring to teams and thinking.


Kristin Luck’s presentation on Future Proofing Research emphasised the need for diversity within research teams. Diversity in all forms including age, nationality, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, neurological differences and able- and non-abled bodied people. By having diverse research teams, we can overcome the barrier of homogeneity. This allows for research to be future proof—having diverse teams produces results that are cognizant and useful for our diverse society.

Behavioural economics, including behavioural change and insights, were discussed as research tools. Using these tools can assist researchers (and evaluators) to create innovative research designs that understand both the context of the research and the human behaviours within that context. Research should aim to include the scientific theories surrounding behavioural economics so we can leverage the existing research to overcome current challenges.

These sessions made me consider the importance of scoping and planning during research and how key decisions made during this stage shape the research and therefore the research findings.


I had the pleasure of attending Ray Poynter and thought leaders’—Sue, Victoria, Lisa, Frank and Dhurba—discussion on the skills that we need for the future. For a discussion that was about future proofing your skill set as a researcher, it was interesting that all the panelists echoed each other on one central piece of advice. To be a good researcher in the future you must ‘ensure you have an understanding of the fundamentals of research foundations and processes.’

They acknowledged that what is considered essential foundations doesn’t just include technical skills around qualitative and quantitative sampling, analysis or data synthesis. Essential foundations must also consider the ‘cognitive load’ of research work and they reminded panel attendees of the necessity of cultivating strong emotional and social intelligence in order to be a good researcher.

The conversation also provided helpful guidance around how we go about learning new skills and refreshing old ones. Beyond pursuing further formal education, the panelists encouraged us to seek out mentors (the Research Society itself has recently launched a mentoring program), tapping into the wisdom of others, reaching out to your mangers and peers. There is immense value in teaching others to support your own learning and the learning of those around you.

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