Why researchers need to be confident in predicting the future


Wednesday, October 15th 2014
Author: Neil Wholey, Director of Insight

Good research will predict the future but good researchers are often reluctant to make those predictions. Yet this is what decision-makers need researchers to do.


Good research will predict the future but good researchers are often reluctant to make those predictions. Yet this is what decision-makers need researchers to do.


Often the scientific rules of research can lead to researchers sitting on the fence in terms of what their findings actually mean – it could be this or it could be that, but probably it is a bit of both and in the middle. In particular the concept of statistical reliability, with a clear indication that something is either significant or not, can be used to turn research into a binary yes/no as to whether something is worth considering. However, the best decisions are often in a greyer area of what might be possible rather than a dead certainty.


Decision-making is based on a concept of risk and research should be used to minimise that risk. The greatest returns on a decision can often be from those that seem to have the greater risk. Take the example of personal savings. It is a statistical certainty that if you put £1,000 in a one year bank bond , protected by government guarantees, that offers a 3% return that you will get back £1,030 in a year’s time. However, do your research well and you could identify some emerging market to invest in through shares that could double or triple your money. As has been shown it is a riskier strategy, but without at least some people taking these risks the only investments being made would be bonds.


It is the same with research for any business or public sector body. If you only go for the decisions that research can gold-plate as a dead certainty then very few decisions would be made. In practice if the research isn’t there in all likelihood the decision still has to be taken, the research may be inconclusive so decision-makers have to make a gut instinct decision instead. Just as the bankers rolled the dice with financial markets they didn’t really understand so too can other organisations in the sectors they work.


What often surprises research clients is how much can be done in terms of the research data and analysis that can be done across a range of methodologies. Don’t commission an output - a survey, a focus group, a crunching of big data – ask a question instead. A researcher should take that question and design the right project to answer it. Similarly clients can be surprised by the degree of insight that can be brought, especially if they are used to researchers just presenting a spreadsheet of performance metrics. Many of the conversations we have had with clients have been around what has been driving performance and how to influence the future, rather than simply benchmarking the past.

A good researcher will never get the feedback that their analysis is “interesting” (code from decision-makers that they don’t know what to do with it) but instead that it is vital. We work with decision-makers to help them move in the right direction and understand the risks and potential rewards involved. We have that confidence but also the understanding that decisions are never clear cut but can always be well informed.