Sociology of business: contemporary perspective

Sociology’s most natural client base is undergoing a shift from government and social services trying to treat broad populations, to private-sector actors and entrepreneurs trying to communicate with particularized audiences. The shift is structural. In a word, the “internet” — to be precise, the kinds of data the internet produces on a large scale, and makes available for sociological analysis — propels this shift.

Upon drawing this conclusion the sociology of business retains a particular imperative. In the same way governments need variable-based, sociology-as-demography to understand “populations,” business actors need intelligence about smaller cultures within the populations — what I call ‘audiences.’ Qualitative methods become necessary.

Which is not to say this shift is a “total” one. As pointed out above, there remains an intellectual need for variable-based analysis and random sampling of cross-contextual populations by governments. My point is there is increasingly a call for contextual analyses by business actors, for whom the qualitative methods of sociology will grow in usefulness (in my view, the sociology of knowledge is most useful, in both quantitative and qualitative forms).

Read Andrew Hill’s Financial Times business column from June 28 2011 for a similar understanding (link):

“There’s huge survey fatigue,” admits Jonathan Spector, head of the Conference Board, which has been polling its US business members since 1916. It has redesigned its CEO surveys so they can be completed in four minutes – they used to take over an hour.

But for CEOs to pull out of polls altogether would smack of hypocrisy. They thirst for data – from surveys, focus groups, till receipts, loyalty cards and, increasingly, social media – to meet the basic requirement for survival in business: know your market.

Consumer surveys are more point-and-click than pencil-and-clipboard these days. But the shift online poses its own challenges. The rate of increase in the corporate budget for market research is far outstripped by the surge in the ways it can be spent. Hard-up companies will be tempted to opt for cheaper, DIY solutions, to the irritation of established pollsters. (Sir Bob Worcester, founder of Mori, now part of Ipsos Mori, can’t resist a jab at the online service SurveyMonkey: aptly named, he says, because “If you pay peanuts . . . ”)

But even companies with abundant research resources can lose sight of the importance of direct contact with customers and a deep understanding of the product. Such qualitative research can be arduous and the results messy. A friend who joined Procter & Gamble as a sales trainee in the late 1980s used to claim he had personally road-tested the adult diapers he was assigned to sell. But despite its sales staff’s devotion to duty, P&G, which has refined quantitative research to a point of perfection over decades, conceded later that it had lost touch in the 1990s with end-users of its products. Now – as Patrick Barwise and Seán Meehan have pointed out in their book Beyond the Familiar – P&G makes sure to supplement high-tech research with “high-touch” methods, including one-to-one in-depth interviews with customers.

Social media offer a big opportunity here. Twitter’s plans to insinuate more promotions into the stream of user-generated short messages underline the marketing utility of such online services. But a recent flurry of deals with social analytics companies – of which Salesforce.com’s acquisition of Radian6 in March was one of the largest – underlines that the real value of social media lies in the ability to eavesdrop on conversations between consumers, not just initiate conversations with them. This approach mitigates the threat that observation will affect what is observed. It also means that rather than punting new products into the market based on “scientific” poll results, companies can initiate and monitor incremental improvements.

CEOs should lift their eyes from the latest questionable questionnaire to see what they’ve been missing. Precision in market research is irrelevant. What companies need is early insight into whether a product or strategy is working or, even more usefully, why it is going wrong. The exact percentage of customers who say something is awry is less important than the trigger for managers to start work on a solution.

To this end, the most useful data – the sort that has underpinned Tesco’s dominance in UK retailing (through its Clubcard loyalty scheme) and which gives Facebook and LinkedIn such rich potential – will be mined internally or carefully pieced together from the social networks, without the customer knowing. This proprietary research is the antithesis of specious and self-serving published surveys. Done properly, it should be more like that P&G nappy my friend once trialled: unobtrusive, indispensable and completely watertight.

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This entry was posted in contextualized vs aggregative data, intellectual property, Media and knowledge, qualitative sociology of economics and politics, sociology, the database, theoretical drivel. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sociology of business: contemporary perspective

  1. Pingback: Sociology of business: contemporary perspective (part two) | price of data

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