Hard and Soft Skills Every Research Team Should Cultivate

Grayling Ferguson

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Lucy Bridges

    Skills can be acquired in different ways and are frequently categorised as either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ skills. Hard skills ensure a workforce is qualified and equipped to carry out the job at hand. This type of skill can be measured and can be learned through training (in a classroom setting or on the job), are usually job-specific, and often can be evidenced via application and/or certification; for example, a medical degree, a mechanic fixing a car or a joiner fitting a kitchen. Whilst hard skills ensure the job is done, how workforces approach their clients and colleagues requires another set of skills entirely.

    I am, of course, referring to soft skills. Soft skills are harder to measure, are more universal and can be applied in a wide variety of scenarios and situations. They are interpersonal skills that are more relationship focused and can include: organisation, attention to detail, leadership, multi-tasking, time management, communication and social skills – just to mention a few.

    Your skills are essentially what you bring to the table in the workplace, so to have a mixture of hard and soft skills seems to be a good place to be. According to a LinkedIn study, 57% of leaders say soft skills are more important than hard skills, with leadership heading up the list.

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    There are both hard and soft skills that are essential to any job, and it's just the same for market research - however, there will be different skills needed to make unique research experiences.

    Skills in Research

    When turning our focus to market research specifically, research requires multiple skills (both hard and soft) to allow projects to run smoothly. Hard skills that come to mind are focussed around the actual application of conducting the research, so designing your research tasks and using analytical avenues to explore the results of the research, whether this be qual or quant-based. It’s easy to see hard skills as the core aspects for running research, because ultimately there is an order to the market research process and steps to follow where training and certification can be acquired.

    To achieve a high standard of research, I think the key hard skills that are important for a research team to cultivate are: the ability to write research questions in a way that is consistent, interesting and necessary to obtain materials to challenge the objective(s), a level of programming that the software they are using demands to successfully present the questions and/or materials to the participants, knowledge in 1 or more analysis software packages (ideally both qual and quant capabilities), and then of course skills for a presentation software to deliver that final package to the client.

    Soft skills go a level deeper and also lend themselves to aspects of the research process outside of the standard practice. For example, reaching out to clients and participants requires a level of understanding and communication that are appropriate for the research topic and relationships. Various elements of a project require organisation, time management and attention to detail – just to mention a few other skills. I am going to focus on three soft skills that I think are key for running a successful research project:

    1. Time Management

    As with all projects, time management is key to meeting that all-important deadline that marks the end. In market research that final deadline is usually the gateway to further discussion and decision making for the business commissioning the research. However, within the project structure, there are deadlines that ensure the next stage can begin, so for example, recruitment will close to allow the research to begin. Without discipline for moving to the next milestone, the researcher runs the risk of losing time on another aspect of the project, which could result in either cutting another area of the project short and/or running over that all-important final deadline.

    Analysis is a good example of this, and is a great demonstration of why timelines are so important to assist time management of a project. Analysis of data can be approached in many different ways via a large choice of software, once a researcher gets their teeth into that qual and/or quant data it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole exploring interesting results and comments that have been collected throughout the research. However, this is where time management plays a large part in being able to maintain focus and meet those deadlines because at the end of the project the stakeholders are going to want results, whether that be a full report/debrief or workings/exec summary.

    2. Empathy

    Empathy allows you to see the perspectives of others, as such it is a tool that researchers can use to get to the core purpose of the research with the client and then relay this in a coherent way to participants to get the information they need. When the hypothesis is successfully established – this mindset and understanding from the client perspective then feeds into the rest of the project build and those other hard skills we mentioned earlier.

    Empathy also aids with effective communication, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes at various stages of the project will allow an ability to see different perspectives and needs. This is especially important when reaching out to participants, and even more so if they are a vulnerable group and/or the subject matter is sensitive – context is everything! As researchers we want people to open up and tell us what they really think, even better, show us what they really feel, even if this is on a sub-conscious level. To pick-up on these subtlety’s and draw out the real answer to our ‘why?’; empathy is so valuable to get that next level insight.

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    From empathy to programming, there are many skills insight teams might need, but each team will need a different set of skills to fulfil their role.

    3. Critical Thinking

    Critical thinking is a key skill to apply throughout a research project. From receiving a research brief to presenting results, each stage of the process needs to be carefully considered and executed. Take our methodology for example, to choose the correct method of running the research requires a consideration for the hypothesis, sample, timescales, budget and resources. Carefully considering all of those variables and options together is no small task.

    Critical thinking probably comes into its own at the analysis and reporting part of the research project. Here, we are analysing the data to find the results and those all-important actionable insights. The researcher must pull out any insights with the original brief/hypothesis in mind, whilst also keeping an open mind for anything unexpected that comes out of the research that may be useful/impactful to the business commissioning the research. Throughout the data collection and analysis, the researcher must also be building a story to allow creation of an engaging output for the stakeholders – whilst also deciding what specific information and data to present in the final documentation. A lot to think about!

    Cultivating Research Team Skills

    Whilst there are some skills that lend themselves more favourably to research, there are no hard and fast rules or exclusive list of required skills research teams should have. Soft and hard skills complement each other and are equally important in a research setting because the way people think and apply themselves is different and individual. Building a team around what skills people have is important, rather than just focussing on a few core hard skills that a standard project requires.

    Encouraging growth and self-progression is what research teams should cultivate to grow a team with an array or soft and hard skills that feed into each aspect of a project. Learning from experience and peer input is a great way to ensure a team has a wide variety of skills to offer clients as the skills individuals bring to a team give an enhanced quality and combined perspective. My colleague, Matthew, draws on his own personal experiences and further highlights the importance of diverse, unique experiences and interests in the way they impact and assist the way research is run in his blog.

    Insights Empowerment

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