The world of research, innovation and strategy likes to see itself at the cutting edge. We develop methods and frameworks to meet the challenges and changing environments of our clients. Researchers hunt out new techniques and technologies to enhance their research.
But what if I told you that our industry’s apparently sophisticated practice is built on outmoded, Marxist theory from the mid-1940s?
The Hypodermic Model
The Frankfurt School, the leading proponents of which were Adorno and Horkheimer, sought to explain the nature of social and political domination in the context of the rise of mass media. They presented a simplistic model in which messages had straight, unmediated effects. Mass media, they argued, ‘injected’ capitalist ideology into the consciousness of the masses. In media theory circles this became known as the ‘hypodermic’ model.
It strikes me that despite the inventiveness of the research industry most of its players are unwitting disciples of the Frankfurt School.
Picture the scene. The PowerPoint presentation in a stuffy meeting room. Project Objectives. Approach. Insights. Recommendations. Next Steps. The chapter headings of the typical deck unfold as a near-silent audience is fed its messages. At the end there are questions. Requests for clarifications. Some compliments even. Job done.
Research designed, delivered and despatched. Everyone can get on with their day job. The experience from the field have been injected into the audience. The presumption is that the message is enough to ensure action and lasting impact.
The Frankfurt School posited that messages have a large and direct effect on those who receive them. These effects, they suggested, could be assumed or deduced from the nature of the message. Change the message and you change the effect.
How different is that from the assumptions at the heart of the ‘injection’ of findings into audiences in countless organisations daily? It’s a re-run of the early days of television research where passive audiences, it was believed, sucked up what they were told.
The Frankfurt School’s theory didn’t last long. Analysts quickly realised that it was too simplistic. Mass media has effects but they are not simple or direct. So they started to study audiences – not just the content of messages – and to explore the social and cultural environments in which media was consumed. Media theory focused on content and context.
Much of the conversation about research impacts still focuses on what the message is and how it is delivered. That leaves the conversation stuck in the mid 1940s.
Removing the needle
So when we set up Stripe Partners we wanted to move beyond this. Yes, better slides. Better insights. More and better film content. All this is important. These are all necessary but are they sufficient to closing the gap between businesses and what matters to people in the world?
And there’s a bigger question. Is getting the message across really the right way of framing the problem about how research makes an impact and adds value?
We think not – and that’s why we developed the Studio approach.
A Studio is collaborative approach in which a team lives and works together in their customers world to develop strategy and action plans based on deep human understanding. We rent Airbnb’s in the heart of customers’ worlds. We spend time as a multi-disciplinary team immersing, engaging and experiencing other people’s worlds.We share and explore what we’re learning together. The implications and the next steps are forged in-situ. We document what happens in a studio – and yes, we use PowerPoint – but studios don’t live or die on the decks that come out of them.
A studio doesn’t rely on us injecting the message into the audience after the fact. Studios transform people’s understanding of the world. A studio turns people that would have been the audience of the research into researchers. Studios change people expected to act on messages encoded in PowerPoint into carriers and advocates of powerful insights about their market.
When we shift the conversation on from the content we make, and how we deliver it, important things happen: We quit obsessing about how polished an insight is and focus on what a new understanding enables. We stop talking about audiences and start talking about collaborators. We start creating understanding with people, and don’t rely on injecting it into them.
Media theorist realised this many decades ago. Time we heard their message?