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So one of the things I love about my job is that I get to meet – and work with – the weird and wonderful of society and last week, I met – quite possibly – the weirdest and wonderfulest of all society.
Dr David Hulme is a professor of Chinese culture at Guangzhou University.
As you can tell by his name, he is not from China, but having lived here for 41 years, he has more insight than most.
Anyway, last week we were doing some work with him when he muttered the rather provocative comment:
“The problem with Western research methodologies is they don’t understand the boiling water principle”.
Obviously we were rather intrigued and over the next 20 minutes, he gave us a lesson that will change the way we approach research in China forever.
In essence Dr Hulme says the Western model of focus groups is broken and there is no place worse for it to be used, than in China.
I’ve written a lot about how Asia has 3 fundamental cultural values:
+ The need to continually progress.
+ The need to maintain filial responsibility.
+ The importance of group/peer acceptance.
Well it is the 3rd point of this that Dr Hulme says corrupts the value of the current focus group model.
Yes … yes … I know the whole value of focus groups is open to debate, but in a culture where people are ‘trained’ to say what they believe the peer group want to hear [rather than necessarily what their own point of view actually is] it’s even more dangerous.
In short, you can end up having mass consensus of a particular idea simply because the people being questioned believe that is what they are supposed to say … which results in a client pouring millions of dollars into a concept that was doomed to failure from the very beginning.
Sure, this situation is also known to happen in Western markets, but the difference is in those situations, the people being questioned actually thought the idea was good [either because of the way the questions were asked, the answers were interpreted or the lack of broader context] whereas in China, they may know it’s bad but feel they have not got the right to express that in a group dynamic.
So how can you get around this?
Well, you could argue ‘scrapping the use of focus groups’, however – and I agree with this – Dr Hulme believes corporations are so committed to the ‘focus model’ that any alternative will not be fully accepted.
And this is where the professor developed his boiling water principle.
Currently focus groups are moderated by people who calmly encourage the participants to express their point of view.
According to Hulme, this is wrong.
What focus groups need is an antagoniser, not a moderator.
You see his view is that China is like water … where everything appears calm until it hits it’s boiling point.
It doesn’t matter that things are slowly heating up, it is only when the water hits 100 degrees that you see a change in behaviour.
Dr Hulme contends that because of the cultural rule of peer acceptance, the only way you can get valuable information from a focus group is when you provoke the recipients to their boiling point … where their ‘calmness’ is pushed and pushed and pushed until they cannot contain their true opinion any more.
As with most insights, it all sounds perfectly obvious when you hear it but this is a massive change in approach.
Now I admit, when we watched videos of Dr Hulme basically insulting recipients until they ”exploded’, it was disconcerting … but by the same token, it was also magnetic.
In one group, he got 8 people – who had spent the previous 50 minutes claiming their pre-occupation in life was to ‘serve their family’ – admitting they felt downtrodden, helpless and hopeless. They talked about how there were times where they resented their family and felt they should be treated with greater respect … especially given the one child policy had pushed society to put all their attention and energies into their only child.
While that would be quite a revelation in most societies, in China – where family is King – this is revolutionary.
What is even more interesting is that the professor believes the Government are aware of this behaviour which is why they both limit and monitor social media to ensure they can ‘pour cold water’ on issues in a bid to avoid any potential ‘boiling points’ before they have a chance to explode.
In short, the methodology of Dr Hulme is potentially the biggest change to focus group research in China for the last 20 years … or it would be, if this wasn’t April 1st and this wasn’t a load of bollocks.
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