In a world where data is the new currency, professionals who can navigate its complex channels are invaluable. Among these experts is Karl Wagner, our Global Head of Data Management. With a presence in ten countries, we require a data maestro to harmonize diverse data streams, ensuring quality, consistency, and compliance across borders. Karl has proven to be just the right person for this challenging role.
Karl’s journey began on the ground floor as a part-time interviewer, a role he balanced with his university studies in Business and Computer Studies. This blend of academic disciplines was the perfect launchpad for a career in data, providing Karl with a unique insight into the technical and business side of market research. His skills quickly became apparent, leading to a full-time role and the opportunity to shape Kadence’s data practices and policies from their foundation.
However, Karl’s influence extends far beyond the technical aspects of data management. From achieving ISO9001 certification for Kadence, one of the first market research companies in the UK to do so, to spearheading the company’s transition to the GDPR, his strategic vision has continually elevated the company’s standards and reputation.
His hands-on experience in diverse international markets highlights his role in Kadence’s global expansion, where he has been instrumental in setting up infrastructure and training teams across Asia.
In a field that’s evolving as rapidly as market research, Karl Wagner stands out for his extensive experience and forward-thinking approach. His insights into the challenges of quality data collection, the nuances of international data management, and the future role of AI and machine learning in market research are informative and essential for anyone looking to understand the future of this industry.
Join us as we delve into an in-depth conversation with Karl, exploring everything from the intricacies of data cleaning to the importance of work-life balance in fostering productivity and job satisfaction. His journey is a testament to the multifaceted role of data management professionals in today’s globalized, tech-driven world.
Can you briefly walk us through your extensive journey in the market research field?
Starting out almost 30 years ago as a part-time interviewer whilst studying at university has been a long journey. Back then, Kadence only had one office based in Fulham, London, with less than 15 team members, including interviewers.
Studying Business Studies and Computer Studies at university meant I was often asked to help with data entry and processing, where all cleaning and cross tabs were done by writing individual programs and a few stored procedures in Foxpro. Soon after completing university, I joined Kadence full-time in the Data Processing department and took on the IT Manager role.
In 1999, I worked closely with our Operations Director to help Kadence become one of the first Market Research companies in the UK to gain ISO9001, something we have been proud to retain ever since, subsequently changing to ISO20252.
At the beginning of 2000, Kadence had already grown to have an office in Boston, and the UK office moved to larger premises in Putney. A few years later, this was followed by a partnership with the Nebu CATI platform, which continued until the end of 2018.
During this time, Kadence was expanding across Asia, where I traveled to Singapore, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia, helping to set up office infrastructure and conducting training for various areas of the business, with a focus on CRM Systems, Nebu scripting/Management, data processing, analysis, reporting, and ISO procedures.
In 2015, Kadence was purchased by CMG, followed by a move away from Nebu to Confirmit/Forsta and the setting up of our GOPS center in the Philippines. I was then offered my current position with the global team to help improve efficiencies in our general working practices.
Having been involved in every market research process, which aspect do you find the most challenging and why?
The key to any good research has to be the quality of the data gathered, and this has been a constant challenge. When performing CATI/CAPI studies, you initiate a call, so the onus of getting quality responses falls to the interviewer.
When performing CAWI studies, there is no person-to-person interaction, so ensuring you have the correct respondent and not some “professional” responder becomes more complicated.
Previously, we could check for respondents completing too quickly, straight-lining answers, and adding dummy quality control and open-ended questions. Most of the time, these would catch out any automated response systems. Still, with advances in AI, we can get valid responses to open-ended and quality control questions, so we face new challenges in weeding out any AI where we have open surveys.
What prompted the transition from the Data Protection Act to GDPR within Kadence International? How has this move impacted the way the company handles data?
GDPR was a massive change in the regulations for Data Protection in the UK and Europe, which Kadence embraced by going above and beyond what was required of an organization of our size.
Ultimately, there was not much of a change for the UK office as we have always worked to strict data protection rules, and combined with ISO procedures, we always erred on the side of extra precautions. We also moved all our data storage to Google servers to give us the added protection of their security policies and greater control over data processed by all of our offices.
Can you share some notable changes or evolutions you’ve seen in market research during your tenure?
There have been so many changes to market research over the last 30 years, so where do I start?
All of the changes in market research have been driven by the ever-changing technology available to us, whether it be the change from pen and paper-based CATI interviews moving to more CAWI-based interviews to the types of questions becoming far more complex to include eye tracking video and audio recording and conjoint analysis.
If there were one overriding change, though, I would say it has to be the client’s demands. They are no longer looking for reports based on cross-tabulations so that they can formulate their own analysis, reports, and decisions. However, they require more of a partnership where we provide a much more consultative solution and present with them rather than to them.
Data cleaning is an essential but often overlooked step in research. Can you share an instance where effective data cleaning significantly influenced the outcome of a project? (You need not mention the brand.)
Having a full understanding right from the outset of a project is a key factor, so we tend to have a project kick-off meeting at the beginning of the project, and a senior member of the Data Processing staff from the local office will look through the initial questionnaire before it goes off to the client for approval.
This ensures that we have the correct structure of questions in order to perform the required analysis. Once this is all signed off, we can add background checks within the script. Having these checks within the script not only allows us to ensure the quality and integrity of the data we get out but also to respond to any irregularities or changes quickly.
There have been incidents where breaking news stories have had an impact on a project in the field. Due to the pre-emptive cleaning and checks, we have been able to notice a change immediately and inform the client, which has subsequently allowed us to pause fieldwork while discussing some changes with the client to react to the latest news.
Setting up and training international teams must have had its challenges. Can you share one significant learning experience from this?
Training people in different countries can often pose a problem with languages as invariably English is not their first language and can result in people not speaking up or asking the right questions if they are not 100% sure of them so it is key to try to keep an eye on the body language and get people to engage as much as possible.
One of the first times I did overseas training, I was regularly asking if people understood what I was explaining and if anyone had any questions. I was getting responses that everyone understood, and there were no questions, so I thought it all went well until the end, when I realized people had missed some key information from the beginning. So, they were lost throughout the rest of the session.
I subsequently learned from a teacher friend that when providing key information to people, you say it once, repeat it a second time, and then summarise it a third time, and this has stuck with me when providing training ever since.
Also, when training, I always try to use KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid [referring to myself, not the people being trained]), where doing things in three simple steps is often a lot more efficient than one complicated step. This method has the added benefit of other team members being able to quickly jump in and help on a live project without having to spend extra time trying to figure out complex scripting, allowing for smoother collaboration with team members/offices.
Are there any specific challenges in international data management, especially considering the diverse offices Kadence operates?
The biggest challenge with international data management is understanding all the local nuances and slight variations in data protection regulations for each country and even across different states in America. To minimize any impacts on this, we base our processes around GDPR, ensuring that we go above and beyond what is required for local offices.
How do you ensure consistent quality of work across Kadence’s offices in different countries such as India, Malaysia, and Jakarta?
Most teams from different Kadence offices have all had the same initial training, so the fundamentals are there for everyone. Training also involved sharing forms created and used by the UK office as a requirement of our ISO certification. However, over the years, some of these may have been amended locally to fit their changing practices best. Kadence University has several different modules to aid in developing relevant skills.
We also have a support system through Google chats and hangouts where we can share any insights or knowledge when requested. Finally, the long-term goal is to get the same ISO standard for all our offices.
You have an expansive role, which must demand a lot from you. How do you manage to balance your professional responsibilities with personal time?
Kadence has always tried to ensure a good work/life balance for all team members and that they are mindful of hours worked and are also very open to flexible working hours.
This is especially important in my role when dealing with global offices; this can sometimes mean early starts or late finishes. I start my day by checking emails and messages for any urgent queries, and then, if needed, I can start work a few hours earlier than normal.
There have been instances where I have had to organize global meetings at 4 a.m. GMT when trying to accommodate offices from the Philippines to San Francisco. Then, I can finish work by early afternoon and spend some time doing personal/household tasks. This is especially nice in the winter months when there is limited daylight.
What are some of your favorite ways to unwind and relax outside work?
Outside of work, I like trying to do my own home improvements, from basic decorating (wallpapering and painting), hanging curtains and blinds, all the way through to lifting and relaying a brick-paved driveway.
I also enjoy working in the garden, but my enthusiasm outweighs my skill at keeping my work alive and trying to find a humane way to stop moles from digging under my plants and foxes and cats from digging them up. As a result of my ability to kill even the hardiest of plants, my garden changes yearly, and I’m always looking for the perfect solution to these issues.
Food is also a passion of mine, whether trying different types of food or cooking my own, and I have plans to write my own cookbook at some point in the future with recipes from around the world.
How has Kadence International’s work-life balance policy influenced your productivity and overall job satisfaction?
Kadence has a number of policies and well-being initiatives in place to look after its employees’ mental and physical health.
These can be simple things such as avoiding scheduling meetings during specific times, encouraging physical activity with various step challenges, and providing access to a mental health expert for anyone who needs to talk to someone about anything.
Senior management has also noted that with people working from home, there is a tendency to keep working much later into the evening, which is something that is not encouraged.
There is also an ability to have fairly flexible working times, which works particularly well when dealing with international offices. We also conduct internal surveys on employee satisfaction, which are then fed back to all team members so there is a clear understanding of what is being done to make Kadence a better place to work. These initiatives provide an increased feeling of value and worth within the organization, leading to better productivity and satisfaction.
And lastly, how do you foresee the role of AI and machine learning in shaping the future of data management in the coming years?
The advances in AI and machine learning technologies have been immense over the last 12 months. Still, we must spend more time distinguishing between human-based opinions and AI-generated findings.
Speaking to a few peers recently, there is a concern that with advances in AI, the quality of Web-based interviewing will decline, and some companies are thinking of moving away from CAWI and back to CATI/CAPI for data collection to overcome any issues with AI-generated responses. Ensuring that we use only the best suppliers, with trusted checks and policies, helps mitigate this along with our own in-house methods.
There are many benefits of AI already, with key areas being the ability to transcribe/translate video/audio files to summarize and catalog large volumes of data, all of which help build the foundation of the report quickly. AI is also a game changer for any desk research done alongside projects to help provide more thorough findings.
No matter how good AI becomes, though, there will always be a need for manual fact-checking due to the amount of mis/disinformation available online, so ensuring policies and procedures are updated to take into account these new steps is crucial to providing quality work for our clients.
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