A few year ago, I was working at Kodak and friend and I were talking about the idea of Rolling Segmentation. More recently, we have been talking about how it relates to how that thinking can be applied to issues of instability and insurgency.
I have not given the idea much thought for the last few years, and on rethinking about rolling segmentations/cohorts now, I have more questions than answers. Not the least of which is how is it all that different from any other longitudinal study? There are a number of them out there about how people’s political attitudes shift as they age, but I would be leery of trying to extrapolate them between different cultures. When I go back to the beginning of the idea, it popped up at Kodak as an attempt to explain why over time technology seemingly was adopted by older segments that had not adopted it before. My theory being that if you looked at the adoption trends over years, you would find that a lot of the uptake was in fact that the 20-30 segment had simply aged into the 30-40 segment giving the illusion of older populations adopting the tech. The 20-30 year olds simply drug the technology with them forward in time. That does not explain the entire uptake of course, there will always be early adopters across all ages at any given time. It also suggest waves of adoption, when in some cases, I am betting is more of a moving wall for certain types of adoption: Music, is in waves: each generation or so has its own music, those styles routinely build on each other, each style waxes and wans in relative popularity. Tech on the other hand is more of a wall: some early adopters pick it up, and if it is a viable long-term value to people, meets some need AND nothing superior comes along, the succeeding generations will pick it up. In some areas of technology, we have seen more rapid flows up the age chain from younger early adopters to older: think ipods/mp3 players from portable CD players. Thinking about it, maybe it is frequency and overlap. Some waves have a longer life than others for various reasons.
The question is not then the difference between Rolling Cohort Analysis (RCA) and other longitudinal studies (because RCA is by nature longitudinal), but more of a lens by which to question the model of “segmentations” as usually found in business analysis. It is a warning bell that looking at segments only in a single moment is an artificial and inaccurate representation of the possible future. In turn can it be used to better judge the size of the current market and more importantly, predict the size of future markets? Segmentations as usually presented are static representations of the market. A simple snapshot of the world as it stands. There are studies that look at how various segments are growing, i.e. predications of the size of the Latino population in the US in the future, or the effects of birth rates on other countries, etc and people do try to understand how to do future planning and such from that. What I am getting at is RCA is more a way to look at something rather than a method itself. The ultimate question being: as an age cohort (something that requires definition as well for each study) progress through life stages in a particular culture, what evolves and how? What stays stable? But companies of course, don’t want to age with their customer base: As an example, take the questionable “most coveted 18-35 year old” demographic. Practically a catch phrase at this point. As Nike customers age, they don’t want to stop appealing to that lower age group. I live in a building with that problem, it is seen as an elderly “old money” condo building, and the resident population is aging out, i.e. dying. Nike, my building, the Army, Apple and the rest all need to absorb people at early age groups to get them to carry the technology/brand message/ideology forward. Sure they want customers at all segments, but a customer with a potential 50 years of lifetime purchasing and influence is more valuable than a customer with 10 years left of life time purchasing. You and I are of shorter time value to companies, and our 30 year old colleagues are of higher value.
Back to RCA: It is just another way of talking about, but intended to highlight, the dynamic nature of and potential acceleration of concepts over time. It is a mutli-modal analysis that looks at intersections of multiple kinds of adoptions in an effort to suggest directionality. Can it also be used to predict disruptions? The CD/iPod could be an example: CD’s killed records in pretty short order, but CD’s really had a pretty limited lifespan all things considered. I would be willing to bet that if you looked at the uptake rates of MP3 players and iPods among all age groups that previously owned portable CD players, you would find a more flattened adoption pattern across ages than something like Personal Computers. Why? Well, convenience can’t be discounted, but we also have a population among a much wider age group that was comfortable with computers, and had access to high speed internet both of which are critical factors to adoption of portable digital media.
So that’s a long walk to get to asking how RCA is of value when looking at questions of unrest and large scale behavior among populations. Without significant access to multiple variables, the answer is “beats me!” We still don’t have a great understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics of places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran (Just to name three in the news frequently). These are places that are in ways culturally designed to be opaque to outsiders. As much as religion has been a theme of liberal vs. conservatives in debates over the last decade in the US and this upcoming election, we still don’t have a clue what it means to live in a society where someone’s interpretation of religion permeates every aspect of life, and that person holds considerable authority. Nepotism in hiring is not corruption, it is meeting obligations to family. Denying anything to outsiders is normal, it is not outsiders business. What we call a lie, is not a lie in another context and if you came of age in the Saddam era, you learned a lot about the value in keeping your mouth shut about and around authority figures. In the US we just don’t understand or appreciate the overwhelming power an authority can gain by cutting people off or severely reducing assess to news sources outside of the regime. Sure we get up in arms about keeping and free and open internet, but we as a country don’t have a first-hand clue about the power of state run media to completely shape reality. Sure our government, corporations, political parties have spin control, but that’s nothing compared to the totalitarian control found in other places.
Maybe RCA is simply more difficult (not impossible) to apply to unstable countries. In the US, we expect a certain level of rebellion by younger generations. In the US, it is an expected part of the process that younger people are going to dress, speak, have music, use technology and more in ways that surprise/offend/concern previous generations. We encourage this behavior by making words like “follower” or “sheep” negative connotations for someone we see as not having the intelligence/brains/imagination to take risks in creating a unique identity. We don’t have family fealty, we have a “mommas boy” (excuse the dated language) and “boomerang kids” for people that don’t or wont break with family to create their own world. (Which by the way, I was on a train in India and one older man pronounced that our emphasis on kids leaving to create their own homes was the proof that Americans don’t love their family’s as much as the rest of the world, a very interesting perspective).
In unstable countries, displays of self can potentially have more serious impact on the individual and family level. Americans just don’t get the power of perceived “shame” and “honor” and how it can be used in all kinds of ways to manipulate and mold people. RCA is in some ways the tracking of “displays of self” as they evolve over time. Perhaps the more stable the culture, then the more regular the “Beats of the waves” are internally to a cohort as compared to other countries. I think the question about unstable countries in regards to RCA is how much of it is X steps forward and X steps back, and why? Or in more stark terms, in the US when an age cohort(s) starts protesting how the nation is operating, the US government does not disappear them. Yes, we indeed have over-zealous and possibly illegal reactions in some cities to the occupy wall-street movement, but it is doubtful that any of them are being hauled off to prison for years, being tortured just for the sake of it and possibly vanished along with family and friends. You can’t have a rolling cohort when the government is rolling the bodies of the cohort into a ditch. Limits on speech, limits on access to outside media, reprisals to movements that evolve stable countries all could contribute to severely attenuating how influential a cohort is as they age. At some point most people will just opt to survive.