Marketing and Research Consulting for a Brave New World
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At the ARF’s first Research Transformation super-council meeting last Friday, a packed room was energized by the leadership of our profession conveying a new vision that is so much larger than the research function alone:

“Inspiring better business futures, by enabling organizations to bring value to daily lives, through continuous learning, listening and translating people and markets.”

It’s about being an agent of change for the whole organization.  Inspiring better business futures is what we do.  Research and insights is just our fastball. As Donna Goldfarb from Unilever said when asked what her job is, “I sell soap”.

Then we heard a sobering factoid from McKinsey; 70% of all transformation efforts FAIL.

So, how do we make sure that our Research transformation initiative is a lasting metamorphosis rather than something that reverts back to old beliefs and ways of working?

One of the great insights from the meeting came from Guarav Bhatnagar, Assoc. Partner, McKinsey who said that most transformation initiatives are impelled by an “oh sh*t” motivation which, he notes, is not sustainable.  As soon as things start getting a little better, the sense of urgency diminishes to the point that the transformation mandate loses its steam.  So while this is a great way to create a call to action, a transformation must also find the “oh wow” for the whole organization.

The original motivator for the ARF research transformation initiative was from an ARF meeting in July 2008 about listening methods which quickly become a discussion about how the research function is not making the impact on organizations that it should be.  At that meeting, leaders said things like:

  • “We have lost the capacity to listen for the unexpected”
  • “Surveys are torture”
  • And the famous Kim Dedeker (then at P&G) remark; “Research as we know it will be on life support by 2012’. 

Clearly, we had our “oh crap” call to action.  To make our transformation sustainable, we must find the “oh wow” and we need to find it for the organization, not just for the research profession to make our transformation sustainable.  Guarav also noted organizations don’t transform, unless people transform.

This perspective ties perfectly into the July 2009 ARF workshop where we thought of the research function as if it were a brand and sought to find a new brand narrative.  The thinking from the book Primal Branding (Pat Hanlon author) is that brands are belief systems.  For the brand “research”, those beliefs must become corporate culture, permeating the whole organization.

Brand narratives should be about the “oh wow” and changing the belief systems of people, meeting the McKinsey acid test for lasting transformations.  Here are selected passages from the Research brand narrative created at the ARF:

Before digital media and the long-tail of choices, things were different. ..Today, marketing organizations must commit top to bottom to becoming fast learning organizations and immediately sense seismic trembles in people’s needs, preferences, attitudes, changing behavioral patterns in social and media communities, and on and on.  Inspired by human insights, today’s business leaders must create their own future.

…In a great leap forward, the Research/Insights function serves as an agent of change for creating the fast-learning organization.  We bring the voice of the human into the boardroom. We use proven methods for surveys and for “listening” to social media, search, shopper databases, digital behaviors, customer care, continuous and other naturally occurring data.  We also take advantage of new methods such as biometrics, communities, virtual environments…to help us uncover the next marketplace move, even when consumers cannot yet articulate the changes themselves.

Then, we translate for the organization the meaning of what we are learning about human beings and markets into lucid foresight that tells us where to play–and where to win.  Research used to be about the what (data), then about the so what? (analysis). Today, we go to the now what? (strategy, action), and we find ourselves accountable for the business results of what we recommend. 

…Our team needs to continually retool, going beyond business metrics that merely quantify–and commit to listening for the unexpected (which is where change and innovation and leapfrogging your competition comes from). .. the enterprise must realize that funding consumer and market learning is a critical investment, not a discretionary expense. 

We need to create a new breed of “researcher”: inquisitive and courageous by nature, analytical by training. They are passionate about understanding consumers, translating insights into business opportunities, leveraging social sciences and analytic skills, and then using storytelling to communicate these insights in unforgettable ways.

Above all, they bring energy and insights into the boardroom.

While some decision makers may prefer to trust their own instinct, and some traditional researchers are more comfortable crunching numbers than “listening” to consumers, they are today’s minority and against great odds.  We must understand that the big innovative successes will always be driven by human and market insights and that this is the new path forward…

The rituals of how we work together are changing and must continue to change.  We are brought into big issues from the beginning, we help frame the challenges and opportunities, we take stands based from our perspective of human behavior…We build windows, not walls. We create sparks of insight … that light the way to growth. Forward.

Via The ARF Research Transformation Super Council, industry leadership will be creating the roadmap to this vision.

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4 Responses to “Getting Research Transformation to Stick”

  1. Hi Joel,
    Pardon my diversion, but I experienced irony in your esteemed citation of a management consulting employee. With all due respect to management consulting companies (and this apparently smart consultant), how many instances can you cite in which they’ve famously seeded organic growth, value creation and positive transformation (versus than downsizing or financial engineering)? On the other hand, I do associate management consulting companies with “oh crap” moments — specifically when management teams of large companies face tough scenarios with obvious decisions. For some reason, too many management teams have been conditioned to believe they need a third party of expert consultants to validate the obvious decision path.

    Now, to comment on the research-industry vision you described, three ideas come to mind: First, closely examine today’s successful tech entrepreneurs, and unpack what motivates them to listen, act, iterate, progress and impact the world around them. Second, throw out the ideas and legacy of “research industry” and simply build it backwards. What’s to preserve? Third, get rid of the consultants.

  2. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for sharing.

    Useful thoughts for researchers who want to make a difference, not just meet a deadline.

    Apparently not so useful for someone who wants famous examples when they have none (plus an unexplained hostility with regard to management consultants).

  3. Joel,

    The demands for change in the research industry are predictable. I believe that clients have always expected more from their research partners than what they were getting, and now they are demanding rather than asking for more value from their partners.

    Over the years, I have observed a widening chasm between measurement, understanding and implementation. There has been increasing frustration on the side of clients with research agencies merely providing numbers rather than understanding and insights into how to achieve desired outcomes.

    Relative to transformation initiatives failing, they fail because the transformations undertaken are superficial, are not comprehensive and fail to touch or change the underlying paradims relating to organizational alignment issues that inhibit positive outcomes. Much of the research conducted stays, or has stayed at too high a level (too strategic) for organizations to use at the daily, operational/tactical level. Thus, the demand for real-time data and understanding. And, I would add systematic implmentation strategies and tactics.

    Clients, their agencies and consultants need to become less adversarial and more cooperative in seeking comprehensive, systematic solutions to difficult organizational and business issues to achieve desired outcomes. Beyond changing the nature of research, analysis and recommendations, the relationship of work (management and employee responsibilities and accountability toward outomes) needs to be challenged and changed. All involved parties need to work together to develop and implement effective methodologies that link strategic insights to tactical deployment throughout organizations. It will no longer be good enough for researchers to provide insights. The new researcher must be able to take insights and work with their clients to turn them into tactical solutions. Researchers will need to become more operations savy to help their clients succeed.

  4. […] a centerpiece of their 2010 agenda and Joel Rubinson has been writing about it prolifically on his blog. Robert Moran continues to take a thought leadership role via his FutureofInsight project. Also […]