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Don't waste your insights!

Sometimes good research is a waste. Let's just put that out there. It's ends up in the waste pile because it doesn't get used. You spend the money, and no one ever picks up the report. Innovation Fail. Hey, isn't that a perfectly good bicycle on top of the waste pile? Doesn't matter because it's not getting used.

Whether you work within an insights function or have an executive role, you've seen it happen. Although we may pride ourselves on wielding the research and analysis tools well, we know that those insights will do exactly nothing if they don't get picked up by and integrated into our organizations.

The implementation of insight is the central theme of Building an Insights Engine from van den Driest, Sthanunathan, and Weed in the Harvard Business Review. I liked it from the get-go:

Driven by the imperative to become customer-centric, leading firms are now completing the transformation of market research groups into true insights engines with a fundamentally strategic role. At Unilever, CMI’s [the Consumer and Market Insights group's] prominently communicated mission is “to inspire and provoke to enable transformational action.” Note that the word “insight” is missing—intentionally. That’s because insights merely provide a means to the desired end: action that drives business growth.

Insights qua insights are like the proverbial 1% inspiration without the perspiration. They don't translate into growth unless someone does the hard work of translating.

The discussion in the article is very consumer-centric, but I know that the drive to make research groups transformative is not limited to FMCG. Just recently I was talking with the head of research at one of our clients, a large information services company. She said their new leader had just issued a challenge to track research beyond delivery of results. For each project, he wants to know how the results are actually being used.

Back to the article, there are some good ideas even if you're not in FMCG. The authors offer 7 "operational characteristics" of an innovation engine -- my comments in italics:

  1. Data synthesis. This means "linking disparate data sources ... such as product sales figures, spending on media, call-center records, and social media monitoring" and, I would add, primary research from quantitative and qualitative sources.
  2. Independence. Reporting to senior management rather than getting buried within a function, i.e. the way that insights groups typically report up through marketing. Interesting idea and I think they may be onto a trend.
  3. Integrated planning. Using insights to align the planning cycle across functional groups such as "strategic planning, marketing, finance, sales, and other functions."
  4. Collaboration. This starts out as kind of a "duh, insights should not be isolated but should be put to work in other functions" bit of advice. But the examples are better than that, e.g. one of the tools offered by the Unilever insights group: "Another option is for employees to use an 'always-on' platform, provided through a start-up called Discuss.io, to arrange virtual meetings with consumers anywhere."
  5. Experimentation. It's become a truism in Innovation circles that you need to experiment and be willing to fail. That doesn't mean it's not true, or that it's easy to build an organization that really does it.
  6. Forward-looking orientation. This is the weakest characteristic. Some handwaving about how technology is going to help predict future trends, and that it's vaguely effective in some program at some company.
  7. Affinity for action. Just what it says: the insights group shows a desire and willingness to take action. This could be another true truism. It's not easy to tell if a company's insights group actually has an affinity for action unless you're intimately acquainted with it.

At the end of the article, the three authors also offer three traits ostensibly held in common by the people who run successful innovation engines. Ho hum. This section reminded me of the dictionary definition of Pleonasm:

n. An army of words escorting a corporal of thought

There's a moral in there somewhere about business writing. I think I'll stop writing now.


Written by Steve Hansen

Steve Hansen, MBA, is the President of Phase 5 US. With almost 2 decades of experience in client-side marketing strategy, market research, and product management, Steve brings a client’s mindset and drive for actionable results to each project. He has extensive experience in capturing the view “from the outside” with a special focus on product and service innovation. Steve is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.