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Next-Generation Research: Leveraging Experience from Previous Projects

Companies that spend $10 million, $20 million, and even $100 million or more on market research generally know how to manage individual research projects from beginning to end, and are equally adept at negotiating favorable terms with vendors.

But many managers are looking for ways to go beyond fine-tuning the execution of individual research projects—leveraging cross-project synergies that lead to higher efficiency, taking full advantage of the economies of scale that the size of their organization provides. By harnessing their collective learning and cross-project experience, organizations can greatly improve their decision-making and significantly reduce costs.

Think of these businesses as professional sports teams focused on improving their records. If they want to win, they need to do more than just show up to the game and play by the rules. Winning teams invest significant effort between games to conduct post-game reviews, scout opponents, develop gameplans, coach players, and improve fundamentals.

This article focuses on four activities research teams should undertake between projects in order to increase the value delivered to their organization:

1. Methods. Methods constitute the research gameplan detailing which plays are most effective in certain situations. As any competent researcher will tell you, not all approaches are equally suited to address every business question.

A valuable insight to capture is an understanding of which approaches (e.g., focus groups or surveys) work best for which problems. This includes not only examining the approach itself, but the context of where it was appropriate or why a given method was or wasn't valuable.

2. Instruments. The instruments used in market research are akin to the fundamental skills and techniques used when playing sports. For any specific research approach, there are always ways to improve the specific instrument over time—for example, improving screening criteria or adjusting the order of survey questions.

The knowledge of research instruments is often considered tradecraft, gathered over time through experience. Many companies, however, are finding ways to systematically share experiences about research instruments so individual researchers can learn from the collective experience of the team.

3. Insights.Gained from market research, these comprise the post-game review. While the data generated from research reports are important, they can also have a short shelf life. Insight generated from a post-project review can have both greater longevity and greater breadth of applicability.

The data may explain, for instance, the growth rate of a customer segment in China, but the insight will be the overarching trend (e.g., positive, negative, or stable) in a customer segment or region. Familiarity with insights gained from past projects helps researchers improve fundamentals and create better gameplans moving forward.

4. Presentation. This is about packaging findings in the way that's most meaningful to the audience. It requires understanding preferences of senior management, business unit managers, and research and development teams, as well as knowing the most compelling way to present specific kinds of data—tables, visual representation, etc. —to ensure the best chance of a successful outcome for the project and organization over time.

In order for research teams to incorporate these "between-game" activities into their routines, businesses must provide the right infrastructure and incentives, and they must allocate the time to conduct these activities.

Infrastructure

IT systems play an important role in leveraging existing research materials and processes, but not in the way many companies think. They work themselves into a frenzy over what they think is the ideal solution: a giant database that stores all presentations and provides instant accessibility via a simple search mechanism.

This is a fine dream, although a costly and time-consuming one. It also presupposes many things that are not generally true:

• Everything useful to leverage is in the form of a document.

• Every individual knows exactly what they're looking for.

• Every person who adds something to the system will store it in such a way it will be easily found by others looking for it.

There is a faster and more compelling alternative. A social media approach to technology can yield better results than a traditional centralized repository approach. The former includes a place for each individual to submit and store their own materials, and enables the "tagging" of those materials for future search by all community members (including comments and ratings). All of this takes place in a blog-like setting.

This set-up has many advantages:

Flexibility. Contributions go beyond just research materials to provide the collective organization's view on the value of submitted materials. Ultimately, this provides a way to tap into the collective wisdom of the organization without the need to have everything in a traditional document.

Affordability. In the past two years, many software firms have emerged to provide this type of technology. Many are free or very low cost.

Accessibility. The social media approach enables more fruitful searches and the ability to identify useful content without opening a document.

Just as sports teams need to support their players with proper equipment and resources (for training, practicing, playing, reviewing performance, etc.), businesses need to empower their teams with the infrastructure they need to improve the value they deliver to the organization.

Incentives

On a day-to-day basis, researchers tend to think only about the execution of their current project, and not on the other important activities that improve their skills and make them more efficient. Incentives are great tools for broadening researchers' focus and motivating them.

How are people rewarded for their contributions and are there consequences for a lack of contribution? Are contributions mentioned in performance reviews and do they affect compensation? Motivated employees will make time for the important activities that lead to reusable research components.

Allocation of Time

Just as athletes need to set aside time in their schedules to work on fundamentals, watch game film, etc., research team members need time in their schedules to accurately capture data and reflect on projects while still fresh in their minds. Enough time needs to be factored in to review the project and evaluate the research methods, best practices, and insights to improve efficiency over time. This review is not optional for players, and shouldn't be optional for researchers.

With research budgets under intense scrutiny and the need for research continuing to accelerate, now is the time for businesses to refocus their research organization on harnessing their collective knowledge and cross-project experience. Doing so will result in greater efficiency, improved decision-making, and cost savings that accelerate over time.

Colin Gounden is the CEO and founder of Grail Research, a global research and decision support firm, as well as a senior partner and board member of Monitor Group (of which Grail Research is a business unit).