Assessing the Value of Research and Thought Leadership

On Friday, January 21, 2011, I had a distinct honor. I sat on a panel before the entire global sales team of Forrester Research in Boston to discuss how firms measure the value of research, as well as what I like most and least about Forrester. It’s one of those things that you wish all your partners would do more of. Listen hard to what their customers are saying. The panel included myself, Jeff Reid, AVP at The Hartford Insurance Company, Neil Clemmons, President of Critical Mass, and Susan DiManno, Research Director at The Boston Globe.

Full Disclosure: I’ve been a client of Forrester since 1997, and sit on one of their Leadership Councils. This blog post represents my personal thoughts, and does not include comments from any other panelist.

The question came up about how I think about and measure the ROI of research firms like Forrester. It’s of course a great question. Certainly in business one must manage spend and revenue, and everything a company undertakes should be reviewed for it’s value back to the firm. But I would posit that not everything has to be about ROI, at least not in the strictest sense. Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean you should. You can’t measure everything unless you have endless analytical resources, and if you try, you’ll probably miss out on key insights because you are too busy measuring. The entire doctrine of driving insight adoption is built on knowing when you have enough information to move forward. Carpenters have a saying, “Measure twice, cut once.” It’s not measure over and over and over. Not if you want to actually finish that house.

I value research and thought leadership the way I value education, knowledge and experience; highly. Do you ask yourself, “Should I hire smart, talented people? Do I need to train and coach them?” There is no way a digital professional can be consistently successful without these tools in their toolkit. Once you have acquired them you need to take full advantage. That’s where research and thought leadership comes into play. They act as finishing stones to hone these tools. To keep them razor sharp. This edge can be the difference between making a good decision or a bad one. It can help you build your business case and be more effective socializing your ideas across the broad cross-functional landscape of your firm. They make you better informed. Here is how I bucket this resource.

Validation

I’ll frequently turn to Forrester to to validate my current thinking or approach. No matter how smart you are, it’s always helpful to ensure you’re not blindly drinking your own kool-aid. The greatest writers had even smarter editors.

Cross-Vertical Learning

Many of the best lessons are learned by observing someone that’s accomplished in another realm. Forrester gets to peek under the covers of hundreds of companies and publish a combined, fully informed research paper. It’s a place I can’t go (probably better off most times, bed bugs, etc.).

Selection

I am constantly assessing new technologies and tools to help automate processes and in general help me do my job smarter. Frequently Forrester will usually have a Wave report that can help me narrow the field of who would be good candidates to invite into that so well loved RFP process.

Company Education

Not everyone in your firm thinks about things they way you do. We invite Forrester analysts to add their voice to our own inside the company, helping to educate and spark ideas and activity.

Prediction

There is no such thing as a fully reliable crystal ball. But if you want to lead, not necessarily bleed, you will need to make some calculated bets on what might happen. Firms like Forrester sometimes make bold, provocative predictions that bridge data with their brains. True, one is left to divine their own future from this, but the value is in breaking the tunnel thinking we can so easily fall into.

Certainly Forrester is not without their opportunities to improve. A potential white space is to partner with the execution agency resources that are employed by their clients. This could serve as connective tissue between desired outcomes and deliverables that achieve them. Over the past 15 years I have gained a lot personally from my interaction with Forrester, and that has clearly translated into value back to my company. The research is great, but in the end it comes down to people. I thank my account manager at Forrester, Michelle Beaudreau, for working tirelessly at making me more successful everyday.

If you are still a stickler for that ROI, then have at it. I’ll spend my time getting smarter thank  you.

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