During the course of my career, the research and insights industry has been transformed massively thanks largely to the advent of new technologies, new forms of data capture, and new types of data. The positive impact of new data sources and technologies continues today, together allowing insights professionals to add value in ways not possible until recently. However, I would argue that over the next decade, adopting new technologies and data sources is going to become more and more of a hygiene factor in the research and insights business.
The key differentiator between agencies which succeed and those that don't, I would argue, is going to be around the degree to which they are able to harness and organise the most value asset of all – their people – in moving their offering further up the value chain.
Accessing new and evolving forms of evidence is a critical piece of value chain in any insights business. It must however be remembered that data is a commodity, and is only turned into a valuable asset when it is organised and interpreted. This applies universally to all data types be they primary panel data, secondary transactional data, that generated through social media scraping and AI tools, and of course observational and qualitative.
The key issue is therefore how well can one systematically organise and interpret evidence – and ideally multiple sources simultaneously. By organise and interpret I don’t mean dashboard, I mean analyse, and communicate the outcome of interpretation in compelling and easy-to-understand and action narrative or other forms.
This is relatively straightforward when scale is small but becomes increasingly challenging as scale grows. It’s why being a boutique is comparatively simple, and reliant inherently on people alone. And it’s why many companies, as they scale, build products and off the shelf solutions which reduce their reliance on the quality and skill of the human in the insights generation process. An unfortunate by-product of this is of course client dissatisfaction borne out of the fact their challenge must necessarily be forced into rigid solutions. They are forced to work with a factory or machine rather than a human-based insights consulting business. The product- or framework-led approach also ultimately doesn't benefit the growth and development journey of the people involved.
Great insights work isn't just about the right evidence. It's about problem framing. It's about really understanding where a project fits into a client’s strategic agenda. It's about knowing precisely which question a project will be answering for the client. It's about knowing which pressure points the investment will help alleviate. These issues all frame and contextualise the work, which is required before the matter of problem framing and sourcing of evidence sources are considered. Understanding these critical issues relies on the human skill of being a great consultant, without which the very best technology and data will not assist. Most jams in which insights professionals find themselves are borne out of inadequate upfront consultation and contextualisation. Put differently, because they jump into solution mode (in some companies, product mode) too soon.
Great insights work is also about delivering with impact. Knowing your audience. Keeping it succinct. Creating clarity. Translating what, to so what, and now what. Adding value and delivering on a brief in a rigorous and structured manner, drawing on evidence, yet with flair and creativity to engage. Human skills.
When growing an insights business, an alternative to building products is to invest in the development of a consulting model which helps your people and team become more accomplished consultants. Investing time in training people on new ways of thinking and doing is rewarding because it's not just beneficial to the development of a long-term high value skill set, but also because it has immediate positive impact on client relationships. But because human skills take longer to develop and evolve than do product sales after product training, patience is required and there needs to be commitment to the long game of genuinely being a human-based consulting business.
For the insights industry to evolve and move up rather than down the value chain, business leaders need to invest as much or more in their people than in emergent technologies and data sources. It needs to be remembered that whilst critical inputs to our work, they are not game changers, saviours, or what our clients ultimately seek in working with us.