State of Research & Consulting: The Smartest Network, Not People, Will Win

Closeup portrait of business people with hands on hands

This post was originally  cross-posted on LinkedIn. You can read the original post here.

My background as an industry analyst at Forrester Research and management consultant at the now-defunct Monitor Group gives me a unique point of view into the intersection of two industries, Industry Research firms (dominated by companies like Forrester, Gartner, and IDC) and Management Consulting (with leaders like Bain, BCG, and McKinsey). Both are being hit by the classic Innovator’s Dilemma, where new entrants offer services that are cheaper (or free) to an under-served customer base. I believe that the established players have several facets of their business models that limit their ability to respond.

Let’s take a look first at the state of the research industry:

  • The double-edged sword of syndicated content. Research firms derive much of their revenues from great content that sits behind a syndication wall. But analysis from journalists, bloggers and independent analysts is rapidly improving in quality and available at a great price point – free. And technology vendors like IBM conduct cutting edge research that is arguably better than what any research firm can do. While syndicated revenues scales thought leadership wonderfully, research firms can’t cannibalize themselves without seriously jeopardizing profits. The result – free content from these new entrants – is gaining a significant foothold and making syndicated clients take a closer look at their investment in annual seat-based subscriptions.
  • Individual versus firm brands. Research firms promote the expertise of top analyst talent – but not too much for fear that these “stars” gain too much visibility and spin off to create their own firms, stealing away clients in the process. Non-compete contracts and restrictions on personal blogs are attempts to try to contain the brand of individuals. But this means that all talent needs to be homegrown as no established thought leader would ever consider subsuming their own brands. This opens the door for companies that know how to attract, grow, and develop individual brands in harmony with an overall umbrella brand.
  • Clients demand more custom solutions. Research firms don’t like consulting – it’s messy, time-consuming, and not as scalable as syndicated research. But their clients are dealing with tough, disruptive problems of their own – and parachuting analysts into a client for a day leaves many clients wanting more detailed, customized advice and strategy. While research firms have made decent inroads into creating consulting services, these efforts typically involve dedicated consultants rather than industry experts – because every minute an analyst spends with a client means less time spent on generating syndicated content that pays the bills.

Now let’s turn to management consulting firms that have their own set of challenges:

  • Secrecy constrains engagement. Consulting firms operate in the Cone of Silence to respect client confidentiality, which limits their ability to network and share best practices sometimes even within a firm. Contrast that to their clients’ own increasing willingness to share with and support each other through formal networks like Corporate Executive Board and SocialMedia.org. The result: It’s getting harder and harder for consulting firms to provide new insights and value to smarter, networked clients.
  • Clients demand more research to justify decisions. Consulting firms rarely invest in industry research that isn’t specific to a client because it’s a cost that can’t be easily recovered across multiple engagements. This business model constraint means that a key client need – research-based evidence needed to justify risky strategic bets – aren’t at the fingertips of these consultants.
  • Deep relationships versus deep expertise. In the Internet and social networking age, small boutique firms and even individuals with deep expertise can create visibility, generate press, and get on the radar of potential clients. This challenges the broad expertise and brands of traditional firms who rely on a brand and deep relationships to carry it forward, even in areas when expertise may be lacking. One of the key notes of disruption in consulting is the pairing of these boutique experts with the mainline consulting firms, supplementing knowledge of the firm’s inner workings and relationships with deep expertise. Guess what happens when senior management sees that much of the value is being created by these boutique experts rather than trusted counselors?

If your firm is in either of these two industries, I encourage you to take the following three actions to refine your business model and guard against disruption:

  1. Develop and grow networks. Research and consulting firms often indulge in hubris, believing that they have THE smartest people in the industry within their walls. But how can that be the case in fast developing, disruptive spaces? Buy yourself an insurance policy against the pace of change by developing a network of the brightest people OUTSIDE of your firm including people at rival firms. At Altimeter, we cultivate and feed that network with our Open Research, where we give it away for free. The result is thousands of people reading the research, commenting on it, and helping us develop the next research. The result is in research that is better, faster, and cheaper to produce. In the future, it’s not the firm with the smartest people that will win, it’s the one with the smartest network.
  2. Invest in the brands and careers of individuals. The success of research and consulting firms depends on attracting A+ talent – and that talent won’t stick around if they think they can do better elsewhere or even on their own. At Altimeter, we believe that a strong individual brand results in a strong company brand – the two live in harmony so that we can leverage individual thought leadership AND the company brand. But we also create the greenest pasture possible for individuals to stay with us – there are no non-competes, no constraints on personal blogging or book writing, that artificially keep someone around when they don’t want to be here. When one day the fit is no longer there, we agree to bid each other “all the best,” knowing that it was a fair exchange of value for the time that we worked together.
  3. Create synergies between research and consulting. Rather than look at either research or consulting as a cost center, think about how they can each lower costs and actually result in better outcomes in the other area. Research improves when you can apply it to real client problems. Consulting deepens your understanding of client pain points that results in better, more meaningful research. The key is to find people who can stretch between these two areas. At Altimeter, we have analysts who do primarily research, but stretch frequently into consulting to keep that research grounded. And we have consultants who spend most of their days working with clients – but who then stretch into research, which gives them research-based grit to bring into their engagements.

So because the incumbents in the research and consulting industries have very real business model constraints, I see plenty of opportunity for new entrants to disrupt and gain a foothold.

Additional reading and resources:

 

Disruptive Trends to Watch in 2014

Forward to 2014 new year concept

This post is part of Altimeter’s Trends to Watch in 2014

To kick off the new year, here are seven trends I’m following closely in my research at Altimeter, inspired by my conversations with clients, keynote audiences, social media communities, and very generous thought leaders. The list is not exhaustive of what is important, but these are the key issues I’ll be digging into in 2014. For each trend, I also include a few thoughts on the implications for organizations — and what actions they should take.

1. The Imperative for Strategic Disruption

Innovation is hot, hot, hot. I’m constantly asked how companies can use digital and social tools to capture and develop more innovation that leads to strategic growth. These executives want to develop a strategy that builds innovation into the DNA of the organization, with strategy, organizational structure, and processes to make innovation the job of every single person. But I don’t think it’s enough. Given the pace of change, I’m hearing from executives the need to set a goal of becoming disruptive, because innovation won’t be enough to keep startups and competitors intent on disruption at bay. The key difference is that disruption involves conflict and friction, the dilemma that Clayton Christensen says is the bane of innovators within organizations.

But there’s a key difference today, in that new technologies and management approaches like agile development create organizations that can sit on that knife’s edge between managing strategic disruption and crumbling apart in chaos. The implication for organizations is how will you create the strategic imperative to build resilience and adaptability into the organization so that you can disrupt yourself and your industry – rather than be disrupted. I’ll be researching how organizations create a strategy to become a disruptive organization, one that can identify and capitalize on The Disruptor, that unique leader who can identify a disruptive opportunity and pull the resources, people, processes, and most importantly, culture, into a coherent strategy.

2. The Rise of the Digital Executive

The year 2014 will mark the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web. This means that people entering their 40′s — the time when they come into positions of power and responsibilities in organization — have had spent their entire professional career with the Internet. They will think digital first, integrating mobile and social holistically into the strategies that they develop for their departments and eventually, companies. The implications for companies is that this is going to inevitably set up conflicts in executive board rooms. If these up and coming Digital Executives are not given the support and latitude they need to fulfill their vision, they will leave.  and their mindsets will set the directions.

Implications: Clash of the board room as senior board members who are not digital natives will have to align with the strategies being created by a digitally-minded executive team.

3. Social Goes Mainstream — and Gets A New Name

At the end of 2013, Pew Internet Research released a report that showed every demographic group in the US had the majority of people online using social networking sites. And the Seniors — those age 65 or more were not far behind with 43% of those that are Internet users using social networking sites. And overall, 72% of ALL Internet users are social. So if you think “social” is still something that is done only by the young, you need to get your facts straight. The  implications are that your customers and your employees are social in their personal lives — and you’re missing out on precious relationship-building opportunities if you don’t respect this medium. That said, there is almost an allergic reaction to “social” in some enterprises, especially when it comes its internal use. So we’ll see a gradual usurping of social initiatives into overall digital strategies — which should be the case as it becomes more integrated and feature, rather than a destination.

Percent of Internet users using social networking sites

4. Increasing Privacy Concerns

The recent NSA data collection revelations and security breaches at Target and SnapChat have people more on edge than ever about the collection and use of their personal data. Add to that the potential of big data being used by companies, Facebook, Google and Apple tracking your every move and it’s no wonder people are concerned. The data supports this feeling: GlobalWebIndex found that in the US, the percent of people who say they are concerned that the Internet is eroding their privacy increased from 47% in September 2010 to 57% in Q3 2013, a 21% increase over three years. Similar trends exist in other countries, except, curiously, in China where it’s been dropping slightly over the past year.

 The implications are that organizations that hope to tap the promise of big data will need to begin NOW to clarify what data they are collecting, how they are using it, and how they will secure it. And this can’t be buried in the user agreements — it needs to be front and center as part of the relationship definition with customers. The key — developing trust so that when you collect and use the data, it makes sense in the context of the growing relationship.

 5. Holistic Approaches to Building the Future of Work

The seminal research being done by Lynda Gratton at London Business School on the Future of Work points out how the realities of technology, globalization, demographics, social, and energy resource changes means that organizations will have to rethink how work gets done. In response, organizations are starting to make strategic preparations — Dell recently announced a goal that by 2020, 50% of its workforce will have some sort of flexibility work arrangement [link]. This is much more than simply deploying an enterprise mobility platform or having a BYOD policy. I recently moderated an Evolving Workforce Roundtable at Dell where a key takeaway is that the CIO will need to be much more focused on the overall experience of not only employees but also customers. That “experience-first” mindset will be needed to shepherd in a new era of employer-employee relationships. In this holistic approach, culture and leadership will provide the guiding principles and strategy, while technology will become the means, not the ends.

6. Engaging Empowered Employees

In speaking with HR professionals over the past decade, one of the biggest things keeping them up at night is how to tap into and engage what they perceive as their biggest assets — employees. What’s changed over the past year is that it’s now also the concern of business line leaders as well as the rest of the C-Suite. They all see that engaging and involving the workforce from anything from driving innovation to engaging directly with customers can create a powerful and sustainable competitive advantage. But here’s the rub — most companies lack the culture and leadership mindset to do this. My research in this area is closely linked to the Future of Work research, but looks at how the combination of strategy and technology creates engaged and empowered employees. I’ll be looking at how collaborative and social platforms are merging, and which day-to-day activities make the most sense tackle first.

 One company I spoke with was highly discouraged because an early experiment in employee engagement went nowhere. When I dug deeper into the situation, we discovered that the company decided to focus their enterprise social network primarily on upcoming labor negotiations — talk about jumping into the deep end! Their hope that the ESN would help foster conversation and engagement left out a key component — the relationship between management and union members simply wasn’t there to be able to allow the conversation to take place face-to-face, let alone in a digital environment. The implications for organizations is that you need to have an employee engagement strategy that takes into account how technology will — and won’t — be used.

7. Customizing Enterprise Platforms to Increase Productivity

Improving productivity with technology continues to be a priority for many companies, but is becoming harder to do as most firms have already realized initial gains. One emerging area is the customization of enterprise applications. Most of the work to date has been around integrating your favorite platforms so that they work well together (e.g. Salesforce + Box, Exchange + Facebook) but an emerging trend is moving beyond the traditional  “one-size-fits-all” approach and customizing enterprise apps for each employee.

The email inbox is a great example — we all use the inbox in different ways, some of us keeping emails in there as a to-do list while others live by the Zero Inbox rule and creating specific task lists elsewhere. The adoption of new productivity tools in the consumer space, such as LinkedIn Intro, and Mailbox phone app, mean that these or similar offerings will shortly grow legs and walk into the enterprise through the back door. CIOs should look for ways to reflect the flexibility of these productivity tools in the way traditional enterprise and collaboration platforms are used.

If you have ideas, suggestions, or examples of how your organization is addressing one or more of these trends, I’d love to hear from you. Please add to the comments below or email me at charlene@altimetergroup.com.

New Report: Social Media Education for Employees

Last year, we asked companies about their top social strategy priorities. The second top response was “Developing Internal Education and Training.” Yet, when we surveyed companies earlier this year, we saw that only 38% had any education program in place, beyond ad hoc efforts.

Over the past few quarters, we identified a number of large companies that have developed social media education for their employees, to learn why and how. We interviewed companies as diverse as ARAMARK, Kaiser Permanente, RadioShack, and more — and learned that social media education helps achieve two key business objectives:

  • Reduce the risk of social media violations to protect employees and the company, and
  • Increase employee advocacy and effectiveness, both on and off-domain.

In addition, one of our most important findings is that social media education can be deployed given limited resources. For example, at Adobe two social media team members spend approximately 10% of their time on this business program. One person told us: “You can do it with a very limited budget,” while another said “You don’t have to have all the bells and whistles, and you can roll this out to a limited set of employees first.”

We’re happy to share with you research today, particularly for those of you who may be including social media education in your 2014 plans. Our report, Social Media Education for Employees, includes a framework to structure your education program — based on four unique roles and learning objectives — and a 10-point checklist of requirements for success. It’s embedded below, along with the four data charts from the report.



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The Twitter IPO: Some Initial Analysis

Twitter just tweeted that it has filed a confidential S-1, with the appropriate disclaimer. Here are a few reasons why this filing and IPO warrant close scrutiny.

  • Twitter is the last of the Big Four to go public. In the social networking ecosystem, Twitter is seen as a must have in terms of a social strategy, and is the only major player left that is still up for grabs — YouTube (owned by Google), LinkedIn (IPO), and Facebook (IPO) are all spoken for. Other upstarts like Pinterest are just getting started so Twitter is going to be the talk of the town into 2014, which is the earliest the IPO can be expected. There will be a certain “last call” mentality to the Twitter IPO that wasn’t there for Facebook.
  • Confidential filing gives Twitter control. Twitter took advantage of the JOBS Act pass last year, which allows firms with less than $1 billion in revenue to file an S-1 confidentially. This means that unlike Facebook, Twitter won’t be subjected to a microscopic dissection of every word of its filing. This is a good thing, because Twitter’s business model isn’t the easiest to explain. As Twitter begins the roadshow, they’ll be able to roll out their story to investors in a systematic, orderly way that enables them to tell their growth story to the world.
  • Timing and Friends benefit Twitter. Twitter should be saying a big “Thank You” to Facebook for carving out the path before them. Facebook has spent the past year educating the market about social media advertising, doing much of the heavy lifting and laying out the red carpet for Twitter.
  • Challenge: Twitter’s Advertising Model. The biggest challenge that Twitter has is that its main form of revenue comes from “sponsored tweets” which is a form of native advertising (see Altimeter’s just-published report on Native Advertising). The problem with these sponsored tweets is that they are not, at present, a standard ad format that can travel outside the Twitter platform. That makes ad buying — and scaling to media buyers — more difficult.
  • Discipline to Stick to the Business. The tweet that Twitter posted one minute after the “filing” one shows everyone at the computers with the next, Now, back to work.” The company has been preparing for this day, and realize that it’s a long, long slog for the next approximately six months before the actual IPO. The team will need discipline to focus on the work, rather than pulling out spreadsheets to calculate their potential net worth. Not an easy thing to do!

These are still early days, and I anticipate that we’ll learn a lot more about Twitter’s business over the next few weeks and months. I, for one, am eager to not just see the numbers, but also to hear their story. Because as one of the four foundational platforms of the social space, they have the ability to shape the future as they envision it unfolding. And the vision that Twitter CEO Dick Costello and his team roll out is sure to be interesting.

New Book: The Seven Success Factors of Social Business Strategy

I’m very proud to announce the publication of an eBook that I co-authored with Brian Solis, entitled “The Seven Success Factors of Social Business Strategy“.

Based on research as well as real-world experience with our clients, Brian and I found that there are common characteristics of successful social business strategies, the most important one being a laser focus on achieving business goals. In fact, the most successful businesses are those with an executive who can articulate the vision and strategy roadmap almost as well as the social strategist.

Here’s a summary of the Seven Success Factors of Social Business:

1.  Define the overall business goals. You can’t align your social strategy with your business objectives if you don’t even know what your objectives are.

2. Establish the long-term vision. If you’re not striving toward the end goal, you’re likely to veer off the path. If you want your team to fully invest in your social strategy — and you need the support of your entire team– you’ll need to communicate your vision with clarity and passion.

3. Ensure executive support. In the early days you may be able to fly under the radar, but at some point, if you want to truly have an impact on the business, you’ll need the backing and support of key executives.

4. Define the strategy roadmap. You already know your business objectives and have a clear vision. But how are you going to get there? Plan out your route, what roads you’ll travel, and what roads you’ll avoid.

5. Establish governance and guidelines. Who is responsible for executing the social strategy? What’s your process of listening and responding to your customers? If you clearly define this process and then stick to it, you’ll spend less tie floating along throughout the social sphere and more time strategizing your social growth.

6. Secure staff, resources, and funding. In the early stages of social growth, you might outsource your social media campaign to an agency, and that’s fine. But you should also be looking down the road and planning to develop internal resources to take your company to the next level as your social prowess — and your business — grows.

7. Invest in technology platforms that evolve. Resist the temptation to jump on the latest technology bandwagon before you have a long-term strategic plan in place. Hold off on making significant technology investments until you’re equipped with a sound vision and strategic plan.

The organizations we studied didn’t necessarily have each of these success factors fully developed; rather, we found that it was much more important that each factor was aligned with immediate and long-term business goals.

So ask yourself — how robust is your social strategy? As you look at each of the elements above, consider how well you are doing in each area. Score your social strategy on each factor on a scale of 1 (not doing it well at all) to 5 (knocking it out of the park). In the spirit of open discussion, I’d love hear how you scored yourself — where your strategy is strong, where you need to improve.

In the book, we go into detail about how to approach each success factor, illustrating the key elements with best practices and exercises, as well as common mistakes to avoid. One of my favorite sections is how to convince and even rally decision makers at the executive level. Brian and I also designed the book to be a quick but useful read — at only 100 pages it’s something that you can give to your team and executives and reasonable expect that they will actually read it!

Our hope is that the book will help you move from having a pile of social media tactics to having a social business strategy around which your entire organization is aligned. And if you need additional help crafting that strategy, Altimeter can also help with our Social Business Strategy service offerings.

More information and additional resources:

Upcoming Webinar: Thursday, August 15th 10am PT/1pm ET. Registration and details.