Why research will remain a human activity

The future of business research– thoughts among peers see and search

Last Friday, July 20, I convened my monthly ad-hoc gathering of diverse professionals to talk about strategy. This month’s topic was the business of research and its future. As is our customary practice, participants reviewed in advance a series of articles to focus on and spur their thinking on the topic.

As moderator and convener, I’m always eager for a thought booster, and the conversation never disappoints me and to my delight, the participants find their time well spent. Opportunities to think aloud and have my own thinking challenged makes up for my time and effort to share selected articles, invite and then engage participants to deliberate on any topic.

Did my own thoughts on the future of research shift today? The answer is yes.  It’s challenging to do justice to a broad topic in 75-90 minutes, and still, we tapped several of the critical themes.

My synopsis follows of key thoughts I had neither considered prior—what motivations beyond curiosity generate research, and the approach affects and ultimate effects the future of research.  Note, participants occasionally chose to distinguish references to general terms by referencing the term via its first capital letter.

Beyond curiosity

I don’t expect people to stop being curious, and to my surprise, others pushed back on that premise. The growing conveniences mobile technologies’ afford to make new knowledge easy to access. The change in human behaviors and growing dependence they produce create efficiencies that limit or encourage us to forego active direct observation and discovery efforts. The changes may or may not affect the inspiration for further research or press the distinctions between general theory and accepted principles and specific cases that currently drives research.

The general conversation began by unpacking the presumption that research is a human activity inspired by curiosity.  Machines may accelerate, assist or be a subject of research but they don’t initiate research by themselves.

Big R-Research as a broad concept historically lays out a path to build knowledge.  Its value grows as the research is shared— its methods, raw input and the means that produce synthesis and transform the raw inputs into findings.

Sadly, the current state of the world reflects dilution of the term research and makes its application indistinguishable across a range of activities. Automated data systems generate volumes of research for consumption by both people and machines. The meaningfulness of findings now synonymous with results spit out all too often as visualizations—the new euphemism for graphical depictions of data.  Research results when they appear only in this form builds little actual knowledge. The capture of the latest observation and its addition to a trend line or as a portion of a whole does little to explain the how or why, fails on its face to challenge, enhance or enrich the general or standing understanding.

Alternatively, pure research falls into the Big R-research category that follows an open exploratory, investigative, discovery path. Commercial research can follow a similar path but its focus and test of determination must satisfy specified objectives determined to support, grow the business. Google Search team’s research development fits this latter category.

Even Google’s moonshot too because at the end of the day all the development and proceeds are owned and controlled by a commercial entity/patron. Any patents or new methods that result in these environments are not contributing to general knowledge but benefit the owners. Corporate research labs offer research academics environments flush in resources and data, but limit and control the distribution of their findings.

Sponsored business research appears to have a little more flexibility around its distribution and we discussed the benefits of two distinctive forms.

    1. Privately sponsored research by VCs, Google, or historically Bell labs whose activities often followed the lines of pure research contributed academic papers but not everything was published—needs verification.

A journalist asked Thomas Edison: “How does it feel to have failed 9,999 times.” Edison said, “I haven’t failed, I have had great success, finding 9,999 ways that do not work.”

The strategic meaning of this message?  Rather than share the failings, Edison preserved competitive advantage by holding onto 100 percent of his learnings from failure. Which is akin to the slow progress being made in pharma and other industries who seek to gain and preserve a competitive advantage, for the sake of slowing advanced development.

No one had an example of an industry who plays differently.

2. Government or foundation sponsored research manages to overcome some of these obstacles.  The coffers of US basic research advances general knowledge in multiple sectors, and again its use may hold some restrictions—the details need nailing down. Still government initiatives fund numerous advances in technology and other fields that both support the creation and ongoing survival of multiple businesses. For example, DARPA sponsored several Self-driving car competitions, Star Wars project by the Reagan administration work helped grow GPS capabilities, and NASA, who can forget TANG. Recent investments by the Chinese government seeks to create national strategic advantages over other countries and grow its domestic capabilities both human and technical.

These descriptions of research variations resemble geologic strata—where basic research or foundation research is the common denominator and each layer of specialization distinguishes and separates from subsequent layers while denying the integration. Perhaps the layers reflect the barriers of ownership that limit the spread of research and its findings within or across sectors by turning it into a property.

THE APPROACH 

When I worked in banking, I learned that without risk there was no reward.  Risks associated with research naturally attach to its scale, scope, the degree of ambition, as well as the uncertainty of results. Planning and the approach an organization takes in its research activities can mitigate and help an organization strike an acceptable balance.

Curiosity clearly is not the only inspiration for research, as was mentioned purpose and Big V-vision plays a role.

As mentioned, sometimes businesses establish a research arm hopeful these investments’ preserve the growth or survival of the firm.  The time horizon, the presence of a vision or a clear picture of opportunity often determines leaders’ expectations as well as their approach to research.  Leadership focused on near-term growth requires sharp clear means to quantify and justify their investments. They are more likely to seek incremental improvements or small differences and advantages, both easier to sustain and convert the investments into value.

Striking the right balance depends on your ability to understand both the timing and quantification of overall market demand, as well as your competitor behavior –capacity and capability to take market share. Intel’s research investments guided by Moore’s law exemplify this approach.

Understanding your competition, the concern of strategy departments’ research activities also contributes to the quantification of risk. Operationalizing SWOT using research fits this approach.  Rather than a one-shot if played out continuously, each stage benefits from contributions from research which also fuels its progression. Here’s how that would work.

Internally, research can turn known business weaknesses when supported and developed into strengths. Additional research benefits from these new strengths to seize external opportunities and ideally knock out external threats. A variety of research activities contribute to the momentum of this W to S to O to T quashing cycle. Similar research activities afford discovery or wider awareness of emergent external Threats while also furthering self-recognition of corresponding internal weaknesses that create momentum for never-ending review and invest cycles.

Another approach I’ll call Comparative research reflects business leaders’ ongoing preoccupation to produce goods and/or services faster, better and/or cheaper. Note this approach resembles Deming and Toyota Production Systems focus on incrementalism and continuous improvements while also engaging and focusing internal attention to improve singular value measures.

A third approach mimics the scientific approach in which the research objectives are very narrowly drawn and success and failure clearly defined. In the digital environment, many teams engage in A/B testing of a change designed to enhance performance at very low levels but potentially lead to bigger results.

All three of these approaches are Evaluative—in that all produce measurable changes in value. The comparison of an idea’s value and its worth to the organization when measured justifies the research activity.  If the idea’s value can be assessed, then conversely, the risks of not developing or pursuing the idea are measurable too.

Efforts to achieve bigger R research that produces more ambitious results requires additional justifications. Their additional risk may reflect a wider set of leadership capabilities and strategic agendas. Venture capital hopes their investments turn into unicorn businesses rely heavily on research and analytic assessment capabilities.

The reliability and predictability of timetables to results slide in proportion to the size of the ambition to achieve Big R research characteristic of the unknown domains or even the unknown unknowns.  The greater the gap or risk reflects several things: one, the distance between what the organization knows and/or is knowable and what it doesn’t; two the extent of discovery needed; and three the level of organizational ambition.   [Note, this might reduce to the time value of money calculation, rather than a more elaborate justification for research as risk clearly factors into organizations decision, research and likely research activities. ]

The Big V-Value aspect 

Conceptually,  the discussants also recognized other aspects of research along with a different continuum that doesn’t lend easily to quantification.  That’s when research inspirations resemble discovery. Both relate to finding, becoming aware of something previously unknown to either the seeker or the wider world.

This is an experiential aspect, in which emotions and brain processes not fully understood play a critical role—this is what I’ll call the Big V-value aspect of research.

Philosophers focus on bigger questions that humans ponder and may be alone in their pursuit, but none the less persistent in their search. I  mention the eternal questioning that humans experience and undertake, such as:   “Why are we here? ” “What’s my purpose, what difference can /should I be making?”

The ideas, activities we value don’t always equate to a market value, or its economic utility and/or price.

It would be remiss to talk about research and its future without acknowledging that inspiration and deeper motivations drive our behaviors and often cause us to reverse direction. Here are a few examples of research revisiting the initial assumptions;

Two engineers now at Google –Asa Razkin and Tristan Harris, realized their efforts to improve and increase convenience on mobile devices also led to over-consumption. As a result, they gave rise to a revolution to return control to the users.

https://video-api.wsj.com/api-video/player/v3/iframe.html?guid=2D3A120C-C88F-4C81-A005-1439E464A507&shareDomain=null 

Similarly, the decision theorists and the behavioral economists who recognized that valuations were not the only consideration when people were facing economic decisions.  This has also given rise to designers recognizing that removing friction or simplifying a path prevented people from having to collect their thoughts before proceeding—thus removing barriers or friction was not always an optimal approach. To learn more about positive friction, I recommend this piece https://www.slideshare.net/secret/NPcI5mCnlpvYsR

It’s impossible to avoid the realization of research as circular versus the approach of increasing that we sense to trend linearly.

Would welcome your thoughts, or reactions!

ARTICLES that were previewed in advance follow:

1.What happens when data scientists and designers work together (~7-8 min read)
HBR March 2018
https://hbr.org/2018/03/what-happens-when-data-scientists-and-designers-work-together

2. Tom Peters True Confession (~20 min read)

FastCompany 2001
https://www.fastcompany.com/44077/tom-peterss-true-confessions

3. Google-X and the science of radical creativity (~40-50 min read)
The Atlantic, November 2017
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/11/x-google-moonshot-factory/540648/

Optional
4.Why is the insights startup community exploding? (4-5 min)
https://greenbookblog.org/2018/05/29/why-is-the-insights-startup-community-exploding/

5.How Disruptions are Born and How It Applies to the Market Research Discipline (7 min)
Greenbook June 2014
https://greenbookblog.org/2014/06/09/how-disruptions-are-born-and-how-it-applies-to-the-market-research-discipline/

6. see and search7-8 min)
https://medium.com/@workatplay/the-persona-is-past-its-prime-meet-the-mental-model-a41ac415906d

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Beyond Social Media, Creating Social Capital

Rich conversation and insights flowed on Friday morning when the Booth Strategy Discussion group happily pondered four key questions on the topic of Social Media, Not just for Marketing.

This month, David Friedman of Bridgewell Partners offered to facilitate and he began inviting us to consider four key questions:

  1. Do social media supported interaction practices represent a fundamental change in how people work?
  2. What barriers exist to adopting these practices and are the practices optional?
  3. How many, and what kind of resources does converting existing social media activities into successful practices require?
  4. What kind of governance and rules makes social media work and how do you find and manage the advocates?

As usual, the conversation flowed from topic to topic, not chaotically, just indicative of authentic interactive thinking. In hindsight, the face to face conversation and personal value participants derive from ongoing, live exchange of perspectives offers a contrast to the online tools we had met to discuss.  I’ll do my best to share some of the key learning and insights. As usual, I took  time to extend, document sources and supplement my notes, so please do add your thoughts.

People are social animals

Learning is a social endeavor. Knowledge sharing, collaboration and innovation processes succeed when they leverage the subtleties of social interactions. Today’s social media tools facilitate social engagement and may solidify associations that typically erode over time and as geographic distance increases. Today, it is easier than ever to stay actively in touch with associates—neighbors, classmates, friends or colleagues that we no longer see regularly. Their value however comes in creating opportunities that go behind the real world encounter.

Business requires connection and by design, social tools enable people to connect to others for every possible purpose. Want to grow your expertise, make new acquaintances, qualify and connect with experts on specific or general problem or topic areas?  The social tools are a two –way street.  The same behaviors gain new understanding and win support for specific activities and perspectives.

Google changed the way we look for ideas, people, places and things. Twitter  compact messages unleash conversations, debates and ongoing thoughts.  The messages are easy to find and monitor. Content once shared in exclusive forums once closed become public. The virtual location and use of links expands the audience once limited to insiders. Dedicated communities of practice consistently create value for participants, and switching up technology choices amplify the reach of these conversations, e.g. threaded topic discussions used by groups on Linked in.

Closed, restricted conversations however too have their place and have been the domain of  membership restricted list-serves such as those used by MENG—the Marketing Executives Network email list serve, or SERMO (http://www.crunchbase.com/company/sermo) for surgeons.  Some individuals have always been keen to share best practices, or seek out the specialized knowledge of admired colleagues.

Social Capital

Businesses don’t make decisions, people do.  In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam described the growing isolation that technology promotes. Leveraging  work by Gary Becker and others the book opened new conversations.

Social Capital, embedded in the social realm, is not based on assets or individuals.  Social Capital resides in the fabric of relationships between individuals and in individuals’ connections with their communities (Putnam 1995c)

The emphasis to calculate ROI from Social media misses this point.  No wonder many organizations fail to capture value from socially shared knowledge to improve the way people work? Among the articles we reviewed were some promising signs some companies are making the leap, changing the way they work and incorporating social media practices.

How are some companies succeeding? 

“Organizations operate more like machines, their structure a legacy of the industrial age, taking comfort and finding security in maintaining bureaucratic control.”   In 2006, Chris Anderson published The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.  Transitioning from a command control operating model to deliver unlimited variety to meet specific, personalized needs demands a complete upheaval of management practices, organization charts that operate according to very different rules, beliefs and values.

The industrial age made power free. Many industries gained advantage harnessing that power. Similarly, the present social age, enables communications to spread freely. Success flows to those who manage to find and amplify freely exchanged messages, support their business proposition and gain competitive advantage.

The social paradigm’s counter-intuitive approach contrasts sharply to old push process, where a company worked hard to choose the message and then spent ample budget to promote messages designed to attract the interest of buyers. Today, businesses who listen and move to position themselves within the ongoing conversations that match their product or service set, stand to gain.

Examples of social media transformations of work

Edelman’s business is public relations. They turned their entire recruitment process around by pursuing and inviting those people who demonstrate ability to build an active following.

Intuit’s TurboTax built customer comment threads directly  into their interactive software   allowing people using the platform to learn practices and see examples from other users.

Ernst & Young  created mobile applications on ITunes giving customers insights , tax guides, legal tips etc.   They also created EYE, Ernst and Young Executive, an IPAD based magazine .

Two books, Smart customers, Stupid companies  and Opting In, by IBM Lotus Notes Executive and social business thought leader Ed Brill, admirably illustrate how knowledge IS social, the more interactions the smarter each of us get.

Likewise, peer-to-peer interactions occur within a pertinent context. Customer to customer interactions share very different information than when customers are sharing with company representatives.  The relevance of the exchange to the participants by itself offers  insights around customer perceptions and suggest alternatives to address and resolve their pain points.  This is the very stuff companies once paid researchers to find.  Brill describes the process unleashed by social media as “Thou Shall advocacy,” vs. the traditional company approach of thou shalt not employee governance.

The results?  Resources freed from “finding” should be put to use listening and gravitating to where their customers are actively engaged, communities created to talk about a company rarely happen to be the place the company created for its customers.

Changing the way we work

We all believe that change and changing behavior and processes at work continues to prove hard for several reasons.

Legacy workflows with established internal processes supporting hierarchical, command control organizations clash with the general ease people collaborate and bond outside of work.  Monsanto exemplifies a company who learned quickly how to use social media to build and strengthen what were formerly weak relationships.

Communications become conversations, as illustrated by their 2012 letter to shareholders proclaiming “the ways in which we are all interconnected…” Monsanto continues to evolve their communications beginning  with a move beyond stylistic changes to their communications as  this 2009 St. Louis Biz Journal story illustrates. Communications redesigned their department to listen and engage in honest dialogues with a wider audience of stakeholders. The corporate stakeholders no longer bequeath the controversial issues to the opposition. Instead of releasing official stances,  their communications team speaks directly to specific concerns and in so doing taps expertise inside the organization to share and engage employees as well as externally with consumers.

Value above replacement

At the core, social network mechanics leverage an individual’s ability to influence the behavior of others in their circles or network. The CEO of Klout wants everyone to believe that influence is the currency of the social web. Those companies who understand how to leverage their players may very well gain advantage.

 Ron Burt’s work calculates the “value of social capital, showing how in the business world reputation has come to replace authority and …. from other researchers’ studies, provide robust evidence of the value of brokerage.”  If you consider, as Burt does, that social capital is a metaphor for advantage then it’s not that hard to see how the sports world has put this to work.

Value over Replacement, aka VORP, may have begun with baseball but has since infiltrated the fan base of many other sports.  I even found the concept used to evaluate Rock and Roll band members. The adoption of  this concept by other domains illustrates word of mouth at work, and also the nature of social capital flows.  Studies and metrics rarely explain why some words travel and others remain where they were first spoken.

Is the problem workflow design?  The landscape of successful migration to enterprise2.0 practices remains checkered. In part, connected enterprises and successful adoption and implementation of social media platforms and tools require behavior shifts beyond adoption of new tools.  Successful organizations, who do the heavy lifting and restructure their organization, amplify the effects of influencers who in turn, encourage and promote informal collaboration.

The landscape however is littered with numerous unsuccessful change initiatives because they overlook how to put influencers to work. For example, Knowledge management systems, another extension of VORP, sought to capture the tacit as well as explicit understandings and intelligence of workers about to retire. What made them successful also brought success to the organization and it made sense to create the means to keep that knowledge around as people left.  The capture process however proved challenging and few organizations made conscious use of network analysis. This latter tool infiltrated strategic planning activities, but the record of deployment and use remains spotty.

Kraft’s KM initiative in 2000, shows the consequences of missing the opportunity to leverage individual players skills and influence.  The idea was to capture learnings from Consumer Intelligence and Research and Development. In theory, there would be an expert directory, discussion board and an electronic library.  Tagging information properly makes it possible for others to search and find relevant information.  AT Kraft, suppliers were asked to tag their own research, not good for their business model.  But this also diminished the value of the researchers and librarians whose knowledge and tagging skills were never acknowledged as added value.

In contrast, Stack Overflow, illustrates a very different knowledge sharing resource that isn’t dependendent on tagging.  It’s a give and take resource.  The value available depends on people providing good answers and asking good questions.  Participants with high stack overflow scores are deemed experts.

To Be Continued…More on this topic to follow shortly.

If you care to review the articles that were the basis of this discussion, links follow.  So much more to say and so little time, care to share your reaction?  or contribute some new inspirations?  Please do!

ARTICLES

1. Keynote: Invest in Scalable Social Business Programs

by Jeremiah Owyang on Apr 05, 2011

http://www.slideshare.net/jeremiah_owyang/keynote-invest-in-scalable-social-business-programs

2. Large Scale Transformation–how social lies at the core of your strategy
by Dion Hinchcliffe

http://www.informationweek.com/thebrainyard/news/strategy/how-smart-businesses-reorganize-for-soci/240006107

3. The Collaborative Organization: How to Make Employee Networks Really Work
MIT Sloan Management Review Magazine: Fall 2010Research Feature

October 01, 2010 Rob Cross, Peter Gray, Shirley Cunningham, Mark Showers and Robert J. Thomashttp://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/the-collaborative-organization-how-to-make-employee-networks-really-work/