When you think of “data collection,” you typically think of focus groups, mall intercepts, CATI, IVR, OMR and the like. One of my mentors early on taught me to look for unconventional sources of data to answer client questions, and her advice is more useful than ever today.

When I worked at CAP International, I was supporting Lori Underhill on a project that she was conducting for one of the (then seven) RBOCs (Regional Bell Operating Companies). Fortunately, since they had purchased a large block of retainer hours from us, we had complete flexibility about crafting the right methodology for each request. As she developed a plan of attack on how to answer the most recent Essential Question our client had posed, she was planning our then-typical methodology of focus groups and phone interviews. The more she prepared, though, the more she felt that this Essential Question had to have been answered by the RBOC in the past.

Lori began networking within the RBOC, officially to identify others who might also be interested in the answer to her research, but unofficially because she had a hunch the data was already there. Sure enough, after a few days of calling she was able to find another department that had recently completed a study that had all the answers our contacts needed. Her final “deliverable” was simply arranging a meeting between our contact and the sponsor of the prior research. The result? The client need was solved much faster and much less expensively, all because Lori was willing to take an unconventional approach to “data collection.”

Many large organizations suffer a similar embarrassment of riches when it comes to research data: more data than they know about. Data collection should often include scouring the enterprise for information that can help with the current research initiative. Corporate libraries, market research departments, IT departments and knowledge management systems can all be used to identify sources of the data with the potential to help clients reach decisions faster.

Much of that internal data is about the external market. In today’s world, when consumers research decisions online, shop online and buy online, it creates a treasure trove of data to be explored. Want a new source of open-ended comments? Look at the search terms that people use on Google before coming to your site. Want to see what they are interested in? Mine Web analytics to see which pages are most popular.

One of our partners recently briefed us on a project they did that involved no data collection. To help a national retailer of women’s clothing, they combined transactional sales data with loyalty program and HRIS (Human Resource Information System) data to develop a predictive model to segment branch locations. What they learned was that those branches whose average employee age was closest to the average customer age had the highest sales per square foot, validating the sales maxim that “Customers like to buy from people like them.” Branches with much younger employees were the least productive. With collecting any new data, the organization learned a key insight, which they used to shape future hiring policy (you can’t discriminate on age, but you can differentiate on experience).

Data collection will always need to be done, but make sure you understand the larger data landscape of your clients. Then you can show them how your new project will add value, filling in details where the canvas is currently blank.