Why don’t more insights professionals have a seat at the decision-making table with marketing leaders? The criticism has been that not enough professionals are strategic. In fact, a Corporate Executive Board study cited that 65% of senior leaders want their research teams to be strategic partners with them, though only 25% of these leaders view us this way.

Conventional wisdom says it takes researchers a significant number of projects, over many years, with high quality mentoring to fully develop strategic thinking skills that support better business decisions.

InsightsCentral believes that clearly and specifically defining the necessary strategic skills will significantly speed up the development process.

Therefore, InsightsCentral Inc. and the Insights Association (formerly MRA) collaborated on a research initiative to define and prioritize the specific skills and behaviors required for corporate insights professionals to gain a more strategic seat at the table. Through a study of corporate insights professionals we were able to identify and validate a best-in-class strategic skills model.

Our intent was to identify and define best-in-class strategic skills so that Insights Directors could more objectively assess and develop their team members. We also sought to provide individual insights professionals with a blueprint for building their own strategic abilities.

Based on our qualitative research and collaboration with sharp-minded, big-thinking insights and marketing professionals from highly successful Fortune 500 companies, InsightsCentral developed a proposed model composed of five behaviors and over 150 specific competencies and skills. The model was developed to supplement the current behavioral model based on the four traditional researcher behaviors related to designing, fielding, analyzing and reporting research studies.

In order to validate the model and measures, we designed a validation study. Validation studies are implemented to verify the importance of specific skills, abilities and knowledge which are performed and necessary to meet job objectives. This validation study was not designed to provide a reading on how well these skills are accomplished – that’s for a future study!

In 2016, 301 corporate researchers, most of whom are Insights Association members, completed this in-depth survey. About three-fourths, 76%, of the participants were in a managerial role with a third holding senior leadership roles (more in the Methodology section).

Importance of Strategic Skills

It was no surprise that 100% of corporate researchers say that it is “important to apply strategic thinking skills to your work.” But we wanted to be just as clear about the reasons that this is the case.

We hypothesized that there were 12 primary benefits of applying strategic thinking skills and while all were rated very highly in the survey, seven benefits stood out among the rest.

Three Key Benefits for the Insights Department: When the Insights department is highly strategic, the department benefits because the whole team has credibility, maintains a high degree of business focus and is positioned as partners. (Top Box and Top Two Box shown in visuals)

Has credibility because decision makers believe the insights department understands and are addressing their issues

78%

97%

Maintains a high degree of focus on the business objectives and strategies

62%

96%

Is positioned as partners to company decision makers rather than as service providers

63%

92%

Four Key Benefits for the Company: When the Insights department is highly strategic, the company benefits because the department supports decision-makers in ways that allow them to make knowledge-based, actionable decisions.

Provides decision-makers the information they need to make knowledge-based decisions

77%

98%

Provides results to decision makers in a way that makes it easy to thoroughly understand

72%

97%

 

Brings the marketplace / customer voice into the decision making process

70%

95%

Provides an optimal amount of information in the right form so that it’s actionable

70%

94%

In essence, a highly functioning, strategic team contributes to the success of the company by ensuring that decisions are marketplace informed. In doing so, the Insights team is viewed as a credible partner to company decision makers.

Current Strategic Skill Development Process

As important as being strategic is, by no means do professionals believe we are “there.”

 

In fact, almost nine in ten (89%) agree that improving strategic skills is a priority, including contributing actionable insights (81%).

Unfortunately, almost three-fourths (73%) say that developing these skills is a challenge and most (61%) don’t have adequate methods for their development.

 

Nor are many (48%) provided adequate corporate support in time, budget and resources to build and apply strategic skills.

 

Improving researcher / insights personnel strategic skill performance is challenging

73%

 

Your organization provides the support (e.g. time, budget, resources) to build and apply strategic thinking skills

52%

Your current methods for developing researcher / insights professional actionable strategic skills are adequate

39%

 

Three primary approaches were cited when we asked Insights leaders how they currently develop the strategic skills of insights professionals.

Start with the End in Mind

If the insights team is to take their business to the next level, they need to understand what the business must accomplish. As one director borrowed from Steven Covey, “start with the end in mind.”

“Always start any insights project with the end in mind. What is the primary business insight you need? After that, it is documenting what you know and what you need to know. That approach has always worked for me.”

To successfully reach this end goal, several leaders explained the importance of insuring that their team members have a thorough understanding of how their business operates and makes money. Insights professionals must “speak the language of business to their peers in other departments” and understand the pressures of the business.

“It is critical to understand what drives your business - and the pressures your business partners are under. By giving them insights that help deal with those pressures- you will be seen as a valued partner and asked back to the table.”

“Prioritization and focus on key business questions by partnering with stakeholders before, during, and after research to create alignment on approach, insights, and recommendations. To do this you need to know your business and be able to understand what can give you a competitive edge.”

Synthesize Multiple Sources of Information

Some Insights leaders explained that having analysts synthesize information across sources (especially from previous studies and information from other business units) is a good way to build strategic skills because it forces them to prioritize information as well as consider the implications of potentially conflicting data. It also establishes more credibility in the findings by incorporating multiple data points to weave a more complete story.

“We have an emphasis on integrated analysis, going past the primary data and drawing on other sources of information in our analyses.”

Hire Strategic Individuals

A few leaders stated emphatically that the skills required to be strategic and consultative cannot be learned if the person doesn’t have the creativity, curiosity and passion required.

“If you hire based on strategic thinking and curiosity, the rest should take care of itself.”

“Learning to recognize which staff members have the strategic thinking skills is key. Having these individuals work on certain projects can make the world of difference in getting results accepted and acted upon. Realize that not everyone has these skills, but we truly need the continuum to be most effective.”

Our position at InsightsCentral is that while you can’t succeed in most jobs without baseline talents and motivation, it would be undervaluing the human capacity to learn to say that these skills can’t be taught and strengthened. We all can’t be chess masters, but we can certainly learn the game if we are provided the right techniques and tools.

Barriers to Strategic Skill Development and Utilization

Besides many respondents citing a lack of organizational support and inadequate methods for strategic development, two additional barriers to strategic skill development were named by several leaders:

  1. Company leadership doesn’t believe in research.

“I do not think you can have a strong, strategic insights function without leadership that realizes the need for the function and, therefore expects it.”

“It is also important that insights are a priority with leadership and the business. If leadership doesn't believe in it, then it will not be given value and it will not be utilized in the right ways to solve problems or predict situations. That is the strongest battle: to persuade the business that insights are needed and can help guide the business.”

  1. The insights department reporting structure is too far removed from leadership to understand the challenges and opportunities they face.

“The most critical factor is to have a relationship or reporting line that keeps the research / insights team abreast of the strategic thinking, questions, and even passing strategy discussions at the C-Level. Only then does the research/insights team stand a chance of being proactive and gaining credibility with the C-Level strategy decision makers.”

If company leadership doesn’t believe in research, it’s even more important for the researcher to work to prove its value. While the ideal might be for the insights departments’ reporting structure to be close to the C-suite, it often is not the case. Even without the right structure, insights professionals need to proactively reach out to understand C-suite issues. These barriers are very real for many of us, but it doesn’t mean we don’t need to or can’t overcome them.

Recommendations: Utilize the Era 3 Model

We know through our model development interviews with marketing research and marketing leaders that developing and improving strategic insights skills takes time and effort. Having validated the InsightsCentral model through this survey, we can now confidently share it with Insights Directors so that they can more quantifiably assess and develop their team members, and offer individual insights professionals’ direction in building their own strategic abilities.

This model can be used to supplement the current four behavior model that has formed the foundation of our industry through Era 1 (Pioneering MR) and Era 2 (Survey Era): designing, fielding, analyzing and reporting. We still need to master these four behaviors as critical technical skills and knowledge, but we’ll never succeed in getting to the next level of strategic and consultative performance or meet the promise implied when we refer to ourselves as Insights professionals

The Era 3 model is composed of 164 best-practice skills and organized into five primary behaviors. It was developed based on our work with big-thinking insights and marketing professionals, from highly successful Fortune 500 companies.

The following summarizes each of the five behaviors and provides a few example skills for each (note that some are more appropriate for managerial level positions).

 

EXPLORE: Bring an "open-eyes" approach to the hypothesis and discovery process, allowing insights professionals and those around us to find new approaches, new opportunities and new solutions. A few of the most highly rated skills include:

  • Asks enough questions to fully flesh out and explore a problem, situation or opportunity
  • Thoroughly probes decision makers until the problem / opportunity is clearly defined
  • Asks decision makers difficult and challenging questions to ensure that the problem / opportunity is clearly defined
  • Coaches, encourages and fosters curiosity
  • Proactively considers the marketplace and environment to adapt the learning plan to emerging market realities and opportunities

REFINE: More keenly apply critical thinking skills to sharply focus on a stakeholder strategy that profitably attunes to the business's marketplace conditions.

  • Bases recommendations not only on the results of a single study or analysis but on knowledge gained over time from multiple sources
  • Provides the level of detail in results that are appropriate for the target audience (e.g. more details for R&D and less details for Senior Execs)
  • Considers research findings in the context of other known information relevant to the decision to be made
  • Reinforces the importance of linking the learning results to the business needs
  • Sets internal stakeholder expectations appropriately

ALIGN: Intertwine multiple stakeholder perspectives to improve the quality of and confidence in your end results as well as establish you as a full team partner.

  • Perceives the insights role as a partnership rather than as providing a service transaction
  • Engages and interacts with other essential business units
  • Asks targeted, probing questions of multiple internal stakeholders to gain a variety of perspectives on the problem, opportunity or situation
  • Models what it means to be a strategic business partner vs. a research "order taker"
  • Positions the insights department as a consultative partner rather than a service transaction provider

HARVEST: Express and elevate the customer and marketplace voice in the decision-making process to influence the business ecosystem.

  • Delivers all news (good and bad) so that the decision maker can comprehend it and can take action
  • Focuses the presentation of marketing learnings on key insights and implications for moving the business forward
  • Ties conclusions and recommendations back to all learnings (specific to the current assignment as well as background knowledge)
  • Ensures that insights department recommendations align with the learnings and illuminate business needs
  • Selects and hires people who have the capacity and interest to be strategic

EVALUATE: Comply with your company’s existing standard of performance measurements, their KPI’s, to ensure you can prove and increase your value to the company.

  • Uses (or hires others who use) techniques that elicit why respondents behave the way they do as well as how that behavior can be impacted
  • If budgets get cut, prioritizes remaining activities to facilitate strategy discussions as best as possible
  • Identifies research needs and opportunities and brings them to the attention of the insights manager
  • Models and shares examples of projects in which new needs or opportunities were uncovered
  • Monitors the actions and follow-ups taken on insights recommendations

Conclusion

This study of 301 corporate insights professionals pointed out that most insights professionals agree on the most important benefits of being strategic: a highly functioning, strategic team contributes to the success of the company by ensuring that decisions are marketplace informed. In doing so, the Insights team is viewed as a credible partner to company decision makers.

So what is holding us back from achieving this role and business contribution? This study showed that nearly three-quarters of the respondents agree that developing strategic skills is challenging; and that six in ten don’t have adequate methods for developing the skills. Several of the executives also point to organizational reporting structures. But InsightsCentral contends that the real barrier is a lack of clarity around the expectations of performing strategically. The professional literature describes qualities such as being “consultative,” “proactive” and “better storytellers” as contributing to strategic skills. However, these vague qualities make it difficult for Insights leaders to improve the strategic abilities of their staff.

Through this study, the five behaviors composed of 164 strategic skills that Insights professionals at various levels must demonstrate was validated. The use of this new model allows researchers to move beyond the current four behaviors model - designing, fielding, analyzing and reporting. While the current four behavior model is critical for conducting high quality research, it does not serve the profession well in building strategic thinking skills.

The InsightsCentral five behavior model provides the definition and rigor to support a training and development process that historically has been relatively “fuzzy” based on generic soft-skills like collaboration, listening skills, open dialogue, etc.

With concrete, defined strategic thinking skills, Insights Directors can more effectively assess and develop their team members. In addition, individual insights professionals can find specific ways to build their own strategic abilities. The simple definition of the skills will help to speed the training and mentoring process because insights professionals can be on the same page regarding the end result.

Survey Methodology

In 2016, 301 corporate insights professionals, most of whom are Insights Association members, completed a 15-minute online survey.

Most, 76%, of the participants were in a managerial role with a third having senior leadership roles.

  • Insights / MR Directors or VP - 34%
  • Insights/MR Senior Manager or Manager - 42%
  • MR Analyst or other - 24%

Virtually all describe their role broadly as “marketing research” though other functions were also noted.

  • Marketing research - 92%
  • Competitive intelligence - 33%
  • Marketing analytics - 32%
  • CRM analytics - 10%
  • Social media analytics - 7%

Over half work in marketing insights departments (including marketing research and marketing analytics) with fewer than 10 team members.

  • Under 5 people -37%
  • between 5 and 9 -24%
  • between 10 and 49 - 26%
  • over 50 - 13%

Participants are split among consumer research, business to business research and both.

  • Consumer research (B2C) 33%
  • Business/professional research (B2B) 30%
  • Both (close to equal) 37%

Participants represent a wide variety of industries.

  • Finance / Insurance 24%
  • Manufacturing 11%
  • Consumer / Household / Personal Products 9%
  • Health Care Services 7%
  • Information / Telecommunications 7%
  • Beverage / Food Products 5%
  • Pharmaceuticals 5%
  • Retail Trade 5%
  • Automotive 5%
  • Professional / Scientific / Technical Services 4%
  • Association / Trade Group 4%
  • Medical Equipment 4%
  • Transportation / Warehousing 3%
  • Utilities 3%
  • Education Services 3%
  • Food Service / Restaurants 2%
  • Accommodations / Hotels / Resorts 2%
  • Arts / Entertainment / Recreation 1%
  • Construction 1%
  • Government / Public Administration 1%
  • Other 15%

Virtually all are in the US.

  • USA – 97%
  • Canada or other – 3%

Carol Shea

is president of InsightsCentral Inc. InsightsCentral develops the strategic skills of internal, corporate insights teams through the use of a performance enhancing software platform – DecisionAdvancerTM – that drives better business decisions. DecisionAdvancer helps Insights Directors deliver needle-moving decisions by aligning research objectives with business needs, building efficient and proactive plans to support the portfolio, and identifying Insights impact on the business.