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TMRE 2010: Evolve or Go Extinct

by Bill Weylock, Action Insights

Reed Cundiff of Microsoft on the challenges of the MR professional at Microsoft today…. Let’s just say that his graphic was a vice, and he invited us to figure which body part would be most appropriately inserted.

Microsoft of course is famously challenged and has come out with two major products this past week – Windows Mobile 7 (yay) and Kinect (which I gotta try).

Challenges to the MR department stem from the democratization process that Microsoft has played a big role in: for instance enabling really bad PowerPoint presentations.

Now Microsoft MR needs to run around cleaning up such messes as badly done Survey Monkey projects or a study that has contravened standard consent protocols with respondents.

One of their big missions is to help marketers across the vast organization understand the importance of doing good research rather than just research. He stresses that 5% “off” in research results can have vast implications for hundreds of millions in research supporting billions of products and revenue.

MR tries to evangelize quality and at least to set up guard rails for the inevitable ad hoc research marketers will be doing.

Business Intelligence has proliferated from telemetry, traffic data from Bing, from “phone home” calls from distributed applications. The MR department is awash in data that is not dependendent on primary custom data collection. They are also awash in options. It all calls for some intensive attitude adjustment.

They could drown in information, on the volume of research conducted outside their purview. They have a choice of “victim vs. player.” They try to take advantage or such things as last minute demands for information to build credibility with senior managers and get closer to the decision. Their mission is to drive business impact across the company.

They have to choose roles between Knower and Learner: they do not need experts stuck in amber. They need adapters who can embrace new data streams and the new and growing needs for synthesis and consulting.

They have to choose between maintaining the Branch and sustaining the Tree: focus on the health and success of the tree rather than the size of your branch.

The administrative key to helping ambitious employees forsake self-promotion? They try to make the review process more transparent and let them know that playing well with others is a major factor in advancing at Microsoft. Once they see that good team players get promoted, they relax and trust the ethos.

This is a recurring theme at this conference and wherever two researchers gather: being subject experts is not enough and can even be a problem if it comes with inflexibility. Now success is measured by impact on the business and researchers must be communicators, evangelists for quality practices, and completely invested in the priorities of the business units they are assigned to support.

Further to all of this, the emphasis is no longer on data collection and discrete studies that have their own arc and validity.

Like other industries, but particularly true of software and technology, their mission is to get closer to the customer and let that understanding influence product development and services. Now focus areas need to be keyed to the strategic intersts of the business groups they support. Now it is “how can we mine existing knowledge and build on it.” How can we exploit partial answers from existing studies and initiatives?

Getting talent is a major issue. Hiring is not always the answer. Increasingly they build researchers into consultants by helping them with communications, issue framing, and story telling. They also help them in understanding the conceptual modeling capabilities of the team members. To what extent can they jump from the spreadsheet to real-world implications? How comfortable and effective are they at managing unstructured data.

A tough question came from the floor: how does MS MR achieve closer proximity to the planning and decision process? Is there not resistance from the other side, wanting research to be kept in its place? “Give us the findings and let us maket the decisions?”

I thought the answer was as good as the question. Reed pointed out that it depends on the levels you approach. Management comfort level with research reaching into real planning teams is higher at the senior levels where turf is not threatened. Upper management wants their research resource investment maximized and understands that access is key.

So MR gains access from above and fights “border skirmishes” at the lower levels after ultimate victory is already theirs.

Upper management does put up some “guard rails,” insisting the MR be present not as strategy consultants but as research consultants (not the easiest tightrope I can imagine, but negotiable). And management wants research clearly tied to imminent business decisions.

  • Multi-disciplinary, multi-tasking, socially and politically poised, intellectually acute, and selflessly collaborative. This does describe you, right?

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