Editor’s Intro: In a two-part series, Alexander Linder presents some key issues with the way many client insights departments are organized, and how he would recommend reorganizing these departments to achieve greater “stakeholder centricity” and greater effectiveness. This first part focuses on key principles underlying his proposed reorganization.
The Drivers Behind the New Insights Organization Model
The findings in this paper are based on expert interviews amongst leading insights companies from fmcg, retail and consumer electronics and on an international, qualitative benchmarking study from mBrain covering EMEA, the Americas and Asia Pacific focusing on 4 companies from fashion and luxury goods. mBrain is a global information services company and offers amongst others business and market intelligence solutions, strategic analysis and consultation services. Three key insights emerged:
- Many insights departments are still anchored in marketing organizations and managed by the CMO.
- Most insights departments are divided into geographic regions, like EMEA, Americas and Pacific.
- The typical areas covered are customers, brand, market, social media, competition and promotion effectiveness. The minority also covers the area of supply chain insights.
These aspects still make sense from a content perspective (WHAT is done and WHERE is it done), but do they also make sense when looking at the stakeholders (for WHOM is it done and WHAT do they expect)?
If one key goal of the consummate insights professional is to support and guide brands to move more into the direction of consumer-centricity, we have to ask ourselves at the same time how well are we performing in terms of stakeholder centricity – our ultimate clients are the stakeholders.
A closer look at our stakeholders, and what they expect from us, is necessary, given the multiple organizational changes sweeping through many industries. Stakeholder expectations towards insights professionals are changing, faster than many think. Over the past 3-5 years, a huge number of new expectations have arisen, posing new challenges to the insight teams. These can be clustered into two areas:
- One part concerns the way in which insights departments work and interact on a daily basis.
- The second part concerns social/soft skills.
First, let’s look at ways of working and interacting.
Stakeholders want the insights professionals to be capable of deriving proper implementation recommendations, to be supportive during the implementation process as such and to contribute beyond the pure research expertise, e. having an own viewpoint and arguing on it. In many companies, the current collaboration process often ends with the insights department handing over the results after the final presentation. This can lead to internal CI frustration if the subsequent implementation is lacking, or not executed in the way intended. It can also lead to frustration amongst internal stakeholders if there is no exchange about the implications of the results or missing checks about the impact of the implementation. Key future competencies for CI professionals encompass holistic thinking, the ability to see the big picture, and connecting different insights from multiple sources
It is equally important that the insights professional is able to work in cross-functional teams/projects, even more, when talking about the implementation of insights findings. A request for a shopper segmentation typically comes from the Marketing department; however, the implementation team is invariable if not always cross-functional, including people working in e.g. Retail/Sales, CRM- and Marcomms units. This requires the future insights professional to think broadly across functional units, acting as an interface to bring together the relevant target audiences working on implementation.
Insights professionals must speak more the language of the stakeholder, usually a marketing language. Very closely connected to this is the requirement that insights professionals must acquire business acumen and understand the stakeholder’s business to a very broad extent. Insights reports are currently very often written using terms, concepts and language specific to the market research discipline. Adapting insights reports more to stakeholders’ language is likely to be more effective in engaging internal customers and partners and heighten the likelihood of the results and recommendations being acted on. Future insights professionals will be constantly engaged with their stakeholders rather than points in time during the business cycle – being actively involved and participating in key meetings, workshops, allowing them to acquire a more in-depth business understanding, and being perceived as true business partners.
Interestingly, stakeholders still expect from insights professionals to give them the latest and most valid technologies/methods that help to become more efficient and effective in insights generation. This does not mean that the stakeholder wants to understand these technologies / methods with all details. The expectations are that the insights professional is the person who is knowledgeable, understands and pro-actively suggests the application of these new technologies/methods with the goal to get insights faster, for a lower price tag and without jeopardizing quality.
An insights organization generates many studies over time, but usually, every topic is considered as an individual piece, answering a certain set of underlying questions. Connecting insights is a powerful method to combine different studies and to get new insights without commissioning additional primary research studies. To be successful in future, insights professionals will need to effectively merge both existing data and studies: e.g. consumer segmentation research with shopper tracker data and the brand tracker reports, fusing them to deliver reports for selected geographies or regions.
Moving on to the second point: social/soft skills, which are arguably necessary for CI folk to become accepted and trusted business partners.
Insights professionals are expected to act as thought leaders/sparring partners: actively participating in business meetings, taking the role of the challenger, bringing in fresh and inspiring perspectives, whilst looking at topics from different angles and having the capabilities to influence the stakeholders. This begins when the research request from the stakeholder arrives at the table. Sitting down with the stakeholder to discuss, challenge and make suggestions, with the ultimate business goal in mind, is key for a successful insights manager: ensuring he/she has identified “the” burning questions to be answered and shaping a response accordingly. Ensuring the research request is fully focused and informed up-front is a key milestone for future successful outcomes.
Moderation-, storytelling- and communication-skills visualization are increasingly important. The goal behind this is to bring across the findings in the right format and the right language so that implementation can follow. Slides containing too many statistics, graphs and metrics are still common, but are boring, leading to a mental disconnect. The insights professional must understand the “so-what” of the research project, being able to wrap the details in nicely told stories in the stakeholder’s language to bring the right messages across.
The insights professional’s role includes connecting insights specialists to become synthesis experts. To bring together traditional market researchers with data scientists, business intelligence professionals, CRM specialists etc. to discuss current findings and latest challenges and finally to bring together and to combine the different lenses looking at the consumer. The role of the insights professional changes from a reactive to a more proactive mode of collaboration, allowing him/her to become the driver of customer-centered activities.
To summarize, relationship management skills are clearly an emerging requirement. The insights professional must become more and more a mid- to long-term partner and is no longer a simple data analyst or information provider.
Based on this perspective and understanding, it could be argued that a lot of existing client-side insights organizations are in danger of being old-fashioned. Do you agree?