The Value of the Research Function: Seeing the Forest, Not Just the Trees

Back in the summer of 2010 a group of researchers engaged in a lively online debate concerning the client-side marketing research function.  Specifically, the discussion focused on whether client organizations are better served by a centralized marketing research group or by decentralizing the research function into splintered factions throughout the company.  Dan Womack in his Womack Insight blog, Kathryn Korostoff in her Research Rockstar blog, Jeffrey Henning in Voice of Vovici, Cathy Harrison in the Voices of CMB blog, and others made a variety of arguments ranging from the idea that a centralized approach is “the best chance of finding the truth” to the notion that decentralization is an inevitable “irreversible long-term trend” fueled by DIY software solutions, not unlike what word processors did to the typewriter or PowerPoint did to tedious, black-and-white presentations.

While there are legitimate opinions on both sides of the issue, these discussions miss a larger point.  Regardless of whether an organization’s research is centrally controlled or conducted ad hoc across functionary silos, our sights are better focused on elevating the perceived value of research and the role it plays in the corporate world.  Much of that can be achieved by top management because undoubtedly the fate of research is driven by the appreciation of its strategic role among executive decision makers.  Likewise, the value placed on research is made obvious by where it sits in the organizational structure.  Even in a decentralized environment research managers hopefully sit at the same table with the strategic thinkers and operate on the same playing field with the executive-level top dogs.

But to play at this level you have to know what you’re doing.  You have to be a researcher, not an adept survey software user, fast learner in questionnaire design, or someone who just finds human behavior/attitudes so very fascinating.  These are important attributes but they do not make a researcher.  The reason has something to do with seeing the forest for the trees, but I digress.

In the absence of top management that embraces research and/or an organizational structure that situates research alongside executive strategic decision makers, there are other avenues that directors of internal research departments can take to increase its perceived value.  Here are just a few:

  • Provide opportunities for researchers to work for a variety of internal clients so that he/she can gain a broad yet deep understanding of the company or business unit.
  • Develop a matrix team approach, allowing various research specialists to assist in the design and analysis of any one study.
  • Hire highly-capable, experienced research people who can offer prestige and know-how to the research group.
  • Extend research managers’ responsibilities beyond project management, getting them involved in analysis, reporting, and presentation.
  • Encourage researchers to conduct cross-product analysis in order to heighten their understanding of how their research work fits with the company’s overall goal or strategy.
  • Establish clear career paths for researchers in order to attract and retain skilled professionals.
  • Train or hire marketing research people who are knowledgeable in marketing as well as the company’s industry, enabling them to think strategically with a clear understanding of the implications of their research efforts.

So, why is this important to research design?  Simple.  Our cleverly-crafted designs and thoughtful analyses will never see the light of day – no less have any kind of meaningful impact – if the users of our research can see the trees (a data table here, a data table there; a focus group here, a focus group there) but can’t see the forest (the full scope and strategic role research plays in the organization).

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