Thought leadership programs serve one master in most B2B firms: Marketing. Marketing generates content (commissioning studies, writing white papers, and so on). Marketing packages and distributes that content (producing academic-looking publications, seminars and webinars, educational PR campaigns, email newsletters, etc.). Marketing then turns over the resulting client inquiries to account executives. Thought leadership is a Marketing activity.
But that robs thought leadership programs of their greater potential value – as sources of service innovation, not just marketing content.
When companies use thought leadership to fuel new services or rejuvenate existing ones, they not only codify expertise on how to solve some business problem; they turn it into capability that many (not just a handful) of their professionals can use with clients. They do this by taking a powerful concept described in a white paper or research study and turn it into a rigorous methodology. They then develop effective curriculum around that methodology and put their professionals through training programs so they can master it.
When that happens, thought leadership content fuels new services or new approaches to existing services – not just creates client interest in them through marketing. We have seen a number of firms that created strong client interest in a concept after conducting and marketing some innovative research – only to find that just a few people in their firm could actually deliver the service implied by their compelling concept. (It’s a page from the “Let’s Throw Something Against the Wall and See What Sticks” book on marketing and service development. The idea is not to develop a robust service until a firm has numerous clients who are willing to pay for it.)
When you think about what would happen to other industries that followed this practice, you begin to see that it’s insane. Imagine a pharmaceutical company that conducted drug research for marketing purposes only, telling the market it’s come up with a breakthrough compound but deciding not to manufacture it. That’s just about the state of thought leadership programs in most of the B2B firms we know. What they publish is often not something that most of their professionals practice.
I’m not sure why this is the case. But I know it is the case. Perhaps it’s because service innovation in professional services is in its infancy. Few firms have created formal and highly productive processes for developing superior services. In most professional firms I know, services are hand-crafted by individual artisans – practicing consultants, lawyers or accountants who often in their spare time document some approach to solving a recurring client problem.
Rarely are those techniques embraced across every practice in the firm that should use them – often because they remain in the heads of their inventors who haven’t put them down on paper (other than in the white paper they wrote). Even if their ideas have been codified, there’s no institutional process to ensure that others across the firm can practice them consistently well.
If anyone with an internal R&D group that generates thought leadership content disagrees with me, I have the following question: Does the content your thinktank produces fuel your firm’s service development programs (methodology development, training and development, recruiting, etc.)? Or just the firm’s marketing programs. If it’s just the latter, you’re serving only one master.
Perhaps this is just the way it will be in most professional services firms. If so, it’s terribly myopic. I predict it will need to end very soon, and for one very good reason: the fast-emerging spectre of professional services commoditization. This is Tom Friedman’s “Flat World” phenomenon colliding with the professional services industry.
If you don’t think much legal research, strategic analysis, business process redesign, accounting and other high-level “knowledge work” can’t be done fairly well at far lower rates in emerging economies with highly educated populaces such as India and China, guess again. It’s already happened to IT, customer service, and other backroom work. It has begun to happen to frontroom work as well.
If B2B firms want thought leadership to set themselves apart from competitors, they must structure their thought leadership programs to serve two masters. That means looking at R&D’s role not just as providing robust concepts for marketing content, but also as fueling new approaches to delivering work and whole new services.