17 Mar 2011
For this interview on thought leadership, I had the privilege of interviewing Fiona Czerniawska, one of the foremost global authorities on thought leadership, particularly in the management consultancy space. There are few people who understand as much about thought leadership as Fiona. She is the co-founder of Source, a company specialising in researching the consulting industry www.sourceforconsulting.com . She has authored numerous management reports, books and articles.
I would urge you to visit her site and join up to her thought leadership newsletter White Space http://www.sourceforconsulting.com/whitespace/ . White Space is a subscriber-based web service which provides detailed analysis of the thought leadership of around 30 leading global consulting firms.She is also the Director of the Management Consultancies Association’s Think Tank, she is a Programme Director for the Centre of Management Development at London Business School, and also lectures at Kingston Business School in London and Haarlem School of Advanced Management Studies in Holland.
Trends in thought leadership
1. Fiona your firm White Space does an exhaustive annual analysis of the thought leadership material of around 30 leading global consulting firms. What trends have you seen emerging in this field from the leaders in the thought leadership space?
The overall quality of thought leadership in 2010 slipped a bit – at least in our opinion. We think there were two main reasons for this. The first is that many firms cut their thought leadership and research budgets during the recession and the cracks this opened up really began to show in the latter half of the year. Thankfully that particular trend seems to being reversed. The second reason is to do with the way in which people are publishing their material: we’ll all have noticed a plethora of new formats, including Twitter, videos, podcasts and design-your-own graphs. But these share a common challenge which is that you have less space to say things and I think consulting firms are struggling with the transition from back-breaking flagship reports to a pithier, more opinionated style. A five-minute video shouldn’t be a balding man in a grey suit reading the executive summary, but someone saying something memorable and thought-provoking, as well as fast. This type of thought leadership should be like the tip of an iceberg, with the underlying research below the waterline, but it often becomes an excuse for not doing the research in the first place – and that shows.
Content and thought leadership
2. There’s a lot written these days about marketing content but what’s your view that content alone doesn’t make you a thought leader?
I’d agree, but with some caveats. I honestly don’t think you can beat good content: that’s easy to forget because so much of the content we do see isn’t that good. If you look back at the block-buster management ideas of the past, they were all based on serious research, not a sudden brainwave or luck. I don’t believe in eureka moments except those that emerge from deeper-than-deep content. That being said, I do think that innovation in thought leadership will come from the way this content is assembled and disseminated. I’m watching McKinsey’s What Matters micro-site with interest and I know that other firms are looking at this issue too.
Thought leadership quantity vs quality
3. You talk about four factors likely to attract a client’s attention as appeal, differentiation, practical application and quality of thinking but do you think the volume of thought leadership these firms produce these days means they are having to be more creative with the way it is packaged?
These four factors relate to the quality of a firm’s output and that’s independent of quality (although, almost inevitably, a firm that decides to increase the quantity of its material takes a hit on quality). It’s tempting to say that quantity should never matter but it does: if you produce one piece of thought leadership on, say, strategy in the banking sector, but your competitor produces 20, then there’s a fair chance that you’ll get shouted down, however great your piece is. Quantity also sends a not-so-subliminal message to clients about how much a firm specialises in a particular area. However, I think firms could indeed be more creative about the way they package their content. In particular, I’d like to seem more “bundling” (putting related articles, in a mix of different formats, together in the same place); better recommendations (suggesting articles I might find of interest); and, please, please, please, better search engines. It’s incredibly frustrating to put a keyword in but not be able to sort the results by date or filter them.
Thought leadership as a term
4. The term thought leadership is bandied about quite loosely do you think the term itself is dated and if so are there better terms to encapsulate thought leadership?
Like all jargon (the first book I wrote was on business language… ), “thought leadership” has its uses. People – at least consultants – know what it refers to means and broadly understand what’s involved even if they might quibble about its exact meaning. The trouble is that it’s an inherently arrogant term that set itself up for a fall: it’s an old joke that most thought leadership is really thought “followship.” And of course the even bigger problem is that no one, certainly not us, has a better term.
Thought leadership – a growing discipline
5. Are you seeing signs that thought leadership is becoming a discipline in its own right? Are there any examples of it being split in terms of resourcing and manpower from the traditional marketing and corporate communication roles?
We’re certainly seeing this more – and I think that’s the right thing to do. If you ask clients what influences their choice of consulting firm, they almost always cite personal recommendations, case studies and thought leadership, but these components have an impact in different ways and at different times. A personal recommendation is very much about which firm to use for a specific piece of work, but case studies and thought leadership are important at an earlier stage in the thinking process. Long before they reach the point when they decide to hire a consulting firm, clients need evidence that it makes sense to invest time and effort in an idea or problem they’ve been mulling over – and case studies and thought leadership can provide this. In other words, done well the latter help stimulate demand for consulting in general even if they don’t convert into a sale for a specific firm. That’s why it makes sense to view these functions separately – but of course you can go too far in the opposite direction and it’s important for marketing, corporate comms and thought leadership to plan and act in unison.
The client’s view on thought leadership
6. What are clients of the firms you analyse saying about the thought leadership material they receive?
They have mixed reactions, depending on the subject-matter and their position. Overall, clients dismiss most thought leadership simply because it’s not relevant to them. There’s a lesson in this about ensuring all material is focused on as tight a group of clients as possible, otherwise – a bit like infections treated with antibiotics – they become resistant! Where it is relevant, views are much more positive: indeed, it’s quite clear that producing good thought leadership is, in many senior managers’ eye, a fundamental characteristic of a certain type of established, high-class consulting.
Thought leadership case study
7. What’s the best thought leadership campaign you’ve seen and why?
The BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. Not exactly a conventional programme, but it gives us a clear sense and standard about what can be achieved when you mix great content with an intelligent use of new media. It should be required listening for all marketing departments.
The future of thought leadership
8. What is your view on where thought leadership is heading over the next five years?
I like to think that it will become a serious battleground for really good ideas. I may be laughed at for this on the quite reasonable grounds that (a) clients value small-scale insights more than grandiose conceptual models and (b) the extent to which thought leadership is – or can be – a crucible for innovation is questionable. But I do get frustrated by the lack of ambitious in much thought leadership. There are some big and interesting questions about business that never seem to get debated – and it would be good to think that some of these will start to be discussed. The prerequisites to this, and I suspect to upping the overall quality of thought leadership, are investment and collaboration. I can’t believe we won’t see more money going into thought leadership in the future, as it’s clear that it is one of the few marketing activities which can differentiate a firm. And I also think consulting firms will realise that they have to work with people (clients and other consultants) outside the boundaries of their firms for inspiration.
If you have any comments on Fiona’s points of view I’d love to hear from you – also don’t forget to sign up for Fiona’s newsletter here http://www.sourceforconsulting.com/whitespace/
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