What are some of the things that the best researchers learn, yet some professionals never find out? What do new business researchers need to know about doing an analysis? There’s more guidance on ethical questions and commercial relationships at some research firms than on doing the research itself. Here are 20 of suggestions, which I noted down after a talk by Professor John Amis, followed by seven from Nick Patience. Nick wrote over 1000 reports in his tenure as co-founder of 451 Research and found time to give these suggestions while completing his keynote talk at the 2014 AR Forum. Nick is a fellow University of London masters graduate, and had made a substantial contribution to developing Kea’s understand of what strong, or weak, research looks like. It got me thinking about the session at the 2014 AR Forum about AR certification, run by John’s colleague Neil Pollock, and the realisation that there’s no certification or independent training for market analysts and many other business researchers.
Here are the recommendations that Nick and I wish we’d been given when we started doing research:-
- Decide on your career direction. It’s very easy to get channelled by your colleagues into a routine and initially safe work on legacy technologies that are heading for the scrapheap. If that’s what you want, then that’s great. Otherwise, think of where you want to be and plan back from there.
- Think about your aptitudes and skills, not just your research coverage. Build new skills, new languages and new capacities.
- Read other people’s research to absorb as much context as possible. This will be heresy in some places, and especially the idea of reading other folk in other organisations, but reading research is as essential as speaking to people in industry. You can see areas for cooperation and synergy, and see the white space between coverage areas, only if you read around and discuss with your peers.
- Model what the best researchers do. Not every successful researcher is a role model: R “Ray” Wang tweets so often (65 times a day) we all doubt that he sleeps. But the best researchers can be learnt from: keep a keen eye on what they do to be successful, not just the results of their success.
- Write. It’s not easy, but you have to write every day. Write even if it’s marginal to your topic. Write even if it’s a bridge that stops midway over the river.
- Then also learn that writing is a craft. Listen to your editors, if you are lucky enough to have them. Your readers are even less well informed than your editors. Read books on writing (I love The Pyramid Principle) but also remember that your readers will love writing that is amusing, well-structured, oriented around their questions and concise. Start with any one of those, and then master the others.
- Fight complexity. Research should not be too complex for people outside your domain to at least have an idea of what you are talking about.
- Accept that readers can’t have perfection. Abstractions like technology models, forecasts, best practises and architectures are necessarily imperfect. They cannot be taken more seriously than weather forecasts, but are still useful guides for action and discussion.
- Honour the staff. Researchers are not the aristocrats for whom the others labour; Treating the staff with respect, empathy and humour are essential for your survival and the team’s.
- Manage your online brand. Your profiles online are used by more people than you can imagine: get them right; get advice on how to improve them, and update them regularly. Do not let the organisation own your online brand.
- Discuss options for what your research should look like. It’s lucky if you’re at a firm like Current Analysis or Forrester with detailed templates, helpful editors and a very clear idea of how research should be focused and structured. Love those formats and perfect them with others.
- In the case of emergency, use data. Very few analyst firms conduct anything recognisable as methodologically-sound research. Using data, and using it early, is a key competitive advantage and a great breaker of logjams.
- Ask practitioners about what’s not working, not just their practice. Best practise isn’t always very good. They have problems that are they can avoid facing up to now, but you can benefit from discussing them and finding ways to name and mitigate the risks in the future.
- Co-author. Look for special topics, unexpected events, curious overlaps and anything else that allows you to develop more ‘shelf-space’ and more experiences of working with others.
- Write down the gaps and weaknesses. It’s hard to admit where the weak spots are. Often it’s best to focus on strengths, but understand what the weaknesses are so you can seize the opportunities to strengthen your work and reputation.
- Don’t be afraid to throw it away. It’s essential to read around and speak with practitioners. Sometimes they will lead down a dead end – and perhaps down a road that hasn’t been built yet. Don’t throw good time after bad: get back on track fast.
- Be in the office as much as you can. Sorry, but it’s true. Socialise. Develop your peer group connections with the rest of the organisation. Allow serendipity.
- Expect rejections and that great work will be spiked. Don’t cry over spilt milk. Sometimes the work was not great; sometimes it’s not the right time for what you’re written.
- Your work doesn’t have to be articulated so that it only makes sense with pre-reading. It’s very easy to write with the assumption that everyone has read everything you have written. In fact, that’s not good for the reader and it wastes your time. Readers don’t want to read other work that’s good: they want to have free-standing pieces of work. Few readers care about work that was not good. They want what you think is now true: you don’t need self-criticism.
- More than anything else, look for inconsistencies: do these solutions produce the results they aim for; are the most innovative firms more competitive; do the best technologies win? Nick adds: “maintain a sceptical viewpoint. If you don’t, you’re not analysing anything; you’re just parroting the marketing message of the vendor back out to the world.” I would extend it further: some people you speak to will mislead you, and not always mistakenly.
The following points are from Nick.
- Understand your audience – know the demographics of those for whom you are writing
- Time management – essential to an analyst being bombarded with briefing requests and other demands on your time. Learn how to plan your day and tackle only a realistic number of things each day
- Learn the skill of research – being able to look stuff up on Google isn’t enough – and anyone can do that. You need to know what to look for, what to ignore, which sources you can trust. Being able to ask salient questions is a skill.
- Learn (at least) the basis of corporate finance. Understand the difference between profit & loss, balance sheets & cash flow statements. Understand what profit means vs revenue etc. This helps having the wool pulled over your eyes when a company isn’t performing as well as it might.
- As the right questions by planning in advance. If you ask the right questions and write down the answers, then your at least halfway there with the report. Have a set of standard questions to ask each party, e.g. vendor, investor, customer. Start with those and tweak them.
- Take notes electronically, not on paper. This one seems obvious, but I’m astonished how many people don’t understand the value of being able to search for what you’ve written, especially when you have to write so much.
- Briefings should beget additional briefings. Right down things to follow up on in the future and set reminders to do that.