Thought leadership insights – not just a sales tool!

A friend recently shared with me a thought leadership article (cover shown above) from Accenture, a consulting firm.  The article shared views and insights into factors determining the adoption of electric vehicles, and future direction in which they will likely develop. These views were supported by a study/survey that Accenture had undertaken.

The article addresses a topic that I am interested in, and so I was glad to be informed of the article. What’s even better, the article was free (but was still comparable in quality to what one might find in leading professional media publications).

This highlighted for me an interesting development. Professional service / advisory firms are generally keen to prove their abilities, highlight their knowledge and expertise, and often do this by preparing thought leadership articles. These articles are often freely available on their websites (sometimes on request or after registration).

‘Thought leadership’ describes the intellectual investments made by advisory firms, hoping to demonstrate superior, innovative insights into a specific market segment (sector insights, specialist knowledge around certain processes or ways of working regulatory hurdles, geographic or cultural variation, etc.). Such insights leverage skilled and experienced specialists, which can result in high quality articles.

In some cases, especially when the materials are prepared by a media organisation or where extensive, costly surveys have been undertaken, the thought leadership is not freely available, rather readers are charged for access to the materials such as, for example, some country research undertaken by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), or reports by niche trade press (although, in addition to their premium content the EIU also release similar freely available articles).

Some examples of recent thought leadership topics

  • Adoption of electric vehicles (such as the article shown at the beginning of this post)
  • Economic development in rapid growth countries like China and India
  • International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS)
  • Cloud computing
  • Innovation in business, and in the workplace
  • Renewable energies and sustainability
  • Compliance and regulation (eg, recently introduced UK Bribery Act)

Opportunities from good thought leadership

When done well, thought leadership contains a mixture of text, graphics (charts, as well as images) and numbers, and is often based on some proprietary analysis or survey/study.

The thought leadership should say something new – containing either an existing topic in a new way, insights into a new topic, a point of view on a future development, or recommendations as to how to best address the topic raised. It should also be ‘interesting’, although of course not all topics can be of interest to all people, so some self-selection is necessary.

While intended to lead to revenue generation, through selling their services, the firms also benefit from their thought leadership by achieving increased awareness, both with potential clients, but also the general public. As such, they are often happy for anyone to download their materials.

Therefore, I see an untapped potential for people to learn from the thought leadership, broadening their awareness of business developments. In particular, educational establishments should, in my view, take the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the freely available thought leadership materials (links to a selection of firms which release thought leadership are set out later in this post).

Thoughts on ways to further improve thought leadership

Unfortunately however, thought leadership is sometimes wasted or does not achieve its full potential – for example, it might fail to clearly article the underlying message, or to reach it’s intended readers, or the insights become out-of-date.

So, how might the thought leadership be further improved?

  1. Further leverage social media – use all possible channels available, including relatively new ones like Twitter
  2. Encourage more sharing and debate of the issues (the article might even go viral) – encourage comments on the article’s homepage, and set up hashtags (in Twitter) and newsgroups at the launch of the article, asking interesting, provocative questions (professional firms generally have lots of experience in their chosen fields, but they can also learn from their readers)
  3. Make the underlying core data (eg, survey results) available for readers to do their own statistical analysis – see Hans Rosling’s efforts to encourage the World Bank to make its data publicly, and freely available (in that particular case the argument is even supported by the fact that the collection of the data was funded by public spending of taxpayers money); this will result in innovative new findings being shared based on your underlying analysis (in a similar way to Microsoft is benefiting from developers hacking of its Kinect technology for Xbox)
  4. Use alternative, supporting media forms more often – consider using short ‘TED Talk’ style videos, apps, interactive websites or e-books (in the way that Al Gore has gained further notoriety and respect for his ebook ‘Our Choice‘), or business games
  5. Make it easier for people to find the thought leadership – better search functions, sort options and ‘libraries’ of how to find the thought leadership, including downloadable indexes in spreadsheet format (see how easy it is to browse and search for TED talks, for example)

Links to a selection of firms which release thought leadership (sometimes otherwise called issues/insights/articles/publications/hot topics/research/latest thinking/expertise)

In addition to thought leadership, many organisations also produce ‘magazines’ (physical and electronic, such as PDF) which collate thought leadership ideas together, and in some cases even separate sections/pages/websites collating thought leadership – an example is McKinsey’s ‘What matters‘ site, which they describe as:

  • … a new direction for McKinsey Publishing […] To our long tradition of client-driven research we’ve added a new tradition: knowledge derived from convening some of the best thinkers from around the world …
  • … a place where we could continue to frame the important questions and gather a wide array of thinkers, including some from McKinsey, to address them …
  • … a place where our readers could bring their considerable wisdom to bear on these crucial issues …

One can also find thought leadership at other corporations / organisations relating to their perspective on the likely future developments of the sector in which they are involved. For example, Microsoft’s views on developments in cloud computing.

Rather than regularly visiting the sites, to be appraised of new thought leadership, an alternative is to follow the companies’ twitter streams, or subscribe to an RSS feed (see my post ‘The best ways to keep informed of new blog posts‘ for further details on how to use RSS).

2 Responses

  1. Hi Matt,

    Good post, and very topical, of course, at the moment. See this week’s edition of the Economist. Very interesting review of the re-emergence of “Ye Olde Coffee Shop”, as new media (incl thought leadership publications and exchange) plays an ever more significant role. The days of the “some-to-many” news distribution (with all it’s questionable methods, as seen with the News of the World recently) are numbered!


    • It’s an interesting discussion, to be sure (one that should maybe a new blog post …).

      That said, while I’ve so far only read the ‘Leader’ on the topic, I haven’t yet read all of the “14-page special report on the future of news”, I thought the Leader wasn’t quite up to Economist’s usual standards:

      i) firstly, it came across as a little ‘sensational’ (amazing, given what they were reporting on), and

      ii) secondly, it didn’t feel so original, rather a mash-up of existing debates – for example, see the first 3 minutes of the TED talk by Steven Johnson, in which he refers to Coffee Houses being the source of much interaction and engagement in the past:

      For me, one of the best sources of discussion on this topic (how ‘news’ is changing) is Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis on twitter) – among other things, he is an associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism:

      There’s also a very interesting analysis by Google on the economics of newspapers, and the pressures facing newspapers’ business models:

      Finally, bloggers seem to be some way ahead of the Economist reporting on this topic – for example:

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