Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

Case Study Research: An Essential Ingredient of Thought Leadership

While striving to be thought leaders in their niches, many professional services firms keep the most important tool for generating thought leadership unused in their toolbox: the case study.

By Bob Buday and Tim Parker

Nearly every professional services firm today recognizes the market power of “thought leadership”—the ability to demonstrate differentiated and superior expertise on an issue. By publishing articles and research reports, delivering conference presentations and authoring books that lay out a novel diagnosis of and solution to a business problem, these firms can generate robust demand, often even when the economy is slow.

Whether it’s a consulting service for reengineering business processes or gauging a firm’s “emotional intelligence,” legal services for protecting intellectual property, or a new accounting approach to becoming Dodd-Frank compliant, the professional services firm that achieves thought leadership status becomes a magnet for clients and employees. We’ve seen practices—and sometimes whole firms—double, triple or even quintuple their revenue in a few years on the back of a single thought-leading idea (reengineering being the best example).

But while striving to be thought leaders in their niches, many professional services firms keep the most important tool for generating thought leadership unused in their toolbox: the case study. In-depth profiles of companies that are leading and lagging on the issue at hand, along with an incisive analysis of what accounts for the differences between the two groups, can provide a goldmine of information for the professional services firm that wants to develop and market a superior approach to solving the issue.

In fact, from our experience and that of many thought leaders, there is no more effective tool for generating great intellectual capital and, subsequently, attaining thought leadership, than case study research. Clay Christensen in his 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” used case studies of companies in the disk drive industry to unravel the puzzle of why the best firms in an industry fail. The lesson he derived, that “Blindly following the maxim that good managers should keep close to their customers can sometimes be a fatal mistake” can be applied to any industry. It was case study research that The Bloom Group conducted with Deloitte Consulting, on “business model innovation” that enabled Deloitte to deeply explore one facet of its broad research: companies whose radically different business models enabled them to build huge businesses in markets most others considered undesirable. Deloitte’s compelling insights on this issue led to a cover article, “Bottom-Feeding for Blockbuster Businesses,” in the Harvard Business Review.

Yet despite the irrefutable role that in-depth case research has played in the development of superior intellectual capital (and often whole new practices), many professional services firms rely almost exclusively on surveys or other quantitative data in trying to develop new insights on an issue. But this is akin to using a screwdriver to drive a nail. While surveys can help establish the relevance of an issue—how many organizations are dealing with it—it is the wrong tool for creating deep insights on how organizations can solve it. In this article, we explain why intensive case study research is the foundation of thought leadership in professional services. We discuss the value and limitations of surveys, the inherent advantages of case study research, and how to conduct case research in a way that increases the chances that bold new insights—and market attention to them—result.

Thought Leadership Research Methods: The Limitations of Surveys

Professional services firms collectively conduct hundreds of surveys every year, hoping the data and their analysis will become a strong platform for broadcasting their expertise to the marketplace. Yet most of those surveys yield the marketing equivalent of a one-day run-up in stock price: fleeting press on findings that are long forgotten soon after.

The reason has to do with the limitations of paper, online or phone-based surveys. Giving respondents multiple-choice answers to a question does not yield the incisive, unbounded information required to shed light on complex business issues. For example, take a consulting firm that wants to attain thought leadership on how to design a successful omni-chanel marketing strategy. It could construct a survey asking companies that have built such websites to rank the most important success factors in a predetermined list. It could also ask companies to rate the success of their strategies, either on a low-high scale or indicating a financial return on investment. Then by comparing the responses of the respondents with high success (or high returns) against the responses with low success or low returns, the consultancy could point to issues with a significant gap. If the more successful group of companies listed “top management that champions the effort” as the most important factor and the less successful companies did not have a similar level of involvement by top management, one might point to it as a success factor.

But who knows whether it is the most important success factor—or whether the survey team missed other factors altogether. And even if it is the most important factor, unless detailed follow-up questions are asked, there is no room to shed light on how the more-successful companies got top management to champion the effort—and exactly what championing meant. Did it mean top management was actively involved in the design of the new strategy? Removed the big roadblocks that surfaced during the initiative? Secured the funding? All to say, the answer to the survey question provides a one-dimensional, superficial answer to a deep, complex question.

As Robert K. Yin, the author of the classic book on case study research methods (Case Study Research: Design and Methods), wrote, the survey as a research tool is most appropriate for answering “what,” “who” and “where” questions (or their “derivative” questions of “how many” and “how much”).2 “How” and “why” questions—those whose answers attempt to explain a phenomenon—require research tools such as case studies, histories, and experiments (see below).

For professional services firms, case study research is an invaluable tool for improving approaches or inventing new ones. Understanding “what works” and “how it works” in the field is critical to developing new approaches. Ram Charan, one of the leading thinkers on corporate governance, stated in his book Boards That Deliver, “I have closely studied the inner workings of boards. I haven’t performed quantitative or statistical correlations between corporate performance and variables of corporate governance. Frankly, such research doesn’t get to the causality of what leads to good governance. Rather, I have focused on what happens behind the curtain, so to speak, inside the boardroom.

Case study research, then, is a research tool to get “behind the curtain” on any business issue and shed new light on it. It is especially important to creating the prescriptions, and providing the proof that your recommendations work. Furthermore, the case examples resonate well with a professional services firm’s target audience, who love to hear war stories.

Conducting Case Research: The Process

When case study research works well, it provides insights on how a number of organizations addressed a certain issue. The case study reviewers’ analysis of how these firms resolved the issue—i.e., identifying often hard-to-discern patterns in approaches that were or weren’t effective—provides the content for the prescriptive half of the point of view.

A point of view from a professional services firm that merely identifies an issue or problem—which survey research is best designed to do—is merely half a point of view. For a professional services firm, this cannot generate “thought leadership” because the most important part of its thinking is missing – the critical prescriptions that demonstrate to the audience that the professional services firm knows how to resolve the issue.

To generate big insights from case studies, a sufficient number of organizations must be studied on how they addressed the issue. Ideally, two kinds of organizations are studied: those that have resolved the issue successfully, and those that have struggled or failed at it. Jim Collins, author of two mega-selling business books (Built to Last and Good to Great), compares a set of best-practice companies against a control group. Explaining his research approach on his website, Collins says: “The cornerstone of our research method is the selection of a credible study set, the direct comparison of that set to a carefully selected control set, and the study of the contrasts between each set over a long period of time.”

Without such a control group, it’s difficult to understand what truly made the difference among best-practice examples. For example, going back to the omni-channel marketing strategy topic, a consulting firm that wanted to become a thought leader and develop a new service (or upgrade the approaches of an existing service) in this area would need to secure interviews with a number of companies in both camps. How many? In our experience 10 best practice and 10 “bad-practice” companies would be a minimal number but we’ve seen done successfully with fewer. The greater the number of companies comprising the research base, the richer the data upon which to identify patterns, and the greater the chances for seeing patterns that no one has uncovered previously. For instance, the concept of business reengineering was created in the late 1980s from observations of information technology practices at more than 100 companies over a five-year period (Ford, Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co., IBM Credit Corp., Pfizer, and others.)

We constantly hear from many professional services firms that dozens of case study examples are unnecessary. We find their chief concern is the time and resources to secure, conduct and analyze them—all of which can indeed be significant. And yet we also hear of the necessity for thought leadership on an issue for competitive differentiation and to gain clients.

Ultimately, the power of ideas that emerge from case study research—i.e., their ability to generate market awareness and client interest—will only be as good as the resources devoted to it, the number of cases that are done, and the creative and analytic power of the analysts who try to divine the patterns. There are no shortcuts to generating strong ideas. If there were, 99 percent of the business books published would be bestsellers.

There’s another way to look at the resources issue. It’s that the less case material to draw upon, the more the analysis must rely on trying to weave a powerful message from spare and thus inconclusive data. Finding never-before-seen patterns in the data will be difficult because there won’t be enough data upon which to draw new and bold conclusions about the true roots of a problem and how to solve it. It is akin to tying to draw a detailed connect-the-dots picture with only a handful of dots.

The analysis that results from such sparse case study data is typically predictable and breaks no new ground. Lacking sufficient data for seeing patterns, the people doing the analysis are forced to bring a preconceived idea to the table and then selectively use the spare data that confirms it (throwing out or ignoring the data that might dispute it). The problem with relying on preconceived ideas is that they almost always are derivatives of others we’ve read. The chances of breaking whole new ground are slim.

Conducting a large number of case studies generates much more data. It thus gives analysts a much richer base of information for pattern recognition and a much lower incentive to grab ideas from elsewhere and tweak them with a couple of new twists. In our case study research, we begin by selecting the pool of organizations to be studied. On any business topic, we prefer to have at least 10 organizations to study. We then create a questionnaire to guide the subsequent interviews. The questionnaire is based on articulating three to five of the original key hypotheses of the research team on the topic. Without such hypotheses, the search for information can be far too broad. At the same time, the research team must be ready to quickly throw out hypotheses that the data invalidates.

Next, we set up multiple interviews in an organization—as few as three and as many as seven or more—to get a full picture of the issue. After conducting all the interviews at each organization, our interviewers write up what they heard, presenting the “first level” of analysis for the point of view.

After all these case study reports are written, our analysts—working in concert with our client—read all case study reports and brainstorm about the differences between best and bad practice. If the case study reports are truly incisive, they will provide rich material upon which to do the “second level” of analysis.

This second level of analysis can require several full-day working sessions. Ideally, the team should comprise no more than a half-dozen people with expertise in the important disciplines that pertain to the topic. Sometimes, the biggest patterns in the data do not emerge until late in the last workshop. But when they do, the big overarching “framework” that illustrates a truly novel approach to solving the issue at hand emerges. The framework gets stronger as the team goes back to the case study data and weaves the findings through it.

Looking Back to Go Forward

When we explain to professional services firms the critical role of case studies in thought leadership, we often are told that using case studies to generate new concepts and new services doesn’t seem like the right approach. “Case studies are looking at things that have already happened—i.e., looking at history,” we are admonished. “We need something new.” Exactly. And that’s the profound irony about case studies. One of the best ways to develop new insights and service offerings is to look at the experience of companies that already have solved the issue at hand. The architects of reengineering (CSC Index and Dr. Michael Hammer) conducted in-depth case studies on U.S. companies in the late 1980s that compared best and bad practice (on how they were improving operations using IT in the early to mid-1980s) and then commercialized their findings in the early 1990s. As Hammer once told a reporter, “I didn’t invent reengineering. I discovered it.”

Thus, as much as 10 years passed between the time that best-practice companies were doing their thing and a consulting firm identified and packaged it into a service:

The same timeline plays out for each big consulting concept. Take business analytics. The concept was created by Tom Davenport in 2005 from observations of how business intelligence applications were being used business at more 32 companies, including Harrah’s, Capital One, Best Buy and Novartis. Davenport and his team interviewed 2-4 managers at each and then spent three months analyzing the results before publishing “Competing on Analytics” in Harvard Business Review in January 2006. But companies had already been deriving knowledge from electronic data for some time. Davenport had in fact conducted research in the late 1990s which had produced an article in California Management Review in 2001. Business analytics has since become a sizable industry in its own right.

Making the Case for Case Research

Professional services firms increasingly are spending huge amounts of money to develop and market new ideas. More than ever, they realize that to generate strong demand for their services, they must demonstrate insights that their competitors don’t have.

But the development of ideas that are a big departure from the pack is a still-rare occurrence. Professional services firms can greatly increase their chances of attaining thought leadership by putting case study research at the center of their intellectual capital development approaches.

Originally published 11/26/2008

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