More Than Surveys: Deloitte’s Ajit Kambil on the Future of Thought Leadership Research

A discussion on how the firm’s CFO Program studies have produced a wave of meaningful and marketable insights.

This interview is part of a series for “Content Matters,” our monthly newsletter for people who conduct thought leadership research and market that content. We believe that every organization that provides services delivered by people—consulting, accounting, legal, information technology, or training, for example—competes in part on the quality of its thought leadership.

Here Bob Buday interviews Ajit Kambil, a Managing Director in Deloitte LLP, and research leader for Deloitte’s CFO Program. Bob has known Ajit for nearly 20 years. He joined Deloitte in 2003 to head up Deloitte Research, the organization’s think tank at the time. Since 2008, he has been running research at the organization’s CFO Program, where he created its Executive Transition Lab to help C-level executives grow into new roles.

Ajit has four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including a Ph.D. from the MIT Sloan School of Management. He lives outside of Austin, Texas.

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Ajit Kambil:

Thought leadership is a manifestation of how many of us in the services business compete. Having been in the thought leadership business for 20-plus years, however, I find the term challenging as so much of the material out there is neither thoughtful nor leading. I prefer to focus on research and development that simply deliver thoughtful, actionable insights to clients. And that’s what I try to get my colleagues in the CFO Program to do. I think different organizations will compete on research to varying extents, and we can explore that later.

Bob Buday:

So in that light, let’s put quotes around the term “thought leadership.” You have seen various kinds of research that organizations have conducted to become more knowledgeable about the domains in which they advise. So, let’s start with your overview of what you might call poor or ineffective research practices and what you would call leading practices.

Ajit:

Sometimes, I see surveys with questions or content that don’t necessarily represent the audience being surveyed. The questions might be structured in a way that serves a set of outcomes the surveyor is seeking, but they don’t get underneath the hood of what is really going on with respondents. Questions are often double barreled and not well structured to discern key findings. Surveys can be great at providing a snapshot of people’s views at a particular time, but they do not always dig deeper to provide insights on how to solve problems.

Surveys can be great at providing a snapshot of people’s views at a particular time, but they do not always dig deeper to provide insights on how to solve problems.

So, while surveys can provide useful benchmarks on facts or executive sentiment, and sometimes help confirm hypotheses, I prefer to drive “how to” insights and frameworks from direct interactions with executives and decision-makers. In my case, the executives are primarily chief financial officers (CFOs) whom I engage with to understand how they’re dealing with critical issues, what are they learning as a result, and what are some of the trade-offs they may have to make.

Sometimes we assemble and report out the lessons learned from these conversations in Deloitte’s biweekly CFO Insights and the Deloitte Module within WSJ’s CFO Journal, which Deloitte sponsors. Other times, we synthesize findings and actions CFOs have taken from multiple conversations to provide a broader picture. And sometimes the interviews yield ideas for a survey, such as Deloitte’s quarterly North America CFO Signals survey.

Bob:

What I hear you saying is that qualitative research based on interviews of key executives can lead to more robust insights, and that it’s difficult to develop actionable insights through quantitative surveys alone.

Ajit:

That’s correct.

Bob:

Some thought leadership marketers don’t realize the limitations of survey research. Why are surveys limiting in developing actionable insights?

Ajit:

My view is that surveys are driven in large part by the thinking of the surveyor and, therefore, are only as effective as the survey designer’s ability to think critically. Because surveys are structured with pre-set questions and limited alternatives for responses, such as A, B, or C, etc., they generally end up providing a narrow window of views at a certain point in time. I find interviews are more open ended and driven by the minds of the executives interviewed, which often leads to more interesting and nuanced findings.

Interviews are more open ended and driven by the minds of the executives interviewed, which often leads to more interesting and nuanced findings.

That said, surveys can provide significant value, depending on how they are designed. As I mentioned, the Deloitte CFO Program conducts a quarterly survey to capture sentiment of CFOs from large North American-based companies on key indicators such as growth expectations for revenue and investments. The survey also helps identify key risks, both internal and external, that the CFOs’ businesses face, and test hypotheses about steps or actions that might be useful in addressing such risks. A lot of effort goes into the design, which is informed by the Deloitte Finance Advisory Council, a group of sitting and retired CFOs who vet the questions before they go into the survey. The survey design is also informed by our interview research. CFO Signals has been running for more than 40 quarters, helping large-company CFOs benchmark their peers’ sentiments on key variables.

Bob:

What do you see as the critical capabilities that thought leadership research groups must have to help their organizations generate groundbreaking insights?

Ajit:

When I originally led Deloitte Research several years ago, I sought to build it around five capabilities. The first capability pertains to generating functional or cross-industry insights. Here the purpose is to create intellectual property and insights that lead to more effective tools, methods, offerings, and insights to help decision-makers, for example, improved diagnostic tools, algorithms, risk assessment methods, etc.

The second capability is around differentiated industry research—in other words, what differentiated insights on how an industry and companies in that industry operate, and future scenarios for the sector.

The third capability concerns role-based research, which focuses on how to help an executive succeed in a specific role such as finance, marketing, R&D, or sales. Ultimately, professional services are developed for a buyer in a specific role, and executives seek services and approaches tailored to them and their specific role.

The fourth capability relates to data and analytics. I established our organization’s Survey Advisory Services to design quality surveys and build proprietary data sets as a precursor to deeper analytics capability.

The fifth capability is packaging content. For example, I established editorial capabilities to deliver Deloitte Review, our flagship journal as one channel to bring insights to the market. After joining Deloitte’s CFO Program, I launched the biweekly CFO Insightsand played a large role in directing the design of the Deloitte Module in CFO Journal.

Bob:

Have your views on the capabilities required for thought leadership changed over the years?

Creators of thought leadership are at a critical inflection point in the ability to collect and process data, which has increased by orders of magnitude.

Ajit:

I believe that both the capabilities needed for thought leadership and how they should be manifested have changed. I think creators of thought leadership are at a critical inflection point in the ability to collect and process data, which has increased by orders of magnitude. For example, there are satellites buzzing above us that can give us significant data on economic activity. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were possible to track how many packages are being delivered into a neighborhood or to a single household.  All that data could be a source of rich insights for identifying and managing future trends and challenges.

Bob:

What future capabilities do you believe organizations need to develop compelling thought leadership content?

Ajit: To develop thought leadership, which is a critical component of intellectual property, it’s critical that businesses assemble professionals who ideally have a research background and who have engaged with clients or customers on the issues that concern them. With this background, they can identify interesting challenges and recommend solutions or new methods that are data- and experience-driven.

Some of these businesses may be able to convert their new methods into proprietary software that they could deliver over the cloud or as an outsourced managed service. They also would require the capability to communicate their ideas and methods, whether through traditional or new formats. Leaders of thought leadership research should be able to nurture and support their people who develop new content and methods that enhance their organization’s offerings.

For industry matters, I think those organizations that can leverage proprietary industry data to create insights and benchmarks valued by the industry will be differentiated. They will need strong data collection and processing capabilities at scale.

For thought leadership research that focuses on role and relationships, I find that so much more can be done today with secondary data than ever before. Still, it’s also important to focus on primary data from interviews to synthesize valuable lessons for executives which they can use to help carry out their role.

With respect to editorial, packaging, and distribution of thought leadership, it’s essential to complement traditional methods with digital experiences.

On the data and analytics side, thought leadership research functions need more than a survey design and a statistics group. They need machine learning, data base skills, and analytics skills to collect, store, and generate insights from larger, and ideally proprietary, data sets.

With respect to editorial, packaging, and distribution of thought leadership, it’s essential to complement traditional methods with digital experiences. I have coined the acronym DRINC: digitally rich interactive conversations with clients. Such conversations are created using multimedia digital interactive applications, almost game-like, that elevate client conversations and engagement with a topic to an experiential level.

You need the capacity to author these, and also to enable practitioners to distribute and engage clients differently to deliver a superior experience. I think packaging and distribution will vary by the type of thought leadership content, but overall the shift to experiences can change how thought leadership is brought alive going forward. We can come back to that later.

Bob:

Sounds like you foresee a lot of change. Do you see any organizations in the lead on all this?

Ajit:

I do not see anyone leading on all five thought leadership capabilities at this time. Different organizations do different things well. What is interesting is that we are in a time of change, and that creates opportunities for seizing leadership depending on how one chooses to organize efforts.

I can say that in the CFO and role-based thought leadership space, we at Deloitte pioneered a new model and made considerable progress over the last decade. On packaging, distribution, and client experience, we have been innovative on numerous fronts.

For any organization to succeed, clarity of purpose around thought leadership is essential, especially around the type of capital you want to build.

For any organization to succeed, clarity of purpose around thought leadership is essential, especially around the type of capital you want to build. For example, do you want to build relationship capital, intellectual capital, reputational capital, or a combination with what balance?

Next, there needs to be clarity and alignment on how the organization plans to deliver on that purpose. This can be very difficult to pull off. I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all solution. It will vary by organization and even by divisions within it. But the changing nature of data and distribution will likely change how thought leadership and actionable insights are constructed and shared with clients.

Bob:

Let us cover role-based thought leadership strategies, and their packaging and distribution in our next Q&A.

Ajit:

That will be great. Thank you.

Bob:

Thank you, Ajit!

Part 2 of Bob and Ajit’s discussion can be read here

 

 

 

 

 

 

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