Part 3 of our conversation with Ajit Kambil focuses on how packaging and distribution of thought leadership content has evolved.
In June, Bob Buday and Ajit Kambil, Managing Director in Deloitte LLP and research leader for Deloitte’s CFO Program, discussed the CFO thought leadership research activities that Ajit has been managing at Deloitte since 2008. Part 1 discusses the future of thought leadership research and part 2 talks about Deloitte’s CFO program.
In the final part of this series, Ajit explains how he sees the packaging and distribution of thought leadership content evolving this decade.
In our previous conversations, you alluded to the changing nature of packaging and distributing thought leadership content. How do you see this evolving in the future?
I see three changes to be vital. First, there is a need to move to regular, short, and frequent formats. Deloitte’s CFO Program has been doing that. Second, I think it is important to leverage digital channels and use social media. Third, companies need to deliver select pieces of thought leadership as rich interactive experiences to better engage clients and bring them and their advisors together.
As we discussed previously, Deloitte’s CFO Program developed shorter article formats and delivered them much more frequently. The purpose was to provide insights to clients in a format they could absorb quickly and on a consistent basis.
In this model, we are not always looking for the one big breakthrough idea. We try to provide a stream of useful insights that clients can easily peruse; if they want to dig deeper, they can reach out to us or access references that provide more details. We trust CFO readers to decide what is important to them and choose to give us their attention. That starts by giving them solid content they care about.
In today’s marketplace of ideas, this format is far more effective than traditional long-form articles, reports, and books that are published on an infrequent basis. It is too hard to build a sustained relationship with readers and clients that way. I also think it is important to make content relevant to a specific audience, to their role, and to the issues they face, and engage them on what matters to them.
Using a role-based strategy to develop thought leadership helps one avoid developing generic content that an audience views as fuzzy and unclear.
Do you see these changes in packaging also changing the distribution of thought leadership content?
Indeed. They make traditional thought leadership distribution channels less relevant. When I first started in professional services, getting published in the broad academic management and business review journals was important. But today, these channels are not necessarily important to my CFO clients; they tune in elsewhere.
If you can get clients to opt into your daily email or your own app, that’s fabulous. And on top of that, I find professional social media tools useful. Instead of relying on editors of traditional magazines to curate information on their readers’ behalf, now CFOs, for example, can “like” an article, post it to their own professional social media site, or recommend it to their staff.
In getting recommendations on insightful content, I pay more attention to peers I know and trust than to the editorial board of a general magazine. Digital and social media channels enable trust networks, which can greatly help you get the attention of the right audience. These social media channels also enable video, podcast, and other formats, which let audiences consume information in the format they like.
“The future of effective thought leadership distribution is through scalable, digitally rich interactive conversations, what I call DRINCs.”
Broad magazines may be great for broad awareness. But for a focused group of clients, I find new digital channels far more effective today. This is especially the case when we’re making content relevant to an executive role like the CFO. In my mind, the long game would be to build trust, curate content, and build followership in your own distribution channel. And today that’s possible.
In our last session, you also talked about creating “labs” and experiences. Can you say more about that?
I think the future of effective thought leadership distribution is through scalable, digitally rich interactive conversations, what I call DRINCs. Let me explain. When we did our research on CFO transitions a decade ago, we created our first client-facing lab. Having done my PhD work at MIT, Ed Schein’s work on process consultation was very influential in my thinking.
So, we constructed a process consultation where an executive would spend a day with us in a conversational, but structured, process. During the day, they create their go-forward priorities and explore how to de-risk them. They also frame their talent allocation and development plans, as well as the strategies to build relationships and influence other executives who are likely to be critical to delivering their priorities.
We called this experience “Transition Labs.” Since July 2010, Deloitte has delivered thousands of Transition Labs to C-suite executives at a moment that matters to them. The labs have generated incredible value, both for clients and for Deloitte. Our professionals say that in one day we accelerate relationships that would take a year or more to build.
Do you do these in a group setting?
No, Transition Labs are highly personalized to individual leaders to help them through the transition, and the facilitation and client team come together to help the client in a tightly focused manner.
By converting our research findings into a process consultation and a joint personalized and engaging experience with the client, we have brought the research to life to help clients determine how they address their own challenges.
Before the pandemic, we typically conducted our labs in special rooms equipped with monitors, magnetic panels, and other accoutrements of engaging experience design. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have adapted our transition lab for online delivery using custom transition lab software that we developed. We have tested the new delivery system with several clients, and it has been effective for engaging them remotely.
“The beauty of digital is that it allows tremendous flexibility and scalability.”
So, I think an important means of bringing thought leadership to life is through digitally rich interactive conversations (DRINCs). Clients in the conversations can undertake multiple structured exercises to address an important issue, where the process and methods have been built upon research. Making all this effective requires people who can package content into interactive experiences, understand user experiences, and create interface designs that deliver compelling experiences.
The beauty of digital is that it allows tremendous flexibility and scalability. What I am also seeing is that authoring tools for digital experiences are coming down in cost.
We are still in the nascent stages of creating re-usable experience templates. However, the cost of authoring our DRINCs should come down considerably, which should increase their use. Interactive conversations create a way to bring the client and the client service team together in meaningful ways, and accelerate relationships.
So, your team is not just a research or a publishing department in a much bigger organization; your role is to also help Deloitte professionals build client relationships. Is that correct?
Exactly. I take an expansive view of who my clients are: They are external executives, our client teams, and service professionals. We are helping build social capital, as well as intellectual capital, that can scale to solutions. The other beautiful thing about delivering experiences is that the researchers are part of the experience. I personally do 30 to 40 labs with clients a year, as do some other members on my team. Through the process we gain insights to shape our research.
In my mind, this is a great example of using thought leadership research for service innovation in a professional services firm. Conversely, I also imagine that the Labs have given you new ideas for thought leadership research.
All the time. It is precious. It also enables trusted connections with clients to explore ideas. Too often thought leadership research and marketing groups in professional services firms have challenges connecting with clients.
“I think it will be critical for the next generation of thought leadership researchers to play across all the silos in every part of value creation and bring people along.”
You’ve broken down some big silos that I’ve seen in other firms. The first silo is that the people who conduct the thought leadership research are sometimes separated from clients and client delivery teams. The second silo is, once the research is done, the researchers throw the findings over the wall to the marketers to get the research placed in business publications or converted into conference presentations. And the third silo is that the researchers are often separated from the discussion on how to capitalize on the research and build an advisory relationship.
I think it will be critical for the next generation of thought leadership researchers to play across all the silos in every part of value creation and bring people along. You need an operating model for an open and engaged research process.
If you were to stand back from all this one day when you retire, what would you be most proud of?
The four biggest things for me at Deloitte would be these: first, pioneering a role-based research model; second, creating the transition lab that has helped numerous executives navigate a moment that matters and expanded the relationship capital of the organization; third, shifting from presenting ideas to clients in reports or slide decks to enabling a large number of our professionals to recommend solutions with the client through process consultation and conversation; and fourth, pioneering digital and virtual labs, which enable digitally rich and interactive conversations.
This is a great story. What were the critical success factors to accomplish this?
First, I had a super sponsor in my boss for the last decade. He gave us the license to pursue our ideas and deliver results without unnecessary interference or thought leadership by committees, etc.
Second, the team recruited for the CFO Program is motivated, and our operating model of sharing within and across teams is key to being agile.
Third, by being part of the CFO Program, which helps client teams build client relationships, we have been able to build considerable trust across the practices. As a result, many professionals have provided great access to their clients to understand their views and experiences, which helps shape our work.
Ajit, one last question. Deloitte is a multibillion-dollar revenue organization. Do these ideas apply to much smaller firms that don’t have the resources to devote to thought leadership?
I don’t know. We are a small team in a large organization – our core team is less than ten full-time equivalents.
We have a relentless focus on serving CFOs. In developing thought leadership, organizations must be clear on their purpose for it: Are they going after intellectual capital, industry credibility, or relationship capital? How will your investments drive these, and with what balance?
In our earlier discussion, I noted we are at an inflection point where business and content will be more data-driven and distribution will be more digital. I think there are opportunities to go beyond old orthodoxies.
This has been a great conversation. The work that you and your colleagues have done here is refreshing on so many levels.
The next generation of the thought leadership profession has tremendous new opportunities as Moore’s Law catches up and overturns old models for content creation and distribution.
Thank you, Bob. I really enjoyed speaking with you.