Alan Alper, who played a key role in helping Cognizant Technology Solutions harness thought leadership to drive rapid growth, joined Buday TLP in late February as principal and chief operating officer. In this new role he’s helping the company accelerate its drive to become the premier thought leadership consultancy.
Most recently, Alan was VP of Global Thought Leadership Programs at Cognizant. He joined that company in 2007, as it crossed the $2 billion revenue threshold and was on its way toward achieving tier-1 status as a global provider of IT, business process and consulting services. Since then, Cognizant’s revenue has grown nine-fold to $18 billion, propelled by digital services.
In this interview with Bob Buday, Alan talks about what he has learned from his 15 years at Cognizant about shaping thought leadership strategy and working with subject matter experts to develop and hone their argument and package it into compelling content. He also talks about the changes he sees in the decade ahead in the thought leadership profession.
Along with Bob, Alan will be moderating future episodes of “Everything Thought Leadership.” Enjoy this introduction…and don’t miss the cameo appearance of Alan’s black Labrador, Nigel.
Listen to the Podcast
Meet Buday TLP’s New Principal and COO:
A Conversation with Alan Alper
Bob Buday: Hello, Alan, welcome to Buday TLP.
Alan Alper: Thanks for having me, Bob. Looking forward to working with you.
Bob: So what do you want to accomplish at this stage in your career?
Alan: I’ve been part of major thought leadership initiatives – from books, research reports and white papers through thoughtfully put-together short form content like blogs, data visualizations and animations. I’d like to take all that and really go to the next level with it. I’ve spent a lot of time helping us smart people look and sound smarter. And I want to continue that and elevate some really smart subject matter experts to that next level where they’re really respected for their breakthrough thinking, and help them to create the eminence that they actually deserve.
Key Thought Leadership Success Factors
Bob: When you look at your 15-year career thought leadership at Cognizant, what do you see as the key success factors in in doing this well?
Alan: While you may be a great storyteller, you have to do your homework to really understand the story, themes and ideas that underlie thought leadership or any kind of initiative that you’re trying to create eminence around. Ultimately you should be an extension of your subject matter experts, to the degree that you’re answering their questions or anticipating their questions or completing their sentences. The areas where I’ve worked have been very technical, in IT services and business process consulting. The smart people that you work with sometimes are not the best equipped to really drive home the key elements of the story. So you’ve got to work with them to really understand the essence of their idea, and you have to be able to challenge them. You can’t just accept on face value that they have really thought things through, even if they may think that they understand it. Really smart folks, and colleagues that they hang with, think that they’ve got it all nailed down. But the rest of us need a lot of help — underlying evidence, facts and figures, case examples — to see that it’s real, it has real impact, and it’s provable in the real world. Sometimes very smart people don’t want to give and take. You have to challenge them. That means doing a lot of deep study and a lot of research to understand the ideas, not to be an expert to but to be a great confidante, sounding board and muse.
Lastly, I think thought leadership takes a village. It really requires that you bring in people early on, who can help to not only assemble the idea, but also understand the best container for telling the story. Some people say, well, I’ll just write a blog about my idea. And if it were that easy, everybody would be doing it. And just because it’s only 500 or 750 words, it’s not easy to build a watertight argument. You have to understand how to convey the idea, the tone and the evidence that underlies it. That takes a lot of choreography, involving a complementary team of people who can write, copy-edit, and create good graphics, animations and data visualizations. This makes your idea stand out so that you can help your organization win in the marketplace of ideas and gain eminence.
Distinctive Digital Discussions
Bob: So you’ve been working around a lot of digital topics in the last 15 years. How have the number of competing points of view on any of these digital topics increased over that time?
Alan: A lot of people out there just think: Well, this is important, let’s write something on the topic. But you need something distinctive. That means really doing your homework as a group to understand what it is you want to say and the best way to say it. What is that container that’s going to help you to distinguish your perspective from others out there? Everybody thinks they need a point of view, say on a topic like the cloud. But as you and I both know, the cloud has been in use pretty much for the last 20 plus years, so there’s really nothing new or novel to say about it, other than discussing the benefits of doing cloud-based services. Ultimately, what can you say that others haven’t said? That takes a lot of legwork, ideation, shaping, perfecting and stress testing.
The Future of Research
Bob: Cognizant did a lot of primary research that led to a lot of big ideas and the acclaim that came with it from the marketing you did. Is primary research going to be less important, about the same, or more important over the next decade?
Alan: I think everybody’s entitled to their opinion, but not their own facts. And if you have facts that really support your argument, you’re always going to be in a stronger position to be able to convey the best and brightest ideas that you want to share with the marketplace. Thought leadership that contains facts and figures always performs better. You might write something that has a good point of view, and perhaps maybe has some secondary research to back it. But if you don’t have your own facts and figures that are gleaned, analyzed, and put into a context that will resonate with the audience, you’re pushing the snowball uphill. I’ve found, with the projects that we’ve done, that people just take them more seriously when they’re research-based.
Bob: What do you say to the companies that say they need facts to support their points of view, but figure they’ll just use Forrester data or Gartner data or some other research firm’s data to support what they have to say?
Alan: Those companies certainly do great work, but there are some very tight restrictions to how you can use the facts and figures generated through those kinds of sponsored thought leadership initiatives. Another thing is that when you outsource your thought leadership, you can get the facts and figures, but you’re not creating the survey instrument and sitting down and interpreting the findings, then figuring out how to tell the story based on those findings. There’s incredible learning in all of that, and you elevate your point of view by going through that whole process and breaking through the barriers that create a lack of understanding. Doing your own research lets you pick and choose the facts that you think are going to resonate, that you have the most understanding about, that you think are going to be most relatable and that will really have impact with your audience.
Bob: We both know the value of those unique insights gleaned from data that the company gathered and analyzed themselves.
Alan: When you put that much effort and investment into it, and you have a really unique point of view, the whole team feels much more charged up about it. You can launch it and feel really good about. People become committed to it. There’s a great deal of honor and respect that you can get, and a lot more to cherish, when it’s your own data.
Changes Ahead for the Profession
Bob: What big changes do you see in the decade ahead in how companies do thought leadership research, how they activate the market, and how they deliver the insights that they’ve gained from research?
Alan: We live in a world starved for facts and for insights derived from those facts. Research is going to be ever more important. You can’t understand what’s going on out there without studying it, and there are so many ways you can do it. That’s hard, but it’s so important to be able to wrap your head around something and really get to the bottom of it, shape an argument, and present the findings that elevate everybody’s awareness. So much of this is about education, internally, to your organization, and externally to the market that you serve. So I think research is always going to be important.
How that research is turned into deliverables will change over time. People no longer have the time or intestinal fortitude for longer form reports. So we have to figure out a way not only to generate the deeper insights that people crave, but also to gin it up in a way that’s going to have impact and allow people to understand what’s going on at a glance. That means shorter form content, data visualization, telling the story with facts and figures, and then showing it in context with great examples and evidence of how your ideas are playing out in the marketplace. Organizations will need to figure out how to take a body of work, and carve it up in a variety of ways so it’s not one size fits all. Some people will want to read the deeper dive reports; unfortunately there are fewer and fewer as time goes on. But people still will find value in the more digestible, more relatable content that you produce.
Bob: What kinds of career opportunities do you see for people on both ends of this equation –the research for big ideas and thought leadership, and then bringing it to market, and everything from data visualization to publication design and online publication design?
Alan: This is a team sport; you need to create a really great dedicated team who can work very closely together to take good raw ideas and transfer them into relatable knowledge. Some people will gravitate towards the words; others will gravitate towards the image. And they need to know how to package it up and create options for people to dive in at the level where they’re most comfortable. Not everybody will want to jump into the deep water; some people will just want to surf and swim at a lower level. You’ve got to create great value for the time and money spent and engage them wherever they are.
Bob: Which is easier said than done, right? That’s why they need experts like us to guide them. Well, Alan, this has been a great conversation. And one thing I want everybody to know who’s watching and listening in is that Alan is going to be moderating future videos and podcasts with people he knows in the thought leadership universe. Alan, we look forward to having you host future episodes of Everything Thought Leadership.
Alan: I look forward to it.