Research is at the core of every successful business:

  • If you don't know what your customers and employees want, how can you give it to them?
  • If you don't know who your competitors are and what they're doing, how can you compete with them?
  • And if you don't understand the market in which your company operates, how can you succeed?

In a world of opportunity, research is vital in aligning stakeholders and focusing priorities. It’s therefore imperative when you’re developing strategy, navigating challenges, or making any critical executive decision.

We’ve used the term research so far, but before we go any further, that needs clarification. Research is a means to an end, which begs the question – what is the end that research is a means to?

What’s your hypothesis?

Research itself holds no inherent value – it’s the insight it generates that determines whether or not it’s useful.

“There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

At Ne-Lo Group, we refer to this as strategic intelligence.

The critical first step to high-value research is clearly defining your hypothesis or research question. This is the fundamental starting point of any academic research but is often overlooked in the corporate world.

So, ask yourself questions like:

  • What is the key strategic challenge we’re facing?
  • What discussion points do we have conflicting perspectives on?
  • What assumption(s) are we working with that we really should test? What known unknowns exist?

Better still, engage your board, executive team, employees, and other key stakeholders around these questions.

With clarity around these critical questions, you can design, develop, and conduct targeted research using the most appropriate methodologies for the specific questions or hypotheses developed.

That is the difference between research that produces another 150-page report that tells you everything and nothing at the same time and high-value research that builds alignment, confidence, and focused action.

Through our work, we’ve found the most successful businesses conduct high-value research to develop strategic intelligence across five key dimensions.

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The five dimensions of strategic intelligence

Purpose intelligence

Understanding the following provides a critical objective and pragmatic lens for strategic decision-making:

  • Why you do what you do,
  • What your business aspires to do or be,
  • How it intends to get where it’s going,
  • And how everyone in the business agrees to conduct themselves along the way.

These elements all come together in what, at Ne-Lo, we call a Purpose Framework. The shared belief, vision, mission, and values of your organization.

This appears in our model for effective research because, from a strategic perspective, a company's purpose is next to useless if it has been created without input from across the organization.

Our advice is always to seek to clarify rather than create purpose. Give everyone in your organization the opportunity to contribute via a method appropriate for your company’s size and scale. Then use your preferred combination of purpose, vision, mission, and values to turn those insights into a pragmatic strategic tool.

You can find out more about Ne-Lo’s Purpose Framework here.

Customer intelligence

In order to effectively focus strategy on what matters most to those who matter most to your company, you need to understand two fundamental things:

  • Who matters most to your company (i.e. who is your core target customer)?
  • What matters most to them?

It sounds patently apparent, but crystal clarity on those two things is exceedingly rare. As Steve Jobs said,

“Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.” – Steve Jobs

Given the amount of money, resources, time, and attention companies invest in the development and innovation of products, services, and customer experience, as well as communicating the value of these to their target audience, knowing where to focus is critical.

Clarity on what matters most to customers allows for clear direction and alignment of organizational activity leading to a direct and significant impact on the bottom line.

Employee intelligence

Employee research is one of the most frequently overlooked opportunities when it comes to strategic focus.

Sure, it’s common to have employee engagement and culture surveys, but these mostly fill a retrospective and/or tracking role when it comes to executive conversations, i.e., how well are your cultural initiatives performing?

There are enormous opportunities for organizations that more actively engage employees in strategic conversations, both in terms of the quality and focus of the strategy itself and the culture of engagement across the organization.

Giving employees the ability to influence their environment, performance, and the future direction of the business will do far more than any fruit bowls or free yoga classes.

Employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to perform at their best.
– Salesforce, 2017

And in terms of informing strategic focus, who knows the inner workings of your company better than those who live and breathe it, day in, day out? The very people on the front line, listening to customers, working with your systems, handling your product?

A note of caution; engaging employees in this way requires both the channels and the environment for them to have their say. It can often take a little time and nurturing, but once people across your organization feel safe to share their candid feedback and half-baked ideas, that’s when the magic really happens (thank you, Adam Grant).

If you'll be facilitating a strategic planning meeting in the near future, do your best to start gathering employee intelligence ahead of time, either through interviews or surveys.

Market intelligence

While Customer intelligence is about generating clear perspectives from your target audience on specific strategic questions or hypotheses (micro-view), Market Intelligence is about understanding macro trends and perspectives in the entire market towards your brand, your competitors, and the sector in general.

Given your market exists in the context of broader cultural trends, Market Intelligence often includes understanding these too.

Ultimately, over time your organization should develop intelligence across both the micro view of your specific customer and the macro view of the broader markets and culture you operate in to focus strategy effectively.

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Competitor intelligence

While we’ve covered intelligence about the market overall, it’s also vital to have up-to-date intelligence on how your competition responds to market shifts and trends.

Firstly, you need to know who your competitors are.

Again, it sounds simple, but in a landscape where tech is enabling more competition than ever while blurring the lines between industries, taking your eye off the ball could mean you miss a serious threat coming from where you least expect it.

When we know who they are, we want to know their strengths and weaknesses and how they relate to our own. Coupled with our customer and market knowledge, this will give us a clear view of where opportunities and threats lie – the good old SWOT analysis.

Finally, we want to develop a deeper understanding of our most immediate threats. Know their target audience as well as you know yours, including any overlap between their audience and yours. Know their marketing strategies, pricing strategies, distribution channels, and market share; dig deep and discover their strategies and tactics, so you can develop yours accordingly.

Blended intelligence

Hopefully, as you read our article, it became obvious that an aligned and focused strategy requires a constant blend of the five dimensions of intelligence.

The depth and sophistication of research in each area can be developed over time. Still, we would encourage you to have some insight across all five dimensions before making your next key strategic decisions, even if it’s just based on desktop research.

In summary

Research is vital, but how we define it is critical to maximizing value.

Think about conducting research for intelligence rather than for the volume of data by being very clear on the question or hypotheses for each project.

Over time, growing and maintaining the five dimensions of strategic intelligence will enable confident, aligned strategic decision-making that keeps you focused on what matters most to those who matter most to your company.

A sure-fire way to stand out in your industry as the place people want to buy from and work for.

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