Research, like innovation, is optimizing. In particular, research drives business to be not only knowledge-based but also knowledge-clarifying. In addition, we not only have to be research-users, but research creators as well. Research compels the next step, the road not taken, the inquiry not pursued.
Before savvy professionals embark on new ventures, they increasingly ask four questions: What do we know? What does the research show? Who in our industry is doing what? and Do the problem and the solution have a future? If the answers are of inadequate range or deficient depth, or if gut instinct begins to emerge as the operating rationale, some companies will opt to do the research themselves. And on that decision hangs this analysis: Historically, there have been four traditional sources of research:
- Proprietary R&D Divisions
- Think Tanks and Centers
Universities traditionally have dominated research in at least three ways: research grants, a research faculty and doctoral degree programs, which produce a steady stream of original findings. Such efforts, especially the production of basic research, have frequently been valued by industry—half of the subscriptions to scholarly research journals are from for-profit entities.
Although happy to borrow the results of such expensive and long-term projects, companies often view university findings only as initial grist for the mill. They still require the applied and supplementary science of proprietary research. Therefore, their R&D units seek to generate an organizational competitive edge by optimally developing new products or services or minimally improving those in-house. Often their staff is as impressive and degreed as that of any major research university. Indeed, they sometimes attract and retain outstanding talent by offering uniquely seductive research assignments. For example, when stem cell research was limited in the United States, China recruited frustrated American researchers. In its heyday, Bell Labs had more Ph.D.s than many small universities. Now the research mantle has fallen to the pharmaceutical industry and to software entities like Microsoft and Apple.
The third generator of research has been various think tanks and centers, often privately (and handsomely) funded, and sometimes driven by political agendas. Typically, the research subjects selected are complex and national in scope and involve major policy issues. One of the most prolific and consistently competent is the Rand Corp.
Government has also been directly engaged in research for decades, as well as funding and being a major promoter of original research. National security is a unique governmental focus. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the Manhattan Project.
Many new contenders have unexpectedly arrived on the scene during the past decade. A number of for-profit companies have made research their core business and used their findings to provide access to a customer base. In effect, they are research consultants. Frequently, the research focus is industry-tailored so that research and marketing are aligned from the start. Although these research- and market-driven enterprises somewhat resemble the four major research providers, they are distinct and creative enough to be recognized and examined in their own right.
In many ways, these new enterprises are part of the larger trend of building and sustaining knowledge organizations and a learning workforce. Now, learning must be constant, immediate and lifelong. In many ways, it is required by the emergence of new norms of stretch goals, innovative productivity, data oversight and permanent transition. However, such urgent needs have exceeded the range and just-in-time schedules and structures of many conventional education providers. The contrast between the two is dramatized by mid-level managers who combine both programs, such as a university MBA and workshops offered by their corporate university or LMS. In effect, in extent and depth, the latter is the equivalent of a degree in lifelong professional development.
Behind the breakup of all monopolies is serious research and market mismatch. Competition is customer- and needs-driven. If our knowledge is at all limited, unresponsive or ignorant, then new challenges emerge. The solution is ultimately convergent (the fusion of research and marketing) and structural (the creation of separate corporate universities and learning management systems). This was followed by the emergence of new learning leaders: CIOs and CLOs.
These senior positions may or may not evolve into executive-level hybrids, but new learning enterprises have attracted well-educated and trained professionals—mostly MBAs and Ph.D.s—who know their way around research protocols, kinship and marketing. They have been adept at integrating the research applications of emerging invasive and just-in-time data systems. In short, challenge and talent converged to generate a new breed of research- and market-driven professionals and enterprises.
Although there are many of these professionals, each possesses different specializations, applications and research methodologies. Perhaps this is because they are shaped by, and are part of, a greater force. Surprisingly, they have enough in common to develop a general profile:
- Like universities, their research is neither proprietary nor unavailable, but unlike universities, the research is applied and sold.
- Their basic product is always applied intelligence.
- Often, the research is tilted toward training, and identifying thresholds for instructional design.
- The training is diagnostically and metrically driven.
- Their competitive edge is targeting customers who do not know as much about themselves and their behaviors as the research reveals.
- Because their findings also may affect organizational change, they also thoughtfully make themselves available as consultants.
- Typically, they position problems or lost opportunities within the big picture and engage the interest of both managers and senior decision-makers.
- Often, they are anticipatory, even futuristic, and therefore redeem and extend the short-term strategic planning of their clients.
- They function in an entrepreneurial environment, are self-selective in the niche they research and, in effect, brand their expertise.
In surveying and illustrating the field, I have limited myself to a group small enough in number and representative of both large and small firms to exhibit typicality and range and to offer an impressive track record of customer sales and satisfaction. They epitomize and fuse the roles of research entrepreneurs and learning leaders. Their profiles follow.
The research and market niche of KnowledgeAdvisors is learning measurement. The goal is to provide training operations with learning analytics through its patented Metrics That Matter (MTM). The basic outcome is to justify the costs of training through the application of ROI methodology. It evaluates the implementation of training, and in the process, many impact variables are assessed (for example: productivity, customer satisfaction, innovation and talent retention). Intensely data-driven, KnowledgeAdvisors metrics bring detailed transparency to work profiles, and even to individual and team performance. Managers can view more than 100 Web-based reports generated by a database that contains over 30 million data points.
KnowledgeAdvisors, like other research enterprises, claims not only to offer best practices, but also to serve as a champion of the state-of-the-art. KnowledgeAdvisors and Thomson NETg, for example, sponsor annual national and even international symposia on the subject. Although generally more marketing than research, these conferences also offer case studies by users like Microsoft of how Metric That Matter was used and how it addressed unique situations. Indeed, such documentation provides a demonstration and evaluation of a distinct new best practice: the use of research to enhance market advantage.
The distinction and branding sought by Thomson NETg is its absolute commitment to innovation. It has recruited and maintained a robust research and development group that collectively constitutes its Innovations Lab. Its creative track record includes the technologies of learning object architecture, EKG software to measure the effectiveness of simulations and, most recently, Precision Skilling, which links job skills to training directions and designs. Precision Skilling, in particular, is bringing about a major review of training focus and the diagnostic management of learning diversity.
When NETg functions in a consultant capacity, its focus is always synthesizing in nature. It delivers an integrated learning solution that frequently requires a minimum of three activities: updating current in-house technologies; linking older systems to NETg’s new innovations; and leaving the now-integrated LMS open to future development. The commitment to research and marketing unexpectedly changes consultant-client relationships. It is no longer outside, but inside; no longer distant, but infused; no longer separate, but partnered. What drives consultants and clients together is research that reveals previously unknown behaviors, problems and situations. It creates the kind of captive and receptive audience open, often for the first time, to innovations that already embody the research insights. In short, branding is not limited to products, but includes process, as well.
Bersin & Associates
It is not necessary to be large to select a big research niche, as these two final profiles illustrate. Bersin & Associates has staked out the research area of developing industry-wide information and practice patterns of e-learning. The answer to the critical question of “Who in our industry is doing what?” is the research focus of Bersin. Its most recent sourcebook, “LMS Customer Satisfaction Survey,” scheduled for distribution during the first quarter of 2005, is a research case study.
To ensure that what is researched is necessary, and to spread the cost of undertaking such a large-scale project, Bersin has formed an LMS Quality Council whose members represent about 80 percent of the LMS market. Many research tasks are too vast for any single member to undertake: In-house research capacity may not be available, and bias can frequently intrude. In effect, the Council subcontracts to Bersin & Associates to analyze surveys and compile a sourcebook which, among other patterns, will reveal how the products of various LMS vendors stack up to each other, from the purely customer perspective.
Again, research and marketing are fused to the point where it is impossible to discern where one begins and the other ends. In addition, to ensure that that synthesis drives inquiry and remains on target, a consortium of users is formed. This group’s common knowledge needs override their competitive and proprietary separateness. In other words, such an arrangement enables Bersin & Associates’ functioning as a research university.
Finally, the research and marketing niche of Brandon Hall is that of displaying best practices for e-learning. Last published in March 2004 and authored by Tom Werner, the volume offers a comprehensive survey of case studies and organizational profiles of the e-learning industry. Extremely rich in detail, the compilation features best practices in five categories: steps and documents for building the business case for e-learning; ROI methodologies; developing company-wide LMS; criteria for selecting LMS technology and evaluation systems; and linkage of learning to human capital HR management.
Each year, Brandon Hall invests its research with the additional judgment of singling out firms and practices for “Excellence in E-Learning Awards.” The identification of such industry leaders supports Brandon Hall’s focus on establishing benchmarks and guiding the strategy and technology selection of clients. Recently, Brandon Hall announced the publication of its latest research: Hosted Versus Installed LMS. This three-year perspective reveals a surprising preference for installed rather than hosted LMSs. Brandon Hall offers customized research to individual clients who seek the best practices of its industry and competitors. Such individual and focused surveys benefit both from Brandon Hall’s tried and tested methodology and its extensive database of best practices. Recycling research methods and findings has become Brandon Hall’s own best practice.
Earlier the trend of knowledge systems was invoked as an umbrella concept. Another trend is that of convergence—which has propelled and shaped the emergence of research and market-driven enterprises. Perhaps it is appropriate that such crossover has the last word. The new enterprises will not eliminate traditional providers. They will exist side-by-side and proceed as parallel lines. If viewed holistically and collectively, they can be perceived not as singular, but alternatives of one another. If the spirit of convergence can prevail, it will be better to coexist as a research fraternity. Then the learning and development continuum would find its match in a research continuum.
The fraternity, like Bersin’s Quality Council, would be a way of identifying and addressing a common future research agenda. In particular, three challenging trends would be addressed by all: the increasing multi-disciplinarity of knowledge; the management of learning diversity; and the global holistics of training. Whatever develops, a surprise finding might be the separate and collective elevation of serendipity to a new level of convergent research and innovation.
What is clear is that we would not know as much about learning without the research of these providers. To a large extent, they have been created and are now an integral part of the field. A new, more demanding and holistic generation of learning leaders and systems has dictated research intelligence and required it to align with both ROI and marketing. In many ways, these research providers define the industry and grant it autonomy and distinction. Above all, such alliances insure that LMS—hosted or installed—will be smart, effective, targeted and profitable.
Irving H. Buchen is vice president of academic affairs at Aspen University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.