“The Apple what?” asks the sales assistant, blankly. “The Apple Watch” I offer, assuming he misheard me. I am in the Apple store, after all. “Apple doesn’t make any watches as far as I’m aware,” he says, apparently not having misheard. “Oh. But when I was in your store in London they told me…” “Would you be interested in having a look at the new iPhone 4”, he interjects, trying to be helpful. “The iPhone 4?” I ask, confused. “I thought that was old. Aren’t we on the iPhone 6 now?” “I don’t think so” says the sales assistant, looking as though he’s starting to doubt himself. “I know the 5 will be out soon, around the time we launch the Apple Shoe”. “The Apple what?!” An unlikely conversation? Probably.
And yet this is exactly the sort of problem consulting firms are creating with their thought leadership. We often find ourselves reading a piece of thought leadership which addresses a topic that the same firm has written about before but which the new piece fails to build on, as if it didn’t know the old piece existed. Indeed, sometimes the new piece actually contradicts the old one, at least in part, presumably for the same reason. Now, clearly we read a lot of thought leadership, so we’re especially likely to spot this sort of thing, but can you be sure that the people who really matter to your firm – your prospective clients – aren’t spotting it, too?
Then there’s the stuff those prospects aren’t spotting at all, because a piece of thought leadership fails to provide signposts to other, related material that they might be interested in. They’ll just assume that what they’re reading is all the firm has to offer on the subject. When we try to map out who is responsible for thought leadership in the larger firms, the source of this issue quickly becomes apparent: we find a complex web of responsibilities with different parts of the organisation (eg. global sectors, country sectors, research centres) all creating thought leadership targeting people in the same industry.
We know that a major restructuring exercise in order to address the issue is probably off the cards, at least in the short term, but we think there are three things consulting firms can be doing in order to address this lack of joined up thinking right now:
1. Agree, across all groups producing thought leadership for the sector, on an overarching framework to which all future thought leadership will link. This could be, for example, a summary of the key trends affecting the sector and the main actions you believe incumbents should be considering. Yes – really – as simple as that.
2. Use this framework in every new piece of thought leadership. We’re not suggesting that you explain it in detail every time but that it is used to highlight the breadth of your thinking and signpost the reader to other content.
3. Communicate with peers in other parts of the organisation at key stages in the thought leadership process. We’d suggest this first happens at the hypothesis stage to get their feedback, to ensure you’ve seen all relevant material produced already, and to ensure they aren’t in the middle of producing something on the very same topic. And then again at the draft stage so that there’s an opportunity to point out any inconsistencies before it’s too late.
This all sounds glaringly obvious. But based on our reviews of sector-specific thought leadership, it’s nevertheless a hard thing to spot when you’re in the middle of the web. And it really does need addressing. Apple would rightly cringe at the idea of a sales assistant in one of its stores not knowing what it was selling in its other stores. Consulting firms should cringe at the idea that their right hand might not know what their left hand is writing.