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Why do companies need a strong research culture?

Many qualitative researchers feel that their work is under-valued or under-utilized. They struggle to communicate with their colleagues about why research is important, how it is done, and especially how their company can really take advantage of the insights that great research can produce. This harms everyone: researchers feel dissatisfied with their jobs, and their companies forego valuable research insights.

In comparison, a company with a strong research culture is one in which research - in all its forms - is understood and valued across the company. People are curious to ask questions and learn more. People know how to work across silos and build insights, and products, together. And they keep their curiosity alive by bringing in new perspectives.

In such a company research is front-and-centre of product development and consumer engagement. Companies that use this approach become more truly customer-centric, a necessary stance to stay attractive to consumers in today’s market.

But building a research culture isn’t easy. It relies on non-researchers across the company having a working knowledge of how research is done and what it can provide. It also requires a shift in mindset to put the user front-and-centre rather than the product or service. And sharing research data and results requires that practical problems be solved, such as data management.

How can we build strong research cultures? In our EthnoBorrel meetup on 13 January, 2021, we invited participants to share their experiences of research cultures. We had two presentations: one by myself and Melanie Uy about a small research project we are doing on this topic, and another by Corina Enache (Transavia), who talked about breaking down research silos based on her many years of working in both research and non-research roles.

Key insights from the event

Between the presentations and discussion we generated many insights about why qualitative research tends to be undervalued and how silos contribute to this process. Even better, attendees shared their own strategies for breaking down silos and promoting research. Here are some of the insights generated:

General observations

  • It’s not just about building a research culture, but a culture of curiosity more broadly - when everybody in your company is curious there is space for exploration and asking interesting questions
  • There is a need to define strategic research versus discovery / exploratory research - these are very different and sometimes your colleagues may not be fully aware of the differences

Silos

  • It can be more difficult for researchers in companies with strong silos to gain chances to show how research can help solve a range company problems
  • Even when research is done, silos can prevent it being used to solve problems and feed into product/service development
  • Sometimes silos are necessary to get things done
  • Companies that are larger probably have silos and if so then research will be put into one
  • Competition can be a problem that prevents research collaboration
  • One way researchers help to create silos is by passing judgement on others; they become defensive
  • However, sometimes it’s not really possible for researchers to create silos because you need a critical mass and there aren’t many researchers
  • Quantitative researchers also feel siloed

Solutions

  • Have a common goal within your company rather than everyone having their own goal - this helps get everyone on board to both do research and implement it
  • Get non-research stakeholders engaged from the beginning so they feel ownership and invested
  • Management absolutely needs to be part of the process of research
  • It would help to have a Chief Research Officer among the executives
  • As a researcher, be confident in your expertise is and speak with that hat on 
  • To show value, don’t wait for a project, start small, do a kind of proof of concept - once you show value you’re more likely to get support from the whole team/company
  • Start communicating insights while the research is still in progress
  • Create different presentation decks for different teams, such as engineering or management, to communicate research insights
  • Hold a standing meeting once per week and invite management and others 
  • Ask for feedback on ethnography rather than just telling people what you found
  • In mixed methods teams ask everyone to share their approach
  • Once per week send the whole company a brief research insight: this helps to keep people curious
  • Once per year do a presentation in which you quantify the year’s research activities, such as how many interviews your team did that year: this especially helps get management on board
  • Developing a company-wide research strategy may also help to get management on board and align activities

On Wednesday, 17 February we will have a follow-up session in which we focus more on the perspectives of non-researchers. How do product managers, product owners, designers, and others deal with research? What are their strategies to promote it and what problems do they face?