In my 25 years as a researcher, I never expected to see a moment in which things would change so completely, so quickly. As my colleague Paul Daugherty noted recently, we’ve seen “three years of digital and culture transformation in three months.” The same is true for thought leadership and strategic research. The COVID-19 crisis has been a change accelerator like we’ve never seen before. 

And while the pandemic is creating risks, it’s also creating opportunities to reinvent how we researchers work to better understand industry structures, consumer behavior, and social changes.  

How traditional research is upended by the pandemic 

As leaders have been facing so much uncertainty, business data is needed instantly to inform quick decisions. That data has to be collected, cleaned, interpreted and shared in real-time. This new pace is testing the strength and accuracy of B2C and B2B data processes designed to produce insights on a monthly or quarterly basis.  

But the disruption of COVID-19 is so great and so abrupt, there is no past equivalent to help us understand the new reality. Today, data that is even a few days old may not be helpful. Suddenly market trends are not trends anymore. For example, economists and consumer researchers expected a bleak U.S. retail spending report for May, but reality begged to differ to everyone’s surprise.  

Technology will certainly help us enable real-time research. For several years, business researchers have been living in a human + machine world. People have partnered with machines to make their work faster and more efficient. There’s a constant exchange with the machine, as we researchers are validating and interpreting the information we receive.  

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There’s an extraordinary level of uncertainty that is making linear forecasts more fragile than ever. 

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We’ve also started working with data scientists and data visualization experts who leverage AI processes rooted in application programming interfaces (APIs). This partnership allows researchers to work more quickly and creatively. A lot of the work we do is as an interpreter. You’ve got lots of data and signals available, but you have to make sense of them. And then you have to communicate the meaning of that data to people who aren’t as concerned about the data itself; they simply want to understand how to make better decisions. 

For this transformation to continue, we’ll not only need business researchers who can utilize the latest technology but also we will require great economists who can analyze and develop powerful interpretations of data produced in a permanent flow. 

The rise of economists in tech companies is a well-documented phenomenon. Now we can expect to see a rise of tech economists in non-tech companies. As all companies become tech companies, many of the disruptive changes these organizations face will have a critical technology dimension. The world will need more tech economists, as all companies become tech companies.  

My three lessons (for now) 

Beyond this acceleration, there’s also a profound transformation of how we do research that has only started. Three dimensions to mention: 

1. Goodbye linearity, hello scenarios

Thanks to demand and supply shocks across the globe, there’s an extraordinary level of uncertainty making linear forecasts are more fragile than ever. The evolution of the pandemic, macro-economic conditions, public policy, business decisions, citizens, and consumers’ expectations and behaviors may shift dramatically from one week to the next.  

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The world will need more tech economists, as all companies become tech companies. 

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As business executives reinvent the strategy of their companies, scenarios supported by transparent hypothesis and AI-powered data analysis, anchored in real-time information, can provide a much richer context than linear forecast. These scenarios have to be updated regularly through a feedback loop with new data and insights. That will allow business executives to continuously innovate and enhance the competitive advantage of their organizations. 

2. Every researcher is a health researcher

In our new normal, people are very concerned about their health. Perhaps they wonder if it’s safe to touch packages. What will that mean in terms of changing package design to guarantee the package they touch is not going to make them sick? Many cities are virtually cash-free now because of the fear of touching money. What impact will that have? 

Available surveys on consumers’ attitudes and expectations show that many new consumer behaviors will outlive the current crisis. Now that people are more concerned about health, that’s not going away. Moving forward, business research models will need to span the technology, physical and biological worlds. 

That means every strategic researcher will have to take into account the interactions of technology and biology and their combined impacts on business models and business value creation. We can expect more health data and economic experts to join thought leadership and research teams in the coming years to identify white spaces and create new business value

3. The rise of online collaborative research 

There is more to an online meeting than just meeting online. Transferring research work from the office to the home office is relatively easy when capabilities such as these are available:  

  • All documents and processes are digitized. 
  • The data infrastructure is in place. 
  • Broadband connections are of good quality. 
  • Videoconferences supported by processes developed in the cloud can replace face-to-face meetings seamlessly. 

But those are just the basics that enable us to work. These factors alone don’t determine the quality of research work from a home office. The real disruption is about enabling online collaborative research and innovation within research teams and with clients. For this to work, participants must engage with new research tools and processes, and develop deep empathy and personal working connections that were previously happening predominantly in person. 

Feelings matter more 

In the past three months, we’ve seen much emphasis on physical and mental needs for good reason. While working remotely, people need to feel connected, like they belong to a team and an organization. It’s critical to nurture mutual trust between colleagues. As many of us have had to address challenging personal and/or family situations and social issues, compassion and care have become more critical. We all need to feel a connection to a larger mission and purpose. In this environment, truly human leadership has never been more important.  

Francis Hintermann

Executive Director – Accenture Research

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