Business research in small firms

Business research is often viewed as a wish-list item. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Business research is akin to performing preventive maintenance on a car while inventing new technology for the vehicle. It can save a business’ bacon and increase its productivity.

There is little talk about business research as an organized activity. Corporate research gets some attention, but business research falls flat. The difference is one of scale. Corporations that fund research departments often have considerable resources at their disposal. Smaller firms have it or they don’t; attend a librarians’ conference if you’d like to hear more. Some companies specialize in market research; other, larger companies, provide global solutions. These divisions are suitable for a bygone era, where divisions of labour were relatively clear and large businesses abounded. The expanding gig economy and an increasing presence of digital disruptors means that less clear divisions exist. This fog of war gives smaller, more dynamic firms the ability to gain ground.

‘Business research’ in this context means more than corporate or market research. It embraces the strategic and tactical dimensions of corporate and market research while also fulfilling the gig economy’s need for client-focused, local research. That is to say, business research embraces an enterprise’s front and back ends to deliver seamless service. It is an essential part of the gig economy and Industry 4.0, for the gig economy’s main means of exchange is through the information super-highway. Business research processes digital and analog information to create or encode most every product that we possess.

This changing landscape affords a fresh understanding of business research suited to gig workers and disruptors. All that’s needed is a glance at a humble librarian’s career at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, where the changes to research and knowledge management revolutionized the librarian’s and the researcher’s roles…only to maintain the cardinal principle that makes business research worthwhile.

My father was a librarian who spent his career organizing and tending to corporate knowledge. He mainly worked in big firms providing corporate and market research. The libraries in which he worked were designed to support profit centers.

I remember spending my childhood in those libraries, and my formative years were traditional libraries’ last kick at the can. I’d go to work with my dad and spend time antagonizing (in retrospect) very kind librarians. My love of books no doubt sprung from these interactions.

As we delve into the twenty-first century, however, physical libraries become less relevant. I saw this firsthand with my pops, whose role began to emphasize finding information over organizing it. These roles, of course, go hand in hand. Information is only found by those who understand it’s organization.

The scale on which electronic, networked, organization is conducted changed the game. The information with which my father dealt in the last year’s of his career was more mercurial than ever. Large data sets and the availability of qualitative sources made it relatively easy to know something without understanding anything. The large firms at which my dad worked were able to move past this barrier to entry. They employed analysts and librarians to interpret massive databases.

Therein lies the problem. The work of interpreting such databases is increasingly being completed by machines that are inherently quantitative mechanisms. Large companies’ economies of scale continue to scale, and librarians like my father find themselves redundant in a new world that sometimes forgets the importance of human research.

The career that my father wound up traced the great lines of this forgetting–and Ray Bradbury would be proud of the results. It’s now difficult to track news in a deluge of information, let alone discrete research tasks. Why not let a computer do the heavy lifting? Librarians are costly investments and the results of their efforts are fallible. Work to the bottom line.

My old man’s career cut through the process of forgetting. He walked out of a master’s degree in library science in 1993 and started work at a public library. He quickly moved to corporate libraries, and the job became increasingly digital. Part of the change was due to the new environment. Another part was the changing means with which we store and access information. These factors play into our ability to forget. They pale, however, on comparison to insistence on maximum efficiency. As the oughts became the teens, by father was subjected to an increasing standard of professional responsiveness. The data existed, therefore he could find the information, and find it quick thanks to technological innovations.

Research, however, is not affected by the amount of available information. A researcher still has to do the work of finding and compiling the right details.

The burden placed on my father and his fellow corporate librarians to get business research done right and faster than ever guaranteed that their work would be undervalued. His eventual redundancy resulted from the expectation of instant gratification that computerized research provides. Partners and associates didn’t feel the need to consult a researcher when they could pull results that seemingly provided a complete description from a Google search, or a corporate dataset.

Hence partners and associates forgetting the importance of business research in the large firm. The pressures in a corporate economy often get the better of business researchers’ end-users. Other things might move quickly, but the fact of the matter is that quality research takes time, and that doesn’t just mean working overtime to produce some result.

Human research captures the nuance of each problem, and such nuance is critical when working with customers or colleagues. It marks the difference between showing that one cares for the others’ interests and an attitude that reduces a person’s interests to a problem that needs solving.

The corollary to this observation is that research is creative. Drawing different strands of networked information together generates new ideas. The methods used build value, because they refine the way in which knowledge is stored and how it can be retrieved. The end result creates and inspires new thoughts. It passes information through the funnel that is a researcher’s mind. Each instance, procedural or substantive, breeds novelty.

The value in this human phenomenon is oftentimes displaced by immediate concerns. The sausage gets made without regard for the consequences.

One of those consequences is the loss of respect for the researcher or the knowledge manager. They are erudite gatekeepers removed from practise, punctilious: abstract. Indeed they can be so many words. They are also diligent workers and able institutional resources. These qualities shine through in the long term. People often only see the bottom line.

The tools that changed my dad’s job also give it new meaning.

Librarians and researchers now contend with a virtually infinite knowledge base. Pinning the issues down is more complex, with greater diversity of opinion, because those opinions are readily accessible in a click. They no longer curate physical collections. 

This changed job description nevertheless maintains its roots: librarians and researchers must still dedicate their working lives to understanding others’ needs, translating those needs into research questions, and building answers. Those answers are needed without delay and are subject to information that changes instantly with electronic publication. The job isn’t for everyone, yet employing a researcher is beyond most people’s means. 

Hence the appearance of freelance or subscription researchers, whose role is to serve as trusted advisor and knowledge base. This role can help small businesses by enhancing their market intelligence at affordable rates; it can also build strategic insights, thus allowing businesses to change tack on a dime. For lawyers in particular, third-party researchers check biases and question arguments. These functions ultimately make for stronger businesses and better representation.

The short form? Consider building a relationship with a researcher