Four lessons from 20 years of analysing thought leadership

  • Rachel Ainsworth

Source has been analysing the quality of thought leadership for 20 years and White Space subscribers can access our reports from the past six years. As we pulled together our report for 2018 H2, we reread our comments from earlier years and reflected on why firms have moved up, and down, our table. Here are four messages that stand out for us:

Agree what good looks like—and don’t let weak content out the door
Back in February 2013, in the introduction to our report, we wrote: “One [common issue] is consistency: Material which should never have seen the light of day is still getting published, perhaps because the quality control processes firms have in place (and many firms still have a very decentralised approach to the production of thought leadership) aren’t adequate.”

We could say the same today (although I like to think we’d choose shorter sentences). Consistency matters. It matters in terms of impact on clients: If it’s on your website, someone is going to find it. And that someone is probably going to assume that’s the best you have to offer. And it matters in terms of our rankings: When firms have maintained positions at the top of our rankings, they’ve had processes in place to prevent weak thought leadership from escaping the building. For centralised teams, such as IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV hereafter), this is relatively easy. For large complex organisations with thought leadership being produced by many teams, less so. However, as Deloitte in the US demonstrated, it can be done.

Be aspirational
However, it’s not enough to simply banish weak content. Firms that we’ve seen move upwards and stay near the top have put huge effort into creating high-quality thought leadership. In the past, we saw IBM’s IBV (a tight centralised team) continuously driving improvement and the less centralised Deloitte establishing Deloitte University Press (now Deloitte Insights) as a go-to source for high-quality thought leadership. More recently, Accenture and Capgemini have both made great strides—and impressed clients and us alike—by setting high aspirations and investing in high-quality thought leadership.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got*
Over the past six years, some firms have changed their approach very little. And, unsurprisingly, these firms have made very little progress in improving the quality of their thought leadership. In our experience, sustainable improvement seldom happens organically. It requires a vision of what is possible, and the determination to get there. It requires alignment and training (no one is born knowing how to create great thought leadership), carrots (funding for the right ideas, praise for those delivering great content), and sticks (such as refusal to publish weak content).

*Usually attributed to Henry Ford

But don’t forget what got you to where you are today
As passionate advocates for great thought leadership, we feel dismayed when we hear of firms unravelling approaches that have driven success. Change is necessary as the needs and preferences of consulting clients develop, but sometimes change, often driven by a change of leadership, seems to happen without attention to what has driven success in the past. We’d encourage all firms that have secured stable positions at the top of our rankings to reflect on what got them there and to build on—rather than destroy—the foundations of their success.