Heather Carine Stay Ahead of the Pack: Specialists from Small Firms Work with Restricted Resources
Jinfo Blog

Tuesday, 31st July 2007

By Heather Carine


I have spent my career in large organisations, undertaking research for specialists. Being well informed is vital for specialists, and I have played a key role in that. However, specialists from small organisations are just as adept at keeping themselves up to date through their tightly focussed research skills.


Heather CarineI have spent my career in large organisations, undertaking research for specialists. Being well informed is vital for specialists, and I have played a key role in that. However, specialists from small organisations are just as adept at keeping themselves up to date through their tightly focussed research skills.

Using an approach that Mary Ellen Bates describes as an informational interview, I recently spoke to specialists from four small organisations in Australia to find out how they obtain the information they need for their business. The specialists worked at a recruiting firm, a conference production group, a business think tank and as an international business consultant. Their expertise covered management, strategy, business innovation, knowledge management, information management, training and recruitment.

My expectation was that the specialists would be frustrated by their research results and overwhelmed by the range of source material available. Instead, I found that the specialists were sophisticated researchers and very adept at primary and secondary research.

It seems that it's the character of the specialist, more than the size of the organisation that supports them, that determines research ability. The specialists I spoke to were curious, tenacious and had a knack for getting people to talk to them about their field of interest. These are also the common traits that Doug House and Anne Henrich identify in good competitive intelligence researchers [1].

I asked the specialists to outline how they use business information and to define their usual approach to finding information for their organisation. All the specialists were searching for new ideas that are emerging issues for their clients or industry, most of it private and not in the public domain. For example, the specialists were looking for information on:

  • Potential conference topics likely to be of growing interest for attendees

  • Emerging issues that are affecting an industry, such as innovation in the manufacturing industry

  • Information or concepts easily accessible and widely known, but from an angle that may be missed, such as how to discourage skilled labour from emigrating

  • New recruits for staff placement.

To find fresh information, the specialists are constantly scanning their business environment. They read material from a range of sources and talk to their network of contacts to ascertain what issues are coming up, alternative angles to view industry issues and further helpful contacts to speak to.

Being able to tap into deep industry knowledge was a key research capability for all of the small organisations. Their grasp of emerging issues and in-house knowledge was fundamental to the business advice or services they provided to their clients.

Research approach

The specialists had adopted a competitive-intelligence research approach, although none of the specialists discussed their approach in such terms. In fact, their approach closely followed the strategies that are outlined by many researchers in the Super Searcher series on competitive intelligence [2]. They developed their understanding of issues affecting their industry from gathering information from primary and secondary sources, constantly updating and reviewing their information and acting on this knowledge. Their research approach had little to do with knowing the latest online-database developments.

This research approach involves a series of overlapping steps that any company can follow to stay ahead of the pack, including:

* Constantly scanning for information * Utilising a network of personal contacts * Building on in-house knowledge * Knowing their research sources.

Constant scanning

The specialists were always looking to stay abreast of developments in the issues affecting their industry. They regularly perused these sources:

Interestingly, the specialists weren't regularly checking any blog sources to keep them informed on developments. The conference producer occasionally referred to blogs as a source for potential speakers, but for the most part found them to be a bit of a 'goose-chase'.

The specialists remarked on the usual frustrations of information overload, and the limited time they had to analyse, abstract and filter information on a wide range of topics. This problem is amplified for specialists in smaller organisations that are unable to delegate the task of tracking information updates to others.

Personal contacts

All of the specialists were searching for information that is difficult to find in the public domain, so it was very important that they had an extensive network of personal contacts. The international business consultant described her personal contacts as her 'terrestrial network'.

Their networks extended from in-house staff, clients, think tank members, trusted colleagues, academics, recruitment candidates, former conference presenters through to experts identified through secondary sources and professionals listed in LinkedIn <http://www.linkedin.com/>.

The specialists used their networks in different ways. For example, the specialist from the business think tank had connections to not only his colleagues, but also the members of the think tank. Think tank members and colleagues would alert the specialist to interesting developments that they had read or heard at conferences. The specialist considered this free flow of knowledge significant to the think tank's stock of knowledge and used it to alert them to issues on the horizon.

Likewise, the international business consultant starts all of her projects by thinking about who in her network has worked within that industry. She then talks to her personal contact to find out relevant background material and emerging issues within that industry.

Of course, not all contacts are forthcoming in sharing their knowledge. For example, the conference production team start to build on content ideas by interviewing industry experts. Some of the experts that they interview consider their ideas to be proprietary, and are reluctant to share their knowledge and ideas for conference content. To overcome this, the conference specialist uses her interview skills to not only gain access to the right people but also coax them to share their knowledge. Her open-format approach includes asking contacts about challenges in their work environment and eliciting a broad range of responses, from which the production team can start identifying trends and firming up the conference details. By far, the best interviewees are those experts who are familiar with the conferences and are generous with sharing knowledge and ideas.

All the specialists were skilled at interviewing techniques and building networks of contacts to uncover information not available through secondary research sources. Their efforts amount to fresh ideas and different angles to business concepts.

Building on in-house knowledge

The specialist in a small organisation has the advantage of a good working knowledge of what material or expertise is already in the organisation.

All of the specialists drew on a stock of in-house knowledge as part of their research. For example, the starting point for any placement research undertaken by the recruitment specialist commenced with the firm's extensive database of potential and placed recruits. Likewise, the business think tank specialist had a raft of documentation written by his colleagues over the years, such as earlier commissioned reports and background papers. Furthermore they had straight forward systems in place to add to the stock of knowledge by noting relevant research or comments heard that may be pertinent.

These simple, pared down systems give the specialists from small organisations a great starting point -- they link their in-house knowledge, with secondary research material coming from other sources, and note up comments coming from their circle of contacts whose opinion they value.

Whilst many large organisations have in place communities of practice that regularly meet over the phone and post information to various shared sites, their systems can get bogged down with extraneous material as they cater for larger groups. By keeping their focus very tight, the specialists were able to minimise the irrelevant clutter of knowledge.

Knowing their research sources

It seems specialists in small organisations are always building on their empirical knowledge by scanning information, listening to anecdotes from a vast network of contacts and building on in-house knowledge. When it comes time to embark on a specific research project, such as a new consulting project, or a newly commissioned study, the specialists had a very good grasp of what sources they needed to check, and what they were looking for from each source.

They also demonstrated a good understanding of the parameters of their sources and underlying assumptions that were used for developing data models or conclusions.

The sources they regularly used were easily available through the web, such as the government or economic sites referenced above. Some also used LexisNexis <http://global.lexisnexis.com/>, Factiva <http://www.factiva.com/> and academic journals.

In all, specialists from small organisations aren't too hampered by their lack of research support. They showed themselves to be not only experts in their field, but also in their approach to research. They were confident and competent researchers, experienced in obtaining information from primary and secondary sources. Their familiarity with the source material assisted with sifting through information and analysing models. Their characters affected their ability to research more than the size of the organisation that supports them. Even researchers at large companies can pick up a few tips from all this to help them maximise their own organisational support.


[1] (Carr 2003) <http://www.infotoday.com/supersearchers/ssci.htm>

[2] <http://www.infotoday.com/supersearchers/ssci.htm>

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