FEATURE30 October 2009

When did you last see a research presentation that was fun?


Mike Browning and Bert Bower have set out to turn the traditional debrief on its head by combining MR expertise with educational theory to make sure that findings make a real difference in client organisations. Robert Bain spoke to Browning to find out about the firm’s approach.

Research: Where did the idea come from to form a company focused on learning through research?

I was working for a large international market research company during the late 1990s to the 2000s, working on huge strategic research projects for Fortune 500 type companies, and I got really frustrated that companies were spending a lot of money doing really good research, but then not taking any action on it. I’d often go back into the company six months later and find that they hadn’t implemented anything that had resulted from the study.

“I got really frustrated that companies were spending a lot of money doing really good research, but then not taking any action on it”

I was talking to my friend Bert Bower, who’s now my business partner, and who runs a company which creates studies curricula for kindergarten through to twelfth grade. They use multiple intelligence learning theory to engage youths more interactively and lead them through a process of ‘self discovery’ of information. He and I thought, maybe there’s a way to apply this type of learning theory in a conference room.

So we formed Bluewater Learning in 2006, and we’ve found that it’s a much more engaging way that we’ve created for clients to engage a diverse set of stakeholders in the organisation. We work with a client to outline what we can an ‘essential question’, and that guides the scope and direction of their research, and also guides the agenda for the session.

For example, for an international jeans maker the essential question was, how can this brand sell x million more dollars worth of jeans in 2010? We pulled together a segmentation study and then created a day-long session for their top 70 managers where they worked in teams to prioritise which segments they wanted to focus on, learn who the segments were, then at the end we brought the segments to life by having the teams act out little skits about them.

The activities are tailored to each individual project, but the principles are to bring the customer into the room visually, to try to bring them to life, to have the teams put themselves in the role or the space of the customer and by studying the data pools that we create, to act out some aspect of the customer experience.

Research: What differences do you see in how clients respond?

I’ve heard people say that they’ve been to research presentations before that were interesting, but this is the first one they’ve been to that was fun. They can’t believe how engaged their teams are in trying to understanding insights that are based in data. The methods that we use help non-numbers people connect with the data. People are working in teams, so it breaks down cross-functional rivalries, and we also make sure that we overcome hierarchical chains of command that tend to diminish the level of conversation so that everybody in the room is able to participate.

The idea is for the participants to feel that they’ve discovered these insights on their own, so they feel a sense of ownership of it, and then they’re much more motivated to take action on it, because it’s not just something that an expert has dictated to them.

Research: Why don’t more companies do it this way?

“People get a lot of ego satisfaction from standing in front of the room and being an expert in the data”

I think it’s largely inertia. They feel comfortable relying on a PowerPoint page which has data that they feel they are experts in understanding. I think it takes a client with a lot of self confidence to try a method like this. The phrase we use to describe our role is that we’re not the sage on the stage, we’re the guide on the side. A lot of people get a lot of ego satisfaction from being the sage on the stage – standing in front of the room and being an expert in the data, and I don’t think a lot of people really question whether or not the people in the room are learning anything from what they’re presenting. We have found that clients that have the self confidence to question that assumption see that they get more learning out of using our techniques, where people are sort of guided to learn things on their own and aren’t force fed the stuff.

It also takes self confidence on the part of the research manager to do something like this because it requires some skillsets that they might not typically have within a department or within a supplier. A lot of this relies on visually displaying the data in a way that is easier to comprehend, culling down the most important insights and focusing on only the really critical data. I think many market researchers are sort of in love with how much data they’ve created, and want to seem like the expert by sharing it all.

Research: Do you think people who are good at carrying out research tend not to be good at communicating it?

I think the people who are good at presenting market research are typically good at presenting it to a certain type of audience. The typical way that research is presented is for somebody to stand in front of a room and show a bunch of PowerPoint slides with a bunch of numbers and graphs and bullet points on them, and that touches on only two types of intelligence: logical-mathematical, people that understand numbers easily, and verbal-linguistic, people who can understand something by reading it or hearing somebody lecture at them. But the learning theory that underlies our approach says there are seven different types of intelligence, so when you’re standing in front of an audience of 30, 40 or 100 people, only a quarter or a third of that room is really going to learn very well if you’re presenting it in a way that relies on just those two types of intelligence.

Our method creates activities that allow access to understanding for people that learn in different ways: people who learn through interpersonal intelligence; people who learn through visual-spatial intelligence, so we include a lot of visual images, a lot of diagrams, we use colour coding and graphic organisation of the data on the page; people who learn through bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, like athletes or people that need to manipulate a three-dimensional object, we create activities where people are manipulating objects in 3D, like playing with chips that symbolise different parts of the data, and all of this helps embed learning among more people.

Research: Do you think agencies are guilty of treating presentation as an afterthought sometimes?

“The presentation of the results, nine times out of ten, is treated as an afterthought, or when you look at it, it might as well have been treated as an afterthought”

I think the presentation of the results, nine times out of ten, is treated as an afterthought, or when you look at it, it might as well have been treated as an afterthought. The typical process is that somebody writes a complete report, let’s say it’s a large scale strategic study, those reports are often 100-300 pages long and full of table after table. Then when the time comes to present it, they just go through and pull out what they think are the 20 or 30 most important pages, and there’s not really any distinct thought given to how to present these findings in a way that’s going to connect with all the different types of learners in the organisation and give a diverse set of stakeholders meaningful access to it.

I also think there’s another huge assumption that market research suppliers make – and they do this because they want to feel like they’re adding value – which is that they need to come forward with an answer out of the data. So the presentation is designed sometimes to create an argument that supports their insight and their recommendation. A more powerful way to do it is to recognise that the knowledge and the talent in a client organisation regarding their business is immensely greater than the insight that an outside consultant could have after a six or eight week engagement on a big project. So the approach that our method takes is to create the report, work with the client to identify what the key insights are, then create the discovery session which will lead the team through what we think is the important data, and will lead them hopefully to discover the same insights.

What we find every time is, not only do they discover everything we discovered about it, but because they have such a richer understanding and knowledge of their business, the insights that they come up with are far better than a single consultant could have come up with. Sure, nine times out of ten they hit on the same insights that we do, but they take them to a much more productive, fruitful place, and because they feel like they come up with these insights themselves during the session, they’re motivated to act on them.


15 years ago

Interesting crossover between business and education!

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15 years ago

Hey Sandro, take advantage of that knowledge and make clients addore you :)

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15 years ago

This is the real deal! Have worked with Mike and his team several times and each time everyone comes out of the room fully engaged and owning the insights they have co-created. Looking to make this practice the norm in my company. Go ahead...give it a try!

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15 years ago

Mike is spot-on about learning and understanding being critical elements in decision-making, skipped over by too many presenters. I also agree with his concern about "adding value", which came into favor several years ago when full-service firms sought to separate themselves from lower-priced (and typically lower-quality) service providers. The problem is that when the researchers look to draw the conclusions and provide the answers, they not only overestimate their abilities, they also are likelier to emphasize findings that support their conclusions.

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