OPINION17 December 2020

Doing more with less

Innovations Opinion UK

Shifra Cook writes that operational innovation can help meet increased demands on researchers while not cutting back on service quality or output.


In my experience, it’s times like these when many agencies are asked to do more for less. It’s an unfortunate by-product of unpredictable economic periods that research tends to be commodified and clients are looking for the same high-quality work, but at a reduced cost.

This can be particularly challenging when delivering projects that involve qualitative research, as unfortunately many agencies don’t have the wiggle room in their products or methods to do more with less, and still continue to provide the same quality service and output that is required.

The industry has historically been very good at innovating around methodology and other aspects that relate to its craft. However, in operations, business processes and infrastructure, we have an area that is critical for any research business, yet often overlooked in terms of innovation.

Operational innovation, at its core, is about freeing up people to spend more time on productive work; work that drives revenue and adds value to the business. Increasing productivity and in turn profitability. Operational innovation doesn’t need to be difficult, and it doesn’t always need to be technology driven. It’s about taking a step back, thinking critically about your current processes, and looking at what can be reworked, digitised, or automated.

Identifying opportunity
The first thing to do is take a step back and perform an audit of your current processes. What you’re looking for are tasks and processes that are manual and repetitive, and potentially ones that have become more difficult to track or manage in a remote online environment. You will also want to consider how much time individuals need to spend on these tasks each week. An audit like this is most effective when there’s input from across the organisation.

There is opportunity for efficiencies in every department, but some of the most impactful changes can be made at the intersection of departments, as information, documentation and communications cross between teams.

Above all, it’s about prioritising tasks that are operationally important but may divert your teams away from the work that adds the most value to your business. Or tasks that require necessary but unwanted data and provide challenges around compliance.

Making sure it takes
When you’ve identified the processes that you want to digitise or automate, it can be tempting to bring in an array of technology to cover this. But it’s important not to jump in too quickly. It takes time to adjust to new ways of working and an overload for your team can mean that these new processes find it much harder to take root. This is particularly important if you want to re-structure or automate more complex business processes.

This is best handled in phases. Introducing changes in bite-size chunks helps gain team buy-in and reduce the chance of making changes that your organisation can’t sustain.

We find that the best place to start is with some of the low-hanging fruit – routine tasks that require small adjustments or easy to use technologies that can make a difference quickly, such  as moving your task and project management to a platform like Freedcamp. This way you’re making positive impact with minimum disruption, and at the same time, you’re building buy-in with the broader team for any bigger changes that you might want to implement in the future.

Integrating and measuring
With any new process you’re battling with muscle memory. You might introduce a technology or new process that can free up significant time for a researcher, but they might have been working using the old process for years. It’s very easy for them to fall back into old habits. They might feel it’s easier and quicker to do it the old way, even if it’s not. Integration can be a big help here.

Many tech solutions in this area can be integrated into already existing systems. Trello can help improve your workflows in a ‘silo’, but it also integrates into Slack, Google Drive, Apple Mail, Harvest and Mailchimp, to name a few. By finding technology that can be integrated into your systems, it feels more established in a much quicker time.

Another key area is measurement. You need to understand the impact of the operational efficiencies you’re implementing in order to gauge success and inform further decision making. That means setting key perfomance indicators right at the start.

It also means understanding the time and resource used prior to the introduction of the solution. Platforms like Harvest can help you better understand where time is being spent before and after the automation process, and make informed choices.

Streamlining your workflows and processes can seem like an uphill struggle, particularly when dealing with legacy processes. However, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Whether you are looking for systems to bring efficiencies to your project management, invoicing, participant payments or supplier management – there is a solution out there to help you. If you approach it methodically there are many ways you can improve your profitability in 2021. 

Shifra Cook is chief executive of Particity.