OPINION5 June 2014

What’s the problem?

Despite evidence that market research and business intelligence are a source of competitive advantage, the industry often struggles to make a positive impact. Will Towler questions whether there should be a greater focus on problem definition.


But there’s a strong case to be made that the root of the problem lies in factors other than science. Many of the industry’s challenges are simply due to engagements not giving enough attention to the decision-making process. And unless problem definition and resolution are made central to market research and business intelligence efforts, the full potential of analytics and insights will never be realised.

Mixed Scorecard For Insights

That business information is an important source of competitive advantage has been well-documented. In their book, Competing On Analytics, Thomas Davenport and Jeanne Harris illustrate how companies as diverse as Netflix and E & J Gallo Winery leverage analytics to identify market opportunities and optimise operations. Vicktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier provide examples of organisations profiting from analytics in their book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Change How We Live. For quantifiable substantiation, Bain & Company conducted a study and found that companies using analytics to drive change are “twice as likely to be in the top quartile of financial performance within their industries, three times more likely to execute decisions as intended, and five times more likely to make decisions faster.”

At the same time, a number of recent surveys indicate that the market research and business intelligence industry often falls short of expectations. Consider the following:

  • The 2013 ITSMA/VEM/Forrester Marketing Performance Management Survey found that less than 20% of marketers believe their stakeholders rely on the data, metrics, and analyses developed by marketing to make decisions.
  • The DAS 2012 Wisdom Of Crowds Business Intelligence Market Study found that only 41% of respondents completely agree that their business intelligence initiatives are successful. Some industry experts believe that between 70% and 80% of business intelligence projects fail.
  • Quirk’s 2013 Corporate Research Report reveals that not being able to get insights acted upon is a challenge by roughly 80% of corporate researchers.

Solving The Problem

Suboptimal methodologies and poor data quality receive their fair share of blame for project failure. Market research faces difficulties ranging from effectively reaching and representing consumers to accurately measuring subconscious sentiment. Business intelligence faces the ongoing challenge of ensuring complete, clean, and standardised data sets. While these issues can’t be ignored, something more fundamental and elementary is cause for concern. According to Gartner research, the vast majority of unsuccessful business intelligence projects stumble due to communication shortfalls, such as failing to identify real business needs and not asking the right questions.

Market research and business intelligence should help organisations make better decisions. Unfortunately, many projects don’t address a decision problem, let alone identify one. And many projects that do often fall short when it comes to facilitating a solution. The decision-making process is simple in theory. Frame the problem, research and analyse, then take action. In practice, however, implementation can be complex and difficult, requiring strong planning and interpersonal skills. Many project leaders and their team members are unprepared for what it takes to effectively engage organisation members and socialize results. In such cases, stakeholder resistance and scepticism can be expected and actioning project results is unlikely.

Without sufficient focus on problem definition, market research and business intelligence will continue to fall short of expectations. This is true even if concerns related to methodology and data quality are overcome. Decisions aren’t made by themselves. Creating value through analytics and insights requires, first and foremost, effective implementation of a well-crafted decision-making process.

Albert Einstein summed it up nicely by saying, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

Will Towler is an analytics and insights consultant.


Competing On Analytics, Thomas Davenport and Jeanne Harris, Harvard Business Review Press, 2007
Big Data: A Revolution That Will Change How We Live, Vicktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2013
The value Of Big Data: How Analytics, Differentiates Winners, Rasmus Wegener and Velu Sinha, Bain & Company, 2013
2013 ITSMA/VEM/Forrester Marketing Performance Management Survey, Information Technology Services Association, Vision Edge Marketing, Forester Research, 2013
2012 Wisdom Of Crowds Business Intelligence Market Study, Dresner Advisory Services, 2012
Corporate Research Report, Quirk’s, 2013
Poor Communication To Blame For Business Intelligence Failure, Computer Weekly, 2011