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Be Curious, be Collaborative … but be Skeptical.

The other day I saw a post on LinkedIn with a new metric that would supposedly help businesses in managing their brand. If I were still working in industry, I would probably be excited about the metric. The issue is, I was feeling pretty skeptical. I couldn’t find any independent validation whether that metric does what the creator claims it would do – and whether it truly has any practical use. The post attracted likes and shares but it triggered a reflection on my career – having built it on both sides of industry and academia.

For me, developing my career in academia is like flourishing in a great habitat. Of course, academia, just like any professions, has its own minefields and meadows. However, the strand of academia within the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute is perfect for me. There’s a guarded independence over the research at the Institute, so that although our research are informed by real business challenges, they are not steered by any particular agenda. We continue to uphold rigorous and robust scientific standards, and explore areas and challenges faced by those on the ground.

This is one of the drawcards that has sustained me at the Institute. It’s great to have my mind sharpened and polished through critiques and discussions with fellow academics – often driven by the same sense of analytical curiosity and dealing the challenges at bay. I had a preview of this when I worked for Citibank in my formative years. Citibank was visionary in nurturing connections across budding professionals in similar fields across countries and regions, so that we could learn from one another and grow from successes and failures – to ensure that the next iteration elsewhere would be better through the collective learning.

I tried to muster something similar at the now-defunct Adelaide Bank, by forming the Analyst Network. I thought it would be great to have regular catch-ups with analysts from risk management, operations, customer service, and other areas of the bank. A place to nurture the wisdom of the crowd, so to speak. The Analyst Network went on for a while before it finally lost its steam. I made a naïve assumption that other insights or analytic professionals are as inquisitive and as keen in learning and contributing. Perhaps, ultimately the analysts were all essentially driven by internal KPIs. Within the wider industry, not everybody wanted (nor had the energy) to explore beyond what they need to finish at the end of the day. It’s also not the norm for somebody to celebrate their intellectual discovery and share their secret recipes to other analytics’ professionals inside or outside of the business unit or organisation.

I faced a different challenge when I worked in the market research industry. The field allowed me to be as analytical and as solution-driven as possible. However, I didn’t have any opportunity for robust peer-review critique. I would come up with ways to calculate a score that seemed to personally make sense. This would then be happily accepted by everybody without any scientific proof or theoretical foundations: just because I could explain it compellingly and because they trusted my intelligence. This practice is quite common in consulting world: there are opaque metrics and scores that sound sensible and yet untested and unproven. This is also one of the reasons that also strangely keeps me in academia – by exiting academia, they likely lose the avenue for robust peer review. Yes, they can of course test their approach or metrics by writing academic papers on their discovery, but this would mean exposing their trade secrets to the public for all their strengths and limitations. Why would you want to do that when your livelihood depends on them?

Academia is not perfect either. Some academics would be happy to congregate at the mountain top, ruminating over issues and critically reviewing each other over on topics that are so far removed from the reality in the marketplace. There is definitely a place for philosophical contemplation, but we, business academics, need to have a constant reminder as well that the works need to be relevant and applicable to those on the ground. Not all of the approaches, schemas, and metrics are fit-for-use, even if they have gone through rigorous peer review. Again, a healthy skeptical mind helps.

This post is not meant to extol the virtues of the Institute, but perhaps this is also the reason why companies should consider sponsoring good research institutes (like the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute — well, I have to slip it in here!). My career path is definitely not generalisable: not everybody should leave their industry position, chase their inquisitiveness, and join academia. However, a strong and healthy symbiotic relationship between academic research and day-to-day business would end up benefiting everybody. We, the nerds and the boffins, can continue to develop, review, and challenge each other with the input direct from the market stalls – and subsequently share relevant discoveries that matter.

There are things that can be done within a business to nurture this collective and robust inquisitiveness. Internally, there should be a way to share lessons learned, a playbook of success stories, case studies, and connections across similar areas, business units, categories, or markets – that would help to build the wisdom of the crowd within the company. This would help businesses not to repeat mistakes and build from each other’s success – ultimately almost like peer reviewing and refining each other and building a healthy corporate culture … and hopefully from this process, it would help inoculate the company against questionable and opaque metrics, and adopt sensible, independently-reviewed, and empirically-based approaches.

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