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Liam Fahey

Leadership Forum LLC

Co-founder and executive director

Read more about Liam Fahey

How can HR leaders create an insight culture?

Managers are drowning in data but business transformation isn’t just about stats – it’s about insights.

In our age of big data, business leaders increasingly find themselves drowning in data but short on insight. Too often leaders are presented with analysis ‘findings’ that merely confirm already accepted assumptions about a business and its marketplace. As an HR professional you can play an important role in helping your management develop teams that can attain breakthrough insights – that is, truly new understandings that will make a significant difference to how your business competes. To transform your organisation into one that is rich in insight, you need to guide your management in how to create an ‘insight culture’.  

What gets requested gets valued. Coach your managers to get into the habit of asking for insights. 

When you succeed in creating an insight culture it will be reflected both in the company’s values (in which insight is clearly recognised as critical to your organisation’s success) and its practices (in which leaders and others visibly work to advance insight work). Here are five tips you can use to help guide your management towards creating an insight culture.

1. Build a company-wide understanding of what insight is – and what it’s not

Employees cannot be expected to behave as if insight is important if they lack a clear understanding of what true insight is. Here’s a useful working definition of insight:

Insight is new marketplace understanding that makes a difference to the organisation’s thinking, decision-making and action.

As an example, here is an insight about a competitor: a firm developed a new understanding about a well-entrenched competitor after the marketing team discovered signs that the competitor was likely to withdraw from the market. This realisation led the firm to double its marketing and sales programmes to capture the competitor’s customers before rivals attempted to do so.

Note that insight involves two important components. The first requirement for insight is a discovery – that is, a new understanding about some aspect of the company or market, such as customer needs, competitors’ strategy shifts, technology disruption or potential regulatory change. The second requirement for insight involves answering the ‘so what?’ question – that is, determining if and how the new understanding affects the company’s thinking (such as the need to amend key market assumptions), decision making (such as the need to consider new alternatives for a decision), or action (such as reordering the timeline around the execution of key initiatives).

2. Begin to ask for insights

What gets requested gets valued. Coach your managers to get into the habit of asking for insights. For example, you could advise your management to use this tactic whenever they’re presented with the findings of a team’s report. Suggest that a manager open the meeting with a comment along these lines: ‘I know that the team has collected a lot of data and done a lot of analysis, but what we are most interested in are the insights that emerge from this work. We do not need more data – what we need to know is the new understanding you have crafted and its implications for the business’. When leaders adopt this practice, the message rapidly circulates throughout the organisation that leaders want to see insights.

3. Require insights to be clearly articulated in all analyses

After your managers have begun asking for insight, they should make it clear to team leaders that every significant analysis report must include explicit identification of new insights. Analysis team leaders in turn will begin insisting on an insight focus among their team members because the team leaders quickly recognise that their work will not be warmly received unless they carefully craft insights and support the new conclusions with appropriate data and convincing reasoning.

4. Make insight a focus of analysis practices

Ultimately, an insight culture must be evident in work practices. Managers will need to embed new insight-oriented routines into how functional groups and teams conduct analyses ranging from customer or competitor analysis to technology assessment or potential industry evolution. This new focus on insight will affect how data is collected, how data is transformed into insight, how insights are critiqued and tested, and how insights are monitored over time to assess whether they need to be updated.  

In the search for greater insight, managers should encourage team members to pay attention to ‘small data’ or even isolated data points, which can often lead to valuable insights. For example, one customer’s comment about a technical challenge in using a product caused a customer analysis team to draw new inferences about the customer’s need, the technology change required to improve the product, and the financial value of a solution to the customer. This understanding led to the insight that a significant market opportunity existed if a set of related product problems could be solved, which ultimately resulted in the company developing a new customer value proposition that rivals would not be able to challenge for at least a year.

5. Encourage insight deliberations in meetings

Executives and others can use meetings in many ways to reinforce an insight culture. Judicious use of questions sends a clear signal that insights are valued. For example, an executive might ask: ‘what is the insight you have extracted from your analysis and how is it different than our previous understanding?’ Once an insight has been articulated, the executive might then ask: ‘what data and reasoning might challenge and perhaps refute the potential new understanding?’ The response will help refine the new understanding.

Another crucial discussion should revolve around challenging the second component of insight – that is, the implications of the new understanding. An executive should guide a discussion to see if the suggested implications of the new understanding will actually hold up to scrutiny. The subsequent deliberations will likely lead to the proposed implications being modified or new implications emerging that had not previously been considered. In one case I observed, a team initially thought that their new understanding implied that they needed to develop new customer value propositions for all of their customer segments. After further deliberation, they decided that only two customer segments needed radically different value propositions based on new assumptions about customer needs.

Get the ball rolling with your management team

As an HR professional you can play an important role in helping your management understand the critical importance of attaining breakthrough insights from their teams. Consider organising a workshop to educate your managers how to move an organisation toward an insight-driven culture that can fuel your organisation’s success.

Interested in this topic? Read People analytics: filling the data skills gap among HR is key to building the profession’s credibility.

Author Profile Picture
Liam Fahey

Co-founder and executive director

Read more from Liam Fahey

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