It’s a Trap! Insights Functions vs. Insights Systems

Primary research is great, but it’s just one tool. It’s how companies use insights that makes the difference.

Too many companies fall into too common of a trap: mistaking the difference between an insights function and an insights system. Far too often, companies invest in an insights or research department, or function, only to have its value limited because they are not connected to the broader business.

And more than ever, companies are investing in primary research but getting mixed results. Don’t get me wrong. Primary research is core to being a more outside-in, customer-centric business. However, that’s just one tool – it’s what happens with those insights and who is using them that make the difference. Far too often, this primary research is conducted, summarized to a select set of stakeholders, and then put on the shelf.

An insights function is critical to bringing expertise, discipline and execution to the gathering of insights. However, what sets high-growth companies apart from their peers is having an insights system. An insights system is not bound by functional areas or business units. It is not project-based. It is not a one-way flow of information. Far too often, insights are left at the customer level, not the market level. Or even worse, they are never shared at all.

It is by definition a system. An insights system has on and off ramps for insights. A wide range of stakeholders access and contribute to the system, well beyond the insights or research function. This includes sales and marketing, innovation and R&D, service, engineering and operations, and even partners and principals. Each of these groups has key insights into customers’ needs and behaviors, competitors and ideas for growth.

So, how do you start to build out the system? Market leaders such as UPS, 3M and Microsoft have built their systems by following these proven strategic steps:

  1. 1. Map it. Start by mapping the current flow (or lack thereof) of insights. Where do they go? Who’s contributing them? Who’s using them, and who’s not using them?
  1. 2. Define it. Define what the ideal insight system looks like for your business to drive that outside-in perspective. Where should they come from (i.e., sales, service and market research)? Where should they go (i.e., innovation, marketing and sales)? How should they be accessed (a central repository and/or several strategic forums for insight sharing)?
  1. 3. Educate. Don’t take for granted that everyone starts with the same definition and value of an insight. Leading companies have invested in upfront education and communication about the definition and value of insights to their business under the impressions that more people will contribute to and use them once properly informed.
  1. 4. Build the toolkit. Based on the future insights map you have created, there should be a core set of tools to leverage and/or build. This can include primary research such as quantitative research and focus groups, customer advisory groups, ethnography and usage studies, analytics of customer buying behavior, win/loss analysis, and even listening to contact center calls or complaints on your website. Remember, more isn’t necessarily better. It’s about a core set of tools that give you fresh, actionable insights into your market, competitors and customers.
  1. 5. Make insights core to the conversation. Make insights a baseline expectation for decision-making. Whether it be go-to-market planning, a business case review, an innovation pipeline review or a strategic customer plan, bring insights to the core of the conversation and make this a consistent expectation throughout the business.
  1. 6. Incent to drive the behavior change. To really accelerate the insight system, people need to be incented to contribute insights. The companies that have been most successful building this competency have built this into individual’s performance and incentive plans. It’s become an expectation of virtually all areas of their business.


The answer to insights isn’t always more headcount and bigger budgets in the research group. The path to truly becoming an outside-in company starts with the insight system. It will allow you to more rapidly and consistently identify and act on market opportunities as they emerge.