Self-service research, good or bad?
The answer is, of course, it depends. And the true answer may be that it’s a little bit of both. In my own experience as a research professional at LAC Group, as well as that of LAC in general, time and again we have seen the best solution to be a balance of technology and skilled researchers.
Yet many law firms and businesses have been turning competitive intelligence, patent research and other information needs into self-service research, in order to save money. While this approach limits the need for (and ostensibly the expense of) dedicated research staff, the savings and other expected gains can be elusive.
Following are just three ways in which self-service research – relying on technology and people finding their own information – can end up costing more while being less effective.
1. The Tendency to Overspend on Research Tools and Services
“Let’s take all the savings we’ll realize by cutting research staff and spend it on systems!”
Does that make sense? Of course not and yet that often ends up being the case.
It seems that when organizations cut research staff, they feel entitled and obligated to spend more on technology – developing portals, facilitating and paying for additional user access, subscribing to every information service and database available. All kinds of reasoning is called upon to support this:
• We need reliable information.
• The best tools and resources make research faster and easier.
• With lower research staff costs, we have more to spend on automation.
Before you know it, any savings on staff are spent on systems. Subscriptions to reliable information resources can add up to big dollars, to the tune of hundreds of thousands, even reaching the million dollar mark for some enterprises. Firms and companies don’t often have a handle on what they’re getting as a result or what they’re even spending – especially when different department heads and divisions are buying their own subscriptions, often duplicating some services while neglecting valuable others. These added tools don’t always bring improved outcomes. And no organization should diminish the cost of giving more duties to often the most valuable employees in the business – people whose time, energy and talents are worth more when they are using the best information, not struggling to find it.
Experienced professionals know how to get the biggest bang for the research dollar. We can spot duplication and overpaying because we are familiar with the tools and the vendors that provide them. We know that some resources are overvalued and oversubscribed, while others are overlooked – like relevant news, often the first to go in the belief that news is free, even though paid newsfeeds are sometimes an invaluable resource.
2. Tools Work Best in the Right Hands
“Everybody knows how to do a search and the person requesting information knows best what he or she wants.”
These are the reasons that justify self-service research.
Yet the difference between search and research goes far beyond those two additional letters. The truth is that many people are ineffective researchers, lacking not only the training but the aptitude. Many people are not quite sure what they are looking for, or how to pose the right questions. Even highly-educated people can be astonishingly gullible and unable to discern good information from bad!
Any tool, instrument or technology gives the best results when used in the right hands. As anybody knows who has attempted to do a home improvement project themselves, the three hours it would take you to fix a toilet, with leaks and messes along the way, can be done neatly by a plumber in 30 minutes. Maybe that saves you money out-of-pocket, but at the expense of precious time today and the risk of a bigger problem in the future.
Research experts know how to coax the right information from a growing digital universe. We can narrow the scope to save time, without missing valuable data. We know the tricks of the trade for uncovering those nuggets of gold and we can distinguish a nugget from a plain old rock. We know how to triage a deluge of data for relevancy and priority.
The other side of the argument is the requester’s side: Should people who are billable resources (like attorneys or consultants) or responsible for product innovation (like scientists) or in charge of business strategy (like executives) be spending time looking for information? Research can be time-consuming, leading to dead-ends and causing distractions, particularly on the internet.
It’s true that some people can be successful doing their own research, and some projects don’t require special skills or subject matter expertise. Yet far too many information requirements depend heavily on information quality and timeliness.
3. Two (or more) Heads Are Better than One
People can get very close to a particular topic at a level of familiarity that can actually get in the way. It’s the ‘forest for the trees’ syndrome – they can miss seeing information that could lead to valuable ideas and understanding. This is particularly true for people who are pressed for time and responsible for other priorities.
Research experts can be more objective and neutral, which opens us to gleaning useful insights. It’s like children and adults looking at the same setting in a zoo or museum – the child notices things that the adult tends to screen out and ignore, because the child is looking with a fresh, inquisitive eye.
Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.
These are three of the top reasons why we believe that a balanced approach of technology and skilled researchers can be the best approach, especially when companies like LAC Group are available to provide those research professionals and subject matter experts as needed.
It’s not that people doing their own research lack the intelligence or capability; what they lack is focus, experience and skills. And too many organizations that decide to automate research apply the same DIY approach to training – they invest a great deal in technology and very little (if anything) on teaching employees how to use it.
As a research professional and subject matter expert (I am a chemist whose past work experience includes a stint at pharmaceuticals/health care products company Abbott Laboratories), I admit I have a bias. Yet my science background, combined with experience and in-depth understanding of the best technical research tools and technologies, empowers me to bring value and insights that simply cannot be duplicated by an automated, self-service solution.
This post authored by Neal Rhutasel, Research Project Manager for one of LAC Group’s Fortune 500 clients.