Erica Van Lieven

The challenges facing today’s commercial environment have had a significant impact on many of my company’s, Blue Chip clients, whose business models are being fundamentally challenged at all levels. Much of this change is attributed to shifting attitudes amongst consumers as well as heightened commercial competition. More specifically, the entrance of new competitors, new technology, cheaper prices, higher input costs as well as the relatively high Australian dollar. Some of my clients have shared that their profits have in fact been halved in the last couple of years, which puts great pressure not only on their business decision making, but by implication, pressure on my business. Research agencies are  constantly challenged to ensure that the contribution we make to their strategic and business solutions is the absolute best it can be.

The current business climate is one that demands that we find better, faster and more agile ways of solving client’s business challenges – a climate that leads us to question our own thinking and causes me to ask myself daily, “is there a better way to finding a solution?” Sometimes it feels easy to be sure when thinking about this in isolation, but I believe that challenging one’s thinking through sharing beyond your regular peer group is a sure way to find the weakness in your strategy. As Bertrand Russell said:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts”

As an example, in 2007 I began the search for ways for my company to progress in its intention to build a strong presence in online communities.  I had at the time, seen some exciting presentations on communities, at the London MRS Conference that year.  In the years following the conference, I began to explore, dabble and fail in a number of different attempts to find the best way forward for growing the community space for the business.

I had met and spoken with various potential partners and licensors of software, as well as explored building our own platform to facilitate the process.  I also tried working with some potential partners and there was one particularly memorable occasion (well, memorable for all the wrong reasons).  When working with this particular partner on a client’s project, they somehow, failed to let me know that they were closing their Australian office on the eve of kicking off our first project!  I spend the next 48 hours negotiating through London to a back office in Colombo –  a most educational and unsatisfying experience that was I would say – put down to a very steep learning curve.  Another low note was when after some initial and very preliminary discussions, with a potential software supplier, he (without any agreement in place, and without me), introduced himself to all my clients as being a partner to Direction First.  Well into my search, in 2011, a tweet connected one of my staff with a company we had seen at conferences, however we really knew very little about – they were InSites Consulting.

Taking a leaf out of Steve Jobs book, “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do”, I again, debated the pros and cons of building our own platform, however decided that future success for us would not be about the technology of the platform itself (in fact I believe the platforms will continue to become transparent and ubiquitous, evolving further) but how you engage with clients and consumers in this space and the depth of experience to guide you.

It was this fact, plus some of the published articles we had read that lead us into preliminary discussions with InSites on how we could work together. Hardened by my previous four years of unsuccessful discussions, I was ready, prepared and in a good place to understand what we needed to make an agreement work well for Direction First. The InSites team were also a refreshing change after some of my earlier experiences!

Once we established a framework for working together in the first year, we moved forward to explore our partnership.  Our agreement made clear what the responsibilities of each party were and with the rules in place, it allowed a great sense of collaboration and innovation to flourish.

I believe that the fundamental drivers of our successful partnership has been what I refer to as match making; and making it work – day to-day

Match Making:
Sharing our Vision and Culture:

  • Having a shared vision on the future of research and where it is going creates a bed-rock to move forward from. Both parties held a strong belief in the future face of research being  online, and united in our vision not only to truly and deeply collaborate with consumers, but to generate the maximum impact on our clients business  – to become change agents and strategy consultants
  • Sharing a similar company culture that  empowers young people, is open and co- operative,  passionate, daring and committed

The result of this is that 1+1=3! The combination of the two parties gives a result that is greater than each can achieve on their own. The energy and impetus that the interaction creates, drives both parties to achieve more. We have run joint R&D projects together, using joint teams across the globe. Each business also has a unique perspective, with them, bringing strength in the methodology and approach, and us, offering a unique regional perspective.

Day to Day working:
Success requires that both parties are clear about their expectations, roles and responsibilities. Whilst an agreement can do this in a formal sense, making this work day to day is critical. Being clear about who has what role or responsibility and being careful to spend the time outlining this is important.  Sometimes what is said is not really understood!  English can be an obtuse language.

Both parties have invested time in connecting the teams through regular phone conferences, webinars, shared sessions and well as spending time in each other offices.

I am a strong believer that collaboration amongst diverse teams, who are aligned around common goals and values, drives outstanding business outcomes. I am e seeing this now in our business as we build into new areas with new ways of working that are inspiring our clients. Great strength is achieved through this purposeful combination of diversity, and I am confident that this thinking is going to be of great benefit to our clients and critical to the future growth of Direction First.