If you aren’t going to use the research – don’t spend your money on it

How much research is sitting around your organization, unused? It’s surprising how often companies and non-profits alike underutilize the research they already have available. At meetings, people will say, “If only we knew X…” when there’s a document sitting on their server which has that exact answer buried in page 45 of an appendix .

So, how can you get the most out of research you already have – or research you are about to commission?

Design it properly in the first place:

  • Create research objectives. What do you want to know at the end? Don’t rush to methodology. Take the time to define the outputs you want, and then gear the rest of the project based on that. This should include the decisions you want this research to influence (more on this later).
  • Engage the end users of the research. Spread the net a little wide here to include people and functions that you think might possibly benefit. This doesn’t mean burning a lot of people’s time – this can just involve a quick chat to let them know you’re thinking about a certain kind of research, and would they have any thoughts?
  • Make sure you attach enough resources that you can meet your research objectives. This should include the right methodology so the research will have legitimacy, as well as resources to publicize the results.

Spread the word:

  • Spice it up. Don’t just say a report exists. Talk about what the results show – any surprises? Anything perplexing in the data? Ask people what they think a particularly intriguing result means.
  • Share early and often. Don’t assume people will remember something if you just send an email. Use all the tools at your disposal – email, in-person announcements, Twitter, whatever might work. The bigger your team or community, the more multifaceted the methods have to be.
  • Tell everyone. Did you consult with people to design the research or get it done? Tell them the results! At least be prepared to share some of the outputs. It’s something you can give away to build your network/base/constituency.

Assume it will create change:

  • If you’ve done the commissioning properly, you should already know what decisions this research will influence. Make sure the research results are integrated into the decision-making process, whether that’s board-level analysis, management team decisions, or somewhere else.
  • Be alert for amnesia setting in – people tend to forget they “know” certain things organizationally, and settle back into the notion that certain things are non-falsifiable. When people say, for instance, “Well, we aren’t sure what customers/members/vendors/suppliers/sponsors think about that…” be ready to challenge that based on the research that’s been done with precisely those people.
  • Get – and stay – creative about using the results. This is particularly true when it’s been a while since the research was done, and perhaps you are asking questions that weren’t anticipated at that time. Think hard about what the research is telling you, even if you are curious about something that goes beyond the existing questions. Of course, at a certain point, this stretches credibility past the breaking point and it’s time for new research.

Research is far too large an investment for you not to get the most of every dollar spent on it. It’s a living asset to the organization – not shelfware. And decisions are far too complicated and amorphous for us not to use the data we already have on hand, to help us get a little bit closer to confidence and certainty.

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.