Thought leadership is often viewed as a corporate communications tour de force. It combines essential components of a successful communications strategy by using storytelling and relationship building to establish strategic positioning and brand awareness. But as we find ourselves spending more and more time sifting through the online chatter, the management of information dissemination is becoming increasingly vital. Has thought leadership fallen victim to its own success?
Ever since McKinsey set the standard for the modern consulting firm and pioneered one of the first thought leadership platforms, McKinsey Quarterly, corporate service-providers have been providing free, non-commercial content as a way to seduce and inspire faith in their clients. The dawn of the management consultancy era dramatically changed services marketing by forcing firms to adopt an innovative marketing strategy to pitch their competitive advantage in a market traditionally dominated by law and accounting firms that traded on ‘high-quality’, ‘world-class’ services in exchange for equally earth shattering hourly fees. As a result, brands like McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (via BCG Perspectives) and Bain and Co. (Insights) started giving their expertise straight to the consumer in a strategy designed to inspire confidence and whet the client’s appetite. In today’s digital age, traditional marketing jargon has almost entirely given way to ‘show and tell’ – thought leadership enables firms to prove they are client-focused and innovative enough to prepare for an uncertain future. Furthermore, it bolsters their brand awareness, making it synonymous with a tangible product and a culture that fosters innovative thinking and creative expertise.
This phenomenon is nowhere more relevant perhaps, than in the world’s leading learning hubs, where knowledge transmission itself is sold with hefty price-tags. The Financial Times cites 100 business schools in its annual MBA ranking – a figure that is testament to an intense demand for business education, particularly in emerging countries, and an increasingly fierce playing field for global education providers. Reputation is everything as the proliferation of such brands – Harvard, Stanford, INSEAD, Wharton, LBS, ESCP and HEC, to name but a few of these household names – has shown. They, too, are under pressure to differentiate in a market flooded with ambitious, clever and economically minded prospective students from the East, who need transferable skills to compete in a brutal job market. INSEAD Knowledge has been leading the pack for years and boasts an entire editorial team, led by Shellie Karabell, a TV journalist with over 30 years experience and previously CNBC’s bureau chief in Paris. By going above and beyond faculty research, INSEAD Knowledge has redefined what business school thought leadership entails. Its content production and presentation rivals any major news provider and includes interviews with world business leaders, videos and complete versions in Chinese and Arabic. It is no surprise then that other schools, particularly those on the other side of the pond, have followed suit. Harvard’s Working Knowledge is an online descendent of the school’s reputed Harvard Business Review that is industry and sector driven. Knowledge@Wharton renders business school research and industry news highly accessible and is thus, a favorite for journalists seeking a clever citation for an article. In the UK, LBS Business Strategy Review and Cass Knowledge are also following the trend of promoting academic institutions as the birthplace of the modern consultant, whereas in France, ESSEC Knowledge‘s Points of View comes second to faculty research reflecting a rigorous academic culture. Despite their differences, their strategic goals are the same: Attract the world’s best and brightest students and ensure their appointment to the top of the world’s corporate and institutional power houses.
An obvious pitfall of this seemingly no-fail approach to getting the attention of prospective clients is ensuring the creation of all this ‘thought-leadership’, and overcoming the tricky hurdle of delivering it consistently and in a timely fashion. User-generated content has somewhat come to the rescue as blogs and the growth of online ‘expert’ communities such as the IBM Smart Grid and Accenture’s weblog demonstrate. However, the concept ‘user-generated’ has lost some of its shiny buzz as it teeters dangerously close to the blurry lines of social networking (Facebook, Twitter and the likes). It seems that true ‘thought leadership’ is in danger of getting lost in the information sandstorm. CEOs and high-school students alike are adopting tools to manage both their intake and diffusion of knowledge: RSS readers and filters (with the help of Google and Facebook) screen our news feeds. We coordinate our own brand diffusion via reciprocal LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook applications. But where will all this lead? Our ability to maintain authenticity and relevance, and still access true ‘thought leadership’, without falling victim to “online filter bubbles”, (a worrying concept eloquently described by Eli Pariser on the acclaimed TED portal), as the online world hurtles towards saturation point will continue to be a major challenge for our digital future.