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Knowledge@Australian School of Business

Executives Speak Up, in Real-time, on Innovation, Financial Risk, Hiring and Other Concerns

Published: March 29, 2011 in Knowledge@Australian School of Business
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For business executives, knowledge is power and time is money -- so when information arrives too late, it isn't worth much. Yet many insights about business behavior come in one of two forms: minute-by-minute anecdotes from news outlets or social media, or long-term studies from industry groups and academia that take years to complete.

A new type of survey research from Wharton attempts to uncover insights that are both timely and deep. Through brief online surveys of a wide spectrum of industry executives, researchers have compiled data about what these executives are thinking today. For example, a survey on the risk of innovation found that while most companies understand that it is important to learn from failures, only a small number do the important legwork that best helps prevent them.

Another survey, this one on corporate social responsibility, found that companies are partnering with more social causes even though they don't believe it will boost short-term sales. A third survey, on the global financial crisis, hints that employers want to hire but feel unable to, and are worried that existing talent will leave as soon as the economy turns around.

The surveys are part of a project from the Wharton Behavioral Laboratory called APEX, short for the Advisory Panel of Executives. A select group of several hundred industry leaders at the manager level or above -- members of the APEX panel -- agreed to respond to brief questionnaires on a variety of hot business topics. In exchange, panel members have access to survey results before they are released to academic journals or business media.

APEX executives also earn reward points for participating in surveys, redeemable for Wharton publications or the chance to win free courses in Wharton's Executive Education program. In January 2010, after six months of testing, APEX officially began its ongoing series of surveys. More than 200 industry professionals participated in the first round of surveys. Over time, the program expects to grow the pool of executives to 1,000 globally across a variety of industries. (Executives interested in applying for membership in APEX should click here.)

The "rapid response" survey process "generates a dialogue" between Wharton professors and the business community, says Wesley Hutchinson, a professor of marketing at Wharton and director of the Wharton Behavioral Lab. Since the surveys are short, the turnaround time can be as fast as two weeks, he notes. "It fills the gap between same-day journalism and academic research, which takes a year or more to collect."

Marketing professor David J. Reibstein recently tapped the APEX panel about marketing metrics to find out what measurements matter the most to top management. Reibstein was surprised that so many executives ignored some of the hottest new metrics in marketing literature, such as "customer lifetime values" and "net promoter scores." Instead, executives emphasized financial measures, with only three marketing-related metrics -- customer satisfaction, loyalty, and market share -- making it onto executives' top 10 lists.

"Part of the surprise for me was the lack of abundance of other measures," says Reibstein, who details such performance measures in his book, Marketing Metrics: The Definitive Guide to Measuring Marketing Performance. Reibstein included the survey's insights in the book's most recent version and plans to continue similar surveys with APEX over time, as well as conduct additional surveys to get a handle on how companies are responding to new trends such as social media. "Everybody is talking about social media right now and nobody knows what to look at," he says. "We feel this compulsion to do social media, but we still don't know how to capture the impact of any of these expenditures."

Here are three examples of recent surveys from the APEX panel:

Global Financial Crisis

A recent survey on the global financial crisis has yielded a wealth of data for researchers -- much of which is still being compiled. Preliminary excerpts from the surveys show that businesses are still struggling and are hesitant to hire, despite a growing awareness of need. "In spite of what the government and media say," says one CEO of an arts and entertainment company who participated in the survey, "what we see on the street and with our colleagues and partners indicates a much worse situation, not better."

In an open-ended survey that asked participants to list their greatest challenges, several APEX members cited employment as a key challenge moving into the year ahead. Some worried about the long-term consequences of cutting staff during lean times.

"We have tightened every facet of discretionary spending possible," says a senior vice president of a mid-sized Fortune 1000 company in the information services industry. "We have also downsized the company to meet the current demand." Motivating employees has become a challenge, since the company was unable to provide merit pay increases in 2008 and could only afford "very modest" increases in 2009. "Retaining employees during this time hasn't been an issue, since there aren't many places for them to go," the senior vice president adds. "This will change as the economy improves, and we stand the chance of losing some of our top talent."

The principal at a 250-person manufacturing firm echoed a similar sentiment. The company had been forced to shrink expenses as business dwindled. "With layoffs, salary reductions and mandated vacations, there is a general malaise across most of the remaining staff," the executive says. "This will likely continue until the recession ends, at which point we [are] concerned that many of the surviving employees will leave 'for greener pastures.'"

Some executives say they are ready to hire but don't know if the economy will cooperate. "[We] need to hire someone but [we're] not sure if business will hold up enough to do that on more than a temp basis," says the president of a company specializing in trade shows. The company's response has been to "struggle through, with everyone picking up more responsibility" in the meantime. The situation has gotten worse because small businesses still aren't getting the credit they need to tide them over. "Money is not being lent to small business. I'm hearing the same thing from other small business owners everywhere I run into them," the company president notes. "Many small businesses want to take on more jobs ... but can't because they don't have the human resources available to see the job through. We just need a loan to get us through to the payday from the client."

Jobs also came up in response to a survey question that asked what more the government could do: "Funds to genuinely increase employment opportunities would be helpful," says a marketing database manager from an employer in the entertainment industry.

Innovation Risk

Some of the survey results surprised researchers -- not because of what they revealed but because of what they left out. After more than a decade studying the failure rates of new product initiatives, Wharton marketing professor George Day expected to see a lot more finger pointing in his survey about the risks of innovation. Day wanted to learn more about what companies do to contain the risk around developing new products, and what happens within the company when a new product or initiative fails.

"I thought there would be more 'blame the victim,' but most companies tried to learn from it," notes Day, who defines a project as a "failure" if its return on investment was at least 30% or 40% below anticipated results. He found that the companies surveyed face a high level of risk when it comes to developing new products, ranging from a 30% rate of failure for small, incremental innovations up to a 90% risk rate for big breakthrough products.

When products failed, "only 12% of the respondents reported looking for a place to put the blame," Day reported. "That is a good thing because blame stifles innovation. People put their career on the line for a project, and if finger pointing and blame are the end result of a 'well intentioned' failure, they will not be motivated in the future to take the personal risk necessary to bring new innovations to market."

The variables behind a product failure are frequently out of a company's direct control, Day's previous work has shown. The culprits "are almost always rooted in market and competition," he says. For example, the market didn't grow as fast as expected, the product didn't win market share that was expected, or prices were weaker than expected.

Best practice companies do post-mortems on their failures to understand why the project did not succeed and what can be learned from the experience. Such companies recognize that failures often lead to success down the road, according to Day. Companies that have a systematic approach to diagnosing and understanding why a failure occurred can later build on those insights.

Ironically, the survey also found that while most companies understood the importance of learning from failures, only a small number undertook some important steps to help avoid them. The primary way that companies can contain project risk is through rigorous screening, Day says. That includes not only basic market research, but a concerted effort to understand the relevant markets, distribution channels, competitors and customers. Day points to Hewlett-Packard as a company that invests heavily in screening and market insights, sending out teams to interview potential customers before launching a final product. "If you really want to reduce risk, you spend a lot on trying to understand what your customers are looking for," Day says. "I am surprised to see that only 12% of the companies invested heavily in market insights.... If you are not investing heavily in market insights, you are not doing a good job of screening."

Like Reibstein, Day was able to incorporate the survey material into a recent book, Strategy From the Outside In: Profiting from Customer Value, and hopes to use more APEX surveys in his future research. The survey was an interesting "probe into the market," Day said. "It's a nice, flexible, fast turnaround platform."

Corporate Social Responsibility Survey

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has gained a lot of attention in recent years, but researchers at Wharton wanted to understand in greater detail how today's companies are choosing to "do well by doing good." They found that while the vast majority of companies continue to pursue traditional forms of charity, an increasing number of them are also incorporating cause-related marketing into their CSR efforts.

"This seems to be on the upswing right now. People are really jumping on the bandwagon," says Hutchinson, who compiled the survey results. The APEX survey showed that close to half of panelists surveyed reported cause-related marketing initiatives at their company. "We knew it was hot, but there hasn't been a lot of tracking," Hutchinson says. News reports have indicated that "cause-related marketing has become very popular, and this just documents that it's true."

Unlike traditional philanthropy, which involves simple monetary donations, cause-related marketing often entails a co-branded partnership between a company and a nonprofit to promote an event or a social cause. Product Red (www.joinred.com), launched in 2006 by Irish rock star Bono and the Kennedy clan's Bobby Shriver, is an example of cause-related marketing, notes Hutchinson. Companies such as American Express, Starbucks and The Gap partner with Product Red and agree to contribute a percentage of "Red" product sales to The Global Fund, a Geneva-based organization that funds programs to fight HIV and AIDS in Africa. Such co-branding not only helps the social cause, but also creates a halo effect for the companies involved.

One counterintuitive finding of the survey was that most companies did not believe CSR efforts increased sales. Despite the growing interest in cause-related marketing, less than 25% of survey respondents agreed with the statement: "Pro-social actions directly affect sales and profits for our products and services." By contrast, 75% believed that CSR directly affected brand image. "They don't think it's going to help their sales in the short run, but they do think it's going to affect their brand image and corporate reputation in the long run," Hutchinson says. "To me personally, it's interesting to see this stark trade-off."

Other past surveys have been focused on marketing strategies, business education and social media. Upcoming surveys will be on time management and pricing policies.

"The first surveys have really shown us that the model works," says Hutchinson. "We can quickly assess how executives are responding to both the pressing tactical issues of the day, and the long-term strategic issues that will chart the future of their company." The goal now, he adds, "is to scale up while maintaining the high quality of the panel. Quality for us is having panel members who can truly speak for their companies, who can represent the thinking of other executives at similar levels in their organizations, and who in aggregate are representative of the industries that make up the global economy."

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