Minute Wise, Hour Foolish

In a recent article in Research World, Chris Forbes of Research Reporter highlighted that the traditional economic success for mid-to-large sized research agencies relied on a combination of research expertise and technological infrastructure. As data is collected and assembled faster (both formally and informally) the weight is shifting more and more to the expertise part of that equation. Thus, the agency side of MR is going to be more and more dependent on research experience and “thinking ability” to create unique value for their clients

In fact, more and more the main (and some would say only) resource the agency researcher has to sell is their time. So, when it comes down to it, the quality of how that time is applied and the creativity to which it is put are ‘de facto’ the value to the client. Future economic strength will rely almost solely on how well the time ‘resource’ is both defined and managed.

Over the years, the general distaste even the best researcher has for timesheets never ceases to bemuse me. Perhaps, it’s the way they’re ‘sold’ internally or that their content is poorly analysed and dryly fed back. They are generally seen as a bureaucratic imposition on what we’d like to believe is at least a quasi-creative process.

The best practice use of time sheets significantly improves the creative process. All we really have to sell is our time so knowing how it’s used and improving on that use is crucial not only for profitability but also to create the time needed to do the best work. In other words, you have to spend time to save time. But this can only be achieved with a more imaginative analysis of the information.

My advice is not just to use time data as profit & loss KPI to reward or censure. That doesn’t motivate and the only creativity it generates is how to beat the system.

A focused regular analysis by client, product/service, and basic activity (i.e. sales, doing projects, and ‘everything else’) will show which clients are getting the best, i.e. most effective service, and which teams are giving the best ‘bang for the buck’ and probably getting the best appreciation from the customer. Couple this with a measure of repeat business rates to confirm.

It’s also going to draw attention to who’s trying hard but pushing in the wrong direction – it’s not enjoyable to put in long hours for low return, which has a rapidly deleterious impact on productivity and morale. It will quickly highlight which clients to keep and grow and which to consider phasing out of the roster.  

The dissemination of time usage needs to be treated internally, the same way a research presentation is to a client externally, i.e. consider the audience, make it relevant, make it interesting, and make it actionable.

In a typical research business around half to two-thirds of all costs are people related, rent rarely covers more than 5%, and CAPEX even less than that. Time sheets are at most a 5 minute daily activity but can save days in a typical month. And those days generate the time, the breathing space, for creative, insightful analyses that thrills clients and builds repeat business. There are few better ROI’s in terms of your time and your bank account.

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