Study pinpoints difficulties and tensions in creating ‘thought leadership’

The study redefines thought leadership as “knowledge from a trusted, eminent and authoritative source that is actionable and provides valuable solutions for stakeholders”

A new study examines the risks and tensions in producing ‘thought leadership’, a concept that sees individual gurus and organisations share their expertise to intrigue, challenge and push the boundaries of knowledge – and enhance their reputations.

In the peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal of Knowledge Management, lead author Professor Will Harvey, Professor of Management and Associate Dean Global at the University of Exeter Business School, redefines thought leadership as “knowledge from a trusted, eminent and authoritative source that is actionable and provides valuable solutions for stakeholders” following an extensive literature review of over 50 academic and professional articles.

More than two-thirds of firms that provide professional services (eg law, accounting or management consultancy firms) now have their own dedicated head of thought leadership, the study states – with many firms publishing large volumes of expert practitioner material in the form of magazine articles, blogs, podcasts and videos.

But according to Professor Harvey the sheer volume of thought leadership being created suggests much of it is low quality, and threats to public trust in information posed by recent political events such as the aftermath of the US elections, as well as the rise of influencers on social media, makes a reappraisal of the term urgently required.

While insisting that thought leadership can boost reputations and provide individuals, teams and organisations with an edge over their competitors, the study argues that much thought leadership fails to pass the ‘valuable solutions’ test.

Following in-depth interviews with 12 established practitioners representing different sized firms in professional service sectors including law and accounting, the study identifies nine tensions in thought leadership that organisations need to navigate.

For individual thought leaders this includes balancing the risk of developing original material that genuinely pushes boundaries with the safety of producing tried-and-tested content; the difficulty of sharing knowledge derived from a confidential relationship with a client; and the tension between the idea that thought leadership is supposed to be rare and original and expectation that it is consistently produced.

At an organisational level this includes the issue of who is the owner and beneficiary of thought leadership, the individual or organisation; whether it is worthwhile paying an external provider to produce thought leadership; and the confusion over how best to measure its impact.

The study also recognises broader tensions for industry: the trade-off between the wider social benefit of sharing thought leadership and the commercial benefit it creates for an organisations; the balance between sharing expertise and protecting intellectual property so as not to give an advantage to competitors; and the difficulty of conveying know-how that stems from unique experience and intuition.

Professor Harvey said: “”Our research shines a light on the hitherto hidden challenges involved in creating, developing, sharing and promoting thought leadership. If handled well, thought leadership can be a major source of reputation advantage for individuals, teams and organisations through signalling knowledge distinctiveness compared to their peer set and competitors.

“However, organisations need to recognise, consider and navigate the tensions our research identifies, as well as the difficulties in attempting to scale up thought leadership activity.

“We hope knowledge practitioners and knowledge management academics will join in research and practice to help better understand how to navigate the tensions identified to help organisations to create a compelling and sustainable thought leadership strategy.”

The study, The tensions of defining and developing thought leadership within knowledge-intensive firms, is published in the Journal of Knowledge Management.

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