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I’ve been at the helm of Work-Learning Research, Inc. for almost 20 years. Ever since I began to have a following as a research-to-practice consultant, I’ve been approached by vendors to “research” their products. A great majority who approach me are basically asking me to tell the industry that their products are good. I tell these vendors that I don’t do that kind of “research,” but if they want a fair, honest, and research-based evaluation of their product for their own benefit—advice not for public consumption but for their own feedback and deliberations—I can do that for them. Some take me up on this, but most don’t.

I recently got another request and I thought I’d share what this looks like (I’ve removed identifying information):

Vendor:

I’m reaching out as the co-founder of [GreatNewCompany], a [high-tech blankety-bling] platform. We’re trying to create a product that [does incredibly wonderful things to change the world of learning].

I wanted to ask if you’d consider reviewing our product? I know you’ve spoken to [this industry luminary about such-and-such] and wondered if this was an area of research you’d planned to do more work in?

A free account has access to almost all features but is just limited to [25] unique recipients [https URL generously offered]. If you need more access to perform a comprehensive review or have any questions then please let me know.

I understand that this isn’t a small ask as it’d take a decent amount of your time but thought I’d see if you found us interesting.

Gentleman Researcher/Consultant:

I do review products, but not for public consumption. I do it to provide feedback to developers, not for marketing purposes.

My cost is [such-and-such] per hour.

Let me know if you’re interested.

Vendor:

Thanks for letting me know – it’s appreciated.

We’d be interested in some consultancy on helping raise awareness of our product and to better reach more customers. We’re not sure if we’re just failing at marketing or whether our product just doesn’t have the broad appeal. Do you think you’d be a good fit helping us with that?

Thanks.

Gentleman Researcher/Consultant:

It’s a crazy market now, with lots of new entries. Very hard to gain visibility and traction.

I don’t schlep for others. I run a high-integrity consultancy here. SMILE.

One recommendation I make is to actually do good research on your product. This helps you to learn more and it gives you something to talk about in your content marketing efforts. A way to stand above the screaming crowd.

I can help you with high-integrity research, but this usually costs a ton…

Vendor:

Hi Will,

Thanks again for the thoughts, sounds like we’re a bad fit for the kind of consultancy that we need so I appreciate you being open about that.

Cheers!

THE END

A happy ending?

================

Conclusions:

  • Be careful when you hear about product endorsements. They may be paid for.
  • Remember, not all communications that are called “research” are created equal.
  • Look for consultants who can’t be bought. You want valid advice not advice tilted toward those who pay the consultants.
  • Look for vendors who tell true stories, who honestly research their products, who learn from their experience.
  • Be skeptical of communications coming out of trade associations when those messages are paid for directly or indirectly (through long commercial association between the vendor and the association).
  • Be even more skeptical of best-in-industry lists where those listed pay to be listed. Yes! These exist!
  • In general, be skeptical and look to work with those who have integrity. They exist too!

 

Thanks to Bill Ellet, editor of the unbiased Training Media Review, writes about the awards in our industry and how hopelessly biased and corrupt they are.

Click to read Bill's excellent article.

The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) is now famously known for making seriously contaminated products, killing 9 since September 2008 and sickening almost 700 others.

You all know that. What you may not know is that PCA was inspected by the leading certifying agency in the food industry on multiple occasions and was given glowing reviews.

Here is what the Washington Post reports:

David Mackay, Kellogg's chief executive, said his company trusted
audits performed by the American Institute of Baking International, the
biggest food-inspection firm in the country. The institute conducted
scheduled inspections of PCA's facilities and never flagged serious
problems. It issued a "certificate of achievement" and a "superior"
rating last August, when PCA was getting results from internal
laboratory tests that revealed a salmonella problem in its plant in
Blakely, Ga., congressional investigators said.

Many well-known companies (including Kellogg) trusted outside food auditing firms to test the ingredients they were sourcing for their own products. Others, like Nestle, sent their own auditors and rejected PCA products after finding rat droppings, beetles, and other detritus in PCA's products.

Not surprisingly, PCA paid American Institute of Baking International to perform the audits (AND to certify PCA as in compliance).

Lessons Learned

  1. When a company pays an auditor, the auditor may have incentive to be lenient.
  2. When a company relies on outside inspectors to assess other entities, they may not get good information.
  3. When an industry fails to provide good oversight and regulation, bad things can happen.
  4. Just because something is certified, even by the largest or most prestigious certifying body in an industry, doesn't mean the certification can be trusted.
  5. It's not just about good people, it's also about good structures, oversight, and information.

Is this Relevant in the Training & Development, Learning & Performance Field?

Yes. You bet. We have:

  1. Awards that are biased toward those paying award application fees.
  2. Top 10 and Top 20 lists that represent the awarding entity's client list.
  3. Industry research based on surveys sent to the research entity's clients' client lists.
  4. Industry research that is biased toward the research entity's biggest clients.
  5. Conference sessions that are guaranteed for companies who pay for exhibit space.
  6. Webinars by sponsoring organizations.
  7. Etc.

Unfortunately, there is no trusted journalistic institution in our field. Our trade organizations are timid because commercial interests pay the bulk of their operating expenses. Most of our bloggers (me included) are timid because we earn our living in the field. Where the hell are the freelance bloggers who our social-media evangelists promised would rise up to fight corruption and injustice?

Best Advice in Current State

The best advice at this point in time is:

  1. Be skeptical.
  2. Do your own digging. 
  3. Form groups of other skeptical diggers and share information.
  4. Don't just get angry about this. It's the way the world works. Find work arounds.
  5. If you can't point fingers, gently avoid the corrupters.
  6. If you're entangled with a corrupting entity, gently work to reform it, or leave it.
  7. If you are a corrupter, forgive yourself, reform yourself.
  8. Do good work.