Sunday, February 28, 2016

Libraries as Strategic Partners

The Lean LaunchPad methodology emphasizes primary customer research.  Set aside Googling and arms-length secondary research:  “get out of the building" and complete those 100 interviews!  Of course, customer discovery is actually a nuanced process.  In fact, it makes sense to integrate insights from primary and secondary sources.  Your research library can be a powerful strategic partner.

While many of us continue to think of the library as a building containing shelves full of books, in fact it is a value-added data center that you may never physically enter.  The value-add comes in two forms: 
  1. Information in the form of articles, reports and databases worth many thousands of dollars – way beyond what can be obtained via Google, or what any individual research project or startup could afford.   
  2. Navigation in the form of advice from research librarians who understand the sources, quality and structure of the data.
As we prepare for the next cohort of Value Proposition Design Workshops for applicants to the NIH-funded MN-REACH medical innovation commercialization research program, I’ve had the pleasure of being part of what one colleague calls “the trifecta:” 
  1. Myself from the Carlson School of Management and MIN-Corps
  2. MN-REACH colleagues from the UMN Academic Health Center and College of Science and Engineering
  3. Our amazing librarians specializing in biomedical and business information.  The UMN Libraries will produce a series of reports customized for each team. These reports (distillations of secondary research) will enable and augment primary customer research, not replace it.  
The relationship between library-generated market research and Do-It-Yourself customer research can be conceptualized as follows:

The basic idea is that the library research equips you to identify whom to speak with, what to say, and what to look for.  This information may be drawn from industry analyses and databases, a Bloomberg terminal, directories of associations and advocacy groups, a practitioners’ decision support tool (in the medical space: DynaMed), as well as articles in specialized trade journals.  Also, the University of Minnesota and many other universities and companies maintain searchable databases of in-house experts (at UMN it’s called Experts@Minnesota), who are often very connected people who may be a starting point for the customer discovery process. 

One challenge is that these masses of data can be very difficult to navigate and interpret.  That’s where your friendly reference librarian can be incredibly helpful.

While this post has focused on the medical space, research librarians can add value to the customer development process in any vertical.  This spring, we’ll also be testing this approach in Value Proposition Design Workshops focusing on environmental technology commercialization.

What if you’re not at a Research I university?  First, many secondary campuses of state universities share library resources with the flagship campus.  Second, you’d be surprised at the quantity and quality of data at public libraries in major metropolitan areas (many of which extend free access privileges beyond local residents and workers to people across their states and regions).  Finally, here in the Twin Cities, we are lucky to have the James J Hill Business Reference Library, whose reading room is pictured at the top of this post.  The JJ Hill Center not only delivers traditional reference services for members (individual rates start at $50/year; you don't have to be in Minnesota to belong) but also provides coworking space, hosts multiple entrepreneur-oriented events such as the 1,000,000 Cups program, and is a cool concert venue!