Economic opportunities are funny things. One moment, it seems like infinite profits are available forever, and the next, they disappear entirely.
You can see this trend throughout history. In the 19th century, vast swathes of the U.S. population relocated to gold towns in the hope of getting rich overnight. Then, you had everyone piling into stocks in the 1920s, property in the 2000s, and NFTs in the 2020s. It goes on and on.
Recently, the accepted wisdom is that firms should focus on “thought leadership.” Being at the forefront of an industry and using publications to gain authority was seen as the best approach to securing a place among the industry elite.
But thanks to the development of sophisticated chatbots, that entire business model is in doubt. While ChatGPT can’t produce a report as good as one that PwC might put out, it is getting surprisingly close. And with the exponential increase in performance continuing, it will likely exceed human capabilities in the not-so-distant future.
That raises the question of whether companies should aspire to be “knowledge-based businesses” in the future. In the 2000s and 2010s, that sort of thinking was aspirational. But as intelligence becomes commodified, what does it mean for the future of these businesses?
As such, many are wondering whether they should go back to basics. Instead of value-added, many believe the best approach is to return to physical operations and use technology to provide a veneer of sophistication.
Popular culture is already picking up on this trend. Newspapers and online articles are discussing how plumbers are making more money than programmers because of changes in the economic environment. Falls in pay in one sector are being compensated for increases in another, it seems. But the pattern is unexpected.
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There are several reasons why companies are considering reining in their thought leadership aspirations. One is oversaturation. Put simply, there are already so many firms vying for this title that investing energy into it seems futile.
Another is the lack of focus. Brands that chase status are less likely to have a coherent brand message. Firms are also less able to concentrate on their core operations and get those right first.
The unclear ROI is another issue. It is not always obvious what the return on investment is for a company that puts lots of money into writing papers. Being seen as a thought leader might improve branding and reputation, but how much money it generates is mysterious for many firms.
That said, the biggest reason is the change in the technological environment. Artificial intelligence is commodifying human thought, transforming it from something scarce to abundant. Any firm can use these tools to get answers or reports, reducing the need for human cognition significantly.
With thought leadership and “knowledge work” taking a backseat, what can your firm do to get back to basics and thrive? This section takes a look at some of your options.
One opinion is to leverage new tools to improve operations. Companies that can boost productivity and minimise unnecessary labour input are more likely to thrive long-term.
BuildOps field service management software is a case in point. The developer believes it is possible to use apps to boost the efficiency of contractors across the economy, not just those working for the big firms.
“The level of technology now available to small and medium-sized firms is astonishing,” the brand says. “The growing maturity of the cloud as an environment for doing business means that companies can lighten up their operations and work across more diverse regions, even with people in the field.”
The trend right now is towards integrating multiple services into a single app. Users can combine services to reduce confusion and inefficiency in the office, all while avoiding using third-party applications.
Another approach to getting business basics right is to be authentic. Creating more high-quality pieces that resonate with your target audience could be a way to skirt around the issue of the declining importance of thought leadership. You still want to generate output, but abandoning the idea that you need to be the best of the best could ironically help you communicate better with customers.
Also, being authentic doesn’t need to involve any cognitive output at all. Instead, you can focus on building personal trust with your audience. Small actions like these can increase referral traffic and ensure that you are the go-to person in the community.
Business basics also include aligning your business goals with your core objectives and customers’ needs. Going down the thought leadership route in the age of AI might seem like the optimal strategy, but it could be the human connection that is the scarce and valuable thing for customers.
Finally, tracking your progress as you make the switch away from thought leadership back to basic operations can help. You can get a clear picture of where you’re doing well and the areas still requiring improvement. Collecting metrics will show you the impact of your strategy.
While getting back to business basics is self-preserving in the age of AI, some companies are still focusing on it. Understanding what’s driving them can be a good way to determine whether you should abandon your efforts entirely or simply scale them back.
The main reason companies are still pursuing the idea of thought leadership is brand differentiation. Firms want to make their companies seem more trustworthy than the competition by appearing to know more.
This approach is valuable for businesses right at the forefront of a field where AI simply doesn’t have the data to break new ground. It could also be helpful for those with active audiences who want to consume content.
Thought leadership can also be helpful for brands that want to build closer relationships with their customers. These activities are particularly valuable in consulting firms that rely on forming close bonds with their clientele. B2B businesses can benefit from showcasing their expertise and adding novel research that AI hasn’t ingested yet.
Being a thought leader can also help on the employee engagement side. Workers feel like they are doing something valuable for the company instead of simply going through the motions. Employee engagement is likely to rise in firms that promote interesting work instead of insisting that employees constantly focus on rote tasks.
Finally, having some thought leadership can assist with organic reach. Many brands believe it can help them reach new audiences, often via social media. The companies with the highest quality content often receive the most likes and views.
In summary, thought leadership is still here, but it might not stick around for long. As technology takes over the cognitive space, the value-added for businesses will probably return to the basics. Consumers won’t know whether a firm is doing original research itself or getting AI to do it for it unless it conducts some sort of primary science or study.
As such, the reasons for being a thought leader are, shockingly, weaker than ever before. Our culture praises cognition, but that may become secondary to simply meeting clients’ basic needs. Companies that can do it are much more likely to thrive long-term and potentially avoid wasting resources that aren’t going to generate meaningful returns for them.