by Andrew Laurence
Vice Chairman at Hill + Knowlton Strategies

I was thinking. About thought leadership. Consider the fact that some 20,000 members of LinkedIn are styled Thought Leaders. If you search YouTube you’ll find pages of them. And have you noticed the parodies like This Is That Talks and my favourite The Needlessly Intellectual Thought Leadership Generator?

Is there too much thought leadership about these days?

And what’s happening to corporate thought leadership, the evidence driven insights brought to us by companies that use their competence to expose, explore and resolve the big issues that executives and others are grappling with? Is it getting lost in the content explosion? Is thought leadership under threat or is it morphing into something else? Hopefully the new Economist report Thought leadership disrupted: new rules for the content age (produced in association with H+K Strategies and available from 27 July) will shed some light on this subject.

In the meantime I’m seeing three contexts for corporate thought leadership, I wonder if you see more?

Knowledge Businesses
First there are the strategy and management consultants and IT consultancies where it all started. These are the companies like McKinsey, Accenture and EY who share knowledge to build trust and drive sales. They’ve always done it and probably always will. Arup’s Cities Alive initiatives and Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 are a couple of great recent examples. At first sight it might look like its business as usual for them but these organisations face huge challenges in an always on, always communicating world, in stepping up the pace to stay front of mind while maintaining quality.

Big Picture Positioning
Then there are companies where thought leadership is an ingredient in a much bigger picture. Here its use is rooted in the organisation’s values, purpose, the societal impact of its business, maybe even the legacy it wants to create. Shell’s Energy Scenarios 2050 is an early example that redefined the climate debate for the energy industry; IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative focused the company and its communications on using technology to solve the big issues facing the world and GE’s Ecoimagination fused innovation with an environmental imperative. Is it me or is there less of this kind of big picture positioning around at the moment? Or is it just not getting traction?

Then we have the disrupters like Uber, Airbnb and Tesla. These guys are too busy changing the world to produce reports. They are thought doers. Here talk follows action and we learn in their slipstream. Is this simply thought leadership by example I wonder? And will they change when they become mainstream.

Thought Leadership is also changing in the way it’s delivered – it’s now about convening conversations not handing down white papers from on high; its about visual literacy, the soundbite and tweet sensitivity; it’s also about serialisation, spreading the narrative and providing byte sized insights on a moment by moment basis, leaving a breadcrumb trail that leads to the big, heroic initiatives like a report or a major event.

With so much change, in use as well as delivery, it strikes me thought leadership may need a rethink. What do you think?