Tag Archives: Research Matters

Untangling Government funding – Mapping employment & skills provision for local authorities

Government funding and support for employment and skills – sounds straightforward enough right?  Not if you’re a local authority.  Research Matters worked with the Local Government Association earlier this year to map this provision and build a data-rich tool to help local authorities know and access what was available in their area. The tool is live for LGA members, launched today (November 18th 2021),

Click here for our final report: Mapping National Employment and Skills Provision.

Local authorities want to maximise available employment and skills provision to help residents progress in work and learning and support local businesses with their recruitment needs.  As we emerge from the COVID crisis, creating good jobs alongside education and training opportunities is ever more essential to local recovery efforts.  But support in this area of Government funding is complex, fragmented and repackaged all the time.  

Research problem

Employment and skills provision is funded and commissioned by different Government departments and agencies and delivered by a range of providers, who are contracted to work according to different spatial areas. As much of this is designed nationally, this can make it difficult to know what national provision and services are available on the ground locally. Local authorities want to make sure that any provision locally is maximised and is joined up to support residents and businesses

To give an example, the London Borough of Bexley sits in six differently defined regions (London, Home Counties, London and the Home Counties 2, South and East London, East Local London, and Local Enterprise Partnership for London) with some provision devolved to the Greater London Authority.  The borough must deal with at least 15 suppliers as well as multiple training providers.  As contracts end, new suppliers come on board.  For local government employment and skills teams (or similar), this can make it challenging to know across their local authority area, what support is available and when.

Research solution

Research Matters was commissioned by the Local Government Association to map the geographic footprint of all current (Spring 2021) nationally commissioned employment and skills programmes and identify which providers are delivering what and where, and in the near future.

We focused on identifying and detailing employment and skills programmes that are nationally contracted to external providers, on a national level or sub-nationally.  We also looked at other employment and skills programmes, including direct Government provision of employment support, allocated funding to education and training providers and relevant grants that are available now and in the near future.

We delivered a report that describes how employment and skills provision is commissioned and delivered, including highlighting both the geographic boundaries and the landscape of employment support providers.  We also provided a dataset that categorised and described programmes in detail and showed what providers were delivering across the myriad of geographic areas.  This has been developed into a tool which local authorities can use to look-up programmes and the relevant providers that are active in their area. Clearly this is a an every changing and evolving landscape, and so information needs to be updated regularly.

Research impact

The work by Research Matters is now helping local authorities by:

  • Providing a roadmap of current employment and skills provision;
  • Providing local authorities with a clear picture of what provision is available in their local authority area, including who provides it (where information is available) in their area;
  • Helping local authorities understand the spatial footprints that shape this provision and how this is changing;
  • Highlighting an evolving provider landscape of key national and local providers which might offer new opportunities for partnership and development;
  • Supporting local government to collaborate with central government to shape provision and maximise opportunities that arise.


At Research Matters, we love a good mapping project.  Whether its policies, interventions, funding opportunities, products or competitors, we have developed a pragmatic and productive methodology for building a usable resource for clients.  Always tailored to the specific needs of our clients and accompanied by clear and insightful analysis that give clients the understanding they need.  Get in touch if you have a project in mind and we will be happy to talk it through.

Competitor Analysis Hijack! – The Lost Art of Competitor Research

Sometimes it can seem like in-depth, comprehensive evaluation of competitor activities has been hijacked.  It’s all about analysing the SEO traffic and online presence of peers. And it is easy to see why – with so many clever platforms and services and the weight of Google behind it, SEO analysis is an easy and powerful win.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that an internet search on competitor analysis throws up SEO first and foremost.  And more and more blogs point to evaluating competitor content, SEO structure and social media integration as the “three easy steps” to stand-out analysis.

But this approach doesn’t give a complete picture of what companies actually do or make, how they are organised or what gives them an edge.  A focus on the digital strategy doesn’t give the full story and can detract from the real facts and complexities underlying a competitor’s advantage.

There is huge value in stepping back and evaluating competitors or new entrants in a market in a holistic, systematic and deeper way.  This means giving proper weight to the fundamentals of business performance, strategic positioning, product mapping and organisational capabilities (as well as digital marketing activities!). 

Providing an evidence base for decision making

The strongest competitor research provides evidence to support a change and is most valuable when there is a genuine business imperative driving it.  In our case, clients might be building a business case, developing a product or justifying an investment.  

The research and analysis required involves looking closely at what others in a market are actually doing, how they are doing it and whether they are successful.  But it also goes further and is driven by relentless, targeted questions about how competitors operate to gain an advantage. 

Often, the central question being addressed is quite specific.  For example:

  • How are our competitors reacting to a shift in the market?  
  • How are they addressing a new challenge?  
  • How are they structuring to deliver their offer? 
  • Should we invest in a new product/service/market?
  • What are other players doing that is different from us? 

Good competitor intelligence answers these questions directly, and almost as usefully, can often raise questions that might not have been considered.  The insight and value that differentiates the resulting analysis derives from a set of clear questions to address.

Fundamentals of competitor analysis

Ongoing (or frequent) monitoring of competitors is part and parcel of good business practice.  And this definitely includes tracking digital activities. But, for deeper understanding, an analysis of a single competitor, or group of relevant direct and indirect competitors can include consistent comparison of any number of elements. 

There is almost a pick-list, depending on the need.  It includes: financial analysis, funding, strategy, leadership and governance, organisational structure, business segments, customers, customer awareness, sales and marketing activities, regulatory context, key partnerships, product mapping and development, pricing, geographic spread, market size, market penetration … And it is likely to include specific analyses, such as SWOT analysis, Forces at Work or peer benchmarking of products or activities.  These elements are the building blocks of a thorough competitor analysis. 

No “three easy steps

Actually, that isn’t quite true, there are some obvious and easy wins.  A trawl of free and public sources will pull together the basics – company websites, financial reports, press coverage and plenty of free and paid-for sources that aggregate data (Hoovers, Bloomberg, Dun & Bradstreet).  And there is internal knowledge to gather, saving hours of research and bringing useful insight. You can quickly achieve a good, high-level view, which at times, will be enough. 

However, a more granular, evidence-rich picture that can genuinely inform real business decisions is harder to achieve.  And incredibly time consuming. It involves reading product brochures (including the smallprint), trawling websites, reading financial reports and endless press releases, checking job adverts, chat rooms, looking at conference presentations and online interviews, reading blogs and social media posts …  Volumes of information to process and pull together. There is constant validation as you work through endless iterations of the same thing, piecing together a picture and drawing out insights. 

It isn’t rocket science, but does require discipline, structure and hard graft.  Even an appetite for boredom. It takes time and capacity, something senior executives and decision makers just don’t have.  All too frequently, tasks are only partially completed or are delegated to more junior colleagues, with a resulting lack of rigour and consistency.  And possibly insight?

The real value-add

We are being a bit disingenuous here, because it isn’t just know-how and time.  There is something more that comes from the experience of analysing companies and organisations for clients in high pressure situations, time and time again. 

It’s a few things:  being comprehensive, but with a forensic eye for detail;  a consistent approach that facilitates comparison; allowing for divergence when you get a scrap of a suggestion;  and the confidence to make assumptions and triangulate these with evidence or relevant context. Our clients also value having an outside view, looking at competitors both objectively and with an open mind.  It is all of this combined that leads to the most powerful competitive intelligence. The real value-add.

At Research Matters, we are quietly proud (and rather enjoy) getting down with the detail, drilling through the data and digging for the insights.  We can sprinkle some SEO analysis in too, if need be. We draw it all together to present a forensic view of the competitive environment, with the key takeaways and actionable results.  The aim, always, is to help our clients get to grips with the real issues and to think differently about the questions driving their business development and strategic direction.  


Quality Impact Evidence Summaries: Role Development

Research Matters has completed six Quality Impact Evidence Summaries (QIES), which review the evidence of the impact of developing new roles within the NHS.  Distinctively, impact on healthcare is viewed through the lens of quality, using the Institute of Medicine (IOM) domains of quality as a framework. Evidence summaries completed within the policy lever of Role Development are:  

QIES began as a series of structured reviews featured in A Clear Road Ahead, a 2016 Health Foundation project delivered in collaboration with Professor Sheila Leatherman, to shape a quality strategy for the NHS.  The Health Foundation re-commissioned Research Matters in 2017-18 to develop the structured reviews further, with the aim of exploring the potential to develop a sustainable tool or service to support and promote evidence-based policy and decision making across the NHS in England.

Taxonomy of health care policy interventions for the NHS in England

Research Matters has published a working paper setting out the structure of the NHS taxonomy that was developed as part of the Quality Impact Evidence Summaries (QIES) project. (see link Taxonomy of health care policy interventions for the NHS in England; A working paper for Quality Impact Evidence Summaries (QIES) project)

QIES present measurable evidence of the impact of policy interventions within the NHS. Distinctively, impact is viewed through the lens of quality, using the Institute of Medicine (IOM) domains of quality as a framework.

QIES began as a series of structured reviews featured in A Clear Road Ahead, a 2016 Health Foundation project delivered in collaboration with Professor Sheila Leatherman, to shape a quality strategy for the NHS.  The Health Foundation re-commissioned Research Matters in 2017-18 to develop the structured reviews further, with the aim of exploring the potential to develop a sustainable tool or service to support and promote evidence-based policy and decision making across the NHS in England.  

This paper explores the NHS taxonomy used, which focuses on health care policy levers at a national level.  It provides a framework to enable the comparison of policy interventions that have similar underlying modes of action, in order to highlight ‘what works’.  Crucially, the taxonomy can be used to underpin a systematic approach to the production of evidence reviews and potentially to influence decisions about where to commission policy research and evaluations


Rapid Evidence Review: NHS workforce retention

Retention is a current and complex workforce issue facing the NHS, with Health Education England (HEE) CEO, Ian Cumming, citing retention as the biggest single challenge in tackling NHS workforce shortages.[1]   But whilst the narrative about retention is clear and punctuated with headline-grabbing figures about retention levels, the impact of variations in retention, particularly on NHS performance and patient outcomes is less well understood.

A recent call for applications (now closed) from the Health Foundation focused on new research which would advance understanding of workforce retention in health and social care.  As part of this, Research Matters was commissioned by the Health Foundation to conduct a Rapid Evidence Review to understand the existing literature exploring retention in the health and social care workforces.  The aim of the work was to provide a broad overview of the current evidence base and identify areas where evidence is sparse or lacking.

Using a time-limited and pragmatic approach, we were able to deliver a high-level profile of the current evidence base on retention (2008 onwards), including the different approaches and study methodologies and where studies are focused in terms of sectors, staff groups and geography.  We summarised the main findings about retention and highlighted gaps and areas for further research.   Finally, we outlined high-level conclusions to frame ongoing research about retention in the health and social care workforce.

You can download the rapid evidence review here:  Understanding the current evidence base on workforce retention in Health and Social Care, A rapid evidence review for The Health Foundation, Laura Barrett, Elaine Robinson, Research Matters, September 2018

The report was for internal use by the Health Foundation and is published by Research Matters with the permission of the Health Foundation.

[1] Speech to NHS Confederation conference, June 2017

Case Study: Bespoke market segment analysis for specialist health care provider

We have recently finished working on a really interesting project with a not-for-profit provider of specialist health care.  We were able to produce a single, consistent and qualified view of market and competitive dynamics for four target segments.  These were niche areas that are not usually covered by published ‘off the shelf’ market research.  By deep diving and focusing on what matters for our client we produced work that was tailored to meet their specific requirements.  The case study describes our approach and the impact we had for our client. You can download our case study here: Case Study: bespoke market research


Measuring performance of schools: progress or attainment?

Should a child’s PROGRESS or ATTAINMENT level be the main measure of a school’s success?  With UK Government policy increasing focus on progress (albeit secondary to attainment for now) and debate growing about a more wholesale shift, you can see why assessment of progress is one of the key new product areas showcased at BETT 2015 this year (along with robots – but more about these in another post!).

BETT2015 Arena Wall

Closing the gap and leading the way

In the US, No Child Left Behind (2001) has placed the emphasis on accountability for under-achievement and has led to the development of the Common Core State Standards. In both, measuring progress is a marker for the schools themselves and for the learners, and both are driving the interest in, and uptake of, progress testing more broadly.  But progress testing for subject areas, most notably, literacy and maths, has also been growing in the UK and New Zealand.

Progress testing increasing in UK schools

With the removal of National Curriculum levels, OFSTED now is also beginning to focus more on different types of assessment, including measuring progress.  But there is a more significant shift ahead.

Under Government plans announced last year, from 2016 primary schools will be held to account by two measures.  Firstly schools should ensure that 85% of 11 year olds attain level 4 in their SATs (currently the threshold is 65%).  If schools don’t meet this standard, they must report against an alternate measure tracking pupils’ progress.

A new report from CentreForum takes this further – Progress matters in Primary too, supported by Pearson UK, argues that the pupil progress should be the main measure reported in primary school league tables. The report argues that a progress measure encourages schools to focus on all children and that it also means the focus is on pupil performance in the context of their individual baseline, rather than benchmarking them against a single standard.

This has significant implications for early assessment, because if a school is to demonstrate that pupils are making progress, they need a baseline to measure against.  This will require an assessment of pupils soon after they arrive in reception classes.   We can expect some contention, as many feel the system is already bogged down with testing and assessment, and that this has the effect of narrowing the view of what successful teaching looks like.

Others however see the wider, positive benefits of progress testing which can feed into personalising learning, the formative teaching process and enhanced learner outcomes.

Progress tests proliferating at BETT 2015

UK primary schools will be encouraged to start using an approved assessment as early as September 2015.  Not surprisingly, the emergence of progress testing focusing on primary schools was very evident last week during our annual visit to BETT2015.  We saw more and more assessment products and courses offering in-built progress testing, and also school management systems that were placing greater emphasis on recording and communicating pupil progress in ways that teachers could easily interpret and act on.

CEMS’s Performance Indicators in Primary School baseline tests are well established formative assessments used to evaluate what a child knows and can do when they start school. This test informed the initial Government policy about introducing the formal baseline assessment.  One product that we liked at BETT was GL’s Reception Baseline Assessment, a tablet based face-to-face assessment carried out between a teachers and child with a real emphasis on fun and interaction.  ‏

Progress testing in subject areas is a little more established and we enjoyed looking at GL’s Progress in English; Hodder Education Assessment Plus, AQA’s Online Progress Tests.  Our favourite though are Renaissance Learning’s STAR Assessment products, especially the Accelerated Reader.  Combining computer-based testing with adaptive learning, measuring progress and linking this with genuinely developing a love of reading – what’s not to like?


We have helped clients think about how to incorporate the assessment of progress in their products, looking especially at innovations around the world and in parallel subjects.  It’s a great opportunity for the expanding assessment market, but is it a great opportunity for our schools?  We agree with CentreForum and are watching with interest to see developments in the UK.  What do others think about how take-up will pan out here?

Dimensions of confident business decisions

Amongst all the blueprints for making good business decisions, our experience has shown us that it frequently boils down to four basic elements: robust internal and organisational data; insightful and targeted external market and competitor intelligence; clearly articulated strategic and commercial objectives; and a proper understanding of how a decision relates to your business values.


Confident decisions graphic

Internal and external data and insights

Relevant internal data and information should be easily defined and available (department silos and organisational blocks aside) and shouldn’t require too much effort to pull together.  This is the obvious starting point for most business decisions.

External intelligence can be a different matter.  Only the biggest firms can afford the luxury of an in-house research team to mobilise around every business decision or strategic shift.  Most rely on whatever time marketing or business development executives can garner to put together just enough on external issues and factors.

However, the amount of available and relevant external business intelligence is growing all the time and using it effectively can be can be an important differentiator to business decisions.  Sometimes, this type of information is a required part of the process, to prove validity or make a business case for a new product or strategy.   But it can feel optional and be overlooked.  A survey by management consulting firm Arthur D. Little showed that companies actually become more innovative and profitable by analysing external sources of information.  Surveying 275 C-level executives, they found that the best innovators scored 25% higher in their ability to use external business intelligence data and earned 13% more in profits from new products and services, compared with average firms (see External Business Intelligence Boosts Innovation and Profits).

With increased volume of external information, the skill of sifting and extracting what’s most important for your decision making becomes highly valued.  Findings need to presented clearly and give confidence that all bases have been covered.  They must also highlight the most relevant insights, give warnings about issues and barriers and offer alternative options, so you can interpret the information.  Professor John Payne describes this rather eloquently as cognitive and emotional fluency in his fascinating 2013 TED talk, Overcoming Information Overload in Decision Making.

Delegating, or outsourcing, what can be an extremely time-consuming task ensures that results are communicated with ease and ‘fluency’ and more importantly, frees you up to focus on more value-added tasks.

Business objectives and values

If internal data gathering can be easily delegated and external market intelligence outsourced, this leaves time for the critical thinking on business objectives and values to the decision makers.  Payne also urges decision makers to invest upfront time weighing up these values and objectives before they start examining the information provided as a way of making “value-based decisions.”  Clarifying objectives and testing decisions against values is necessary work that will underpin your final decision.  Moreover, for Payne, the more information you are faced with increases the need for upfront time thinking about your values and objectives to help you filter that information.


Quality business decisions balance critical business objectives and values with a full assessment of the relevant internal and external data and insight.  So, mobilise your internal resources, outsource the gathering and assessment of critical external market and business intelligence.  That leaves you to get your head down thinking about the values, objectives and criteria that will help you make the best decision with the best outcomes.

What do others think about the important elements of business decisions and how decisions makers should prioritise these?

Ten years, ten tips – launching researchchatter

RM Icon_5 200pxWe are marking an amazing ten years in business for Research Matters – a good time for a refresh (new branding, new website, new blog …) and a moment to reflect.

We’ve been thinking about what we’ve learnt after our first decade … Obviously, there is all that’s involved in running a business, especially in a technologically changing and enabling world, but more than that, here are some of our “so what’s” so far …


Research matters

Time and again, we have seen deep, thorough, objective, scrutinised research combined with client engagement, systematic thinking and intelligent insight help businesses and organisations make better decisions. We want our research to make a difference, sometimes small, sometimes more significant, so we work hard to make sure it hits the spot.  Research matters – this is what we love to do and it’s why we do it.

‘Start with why’

Knowing our clients is the first priority, personally where possible – we always try to meet people face to face. But more importantly, understanding what and especially why they are need to know something is the starting point. More about Start with Why to follow…

Working with integrity means saying no

Not as a rule, but when we know we can’t do work as well as we want to, we’ve learnt to say no. We’ve also found solutions much more quickly than expected, resulting in curtailed projects and reduced revenues.

McKinsey ethos is fundamental

We rely on our shared McKinsey ethos and experience. It has proved invaluable and transfers well enough from a global strategy consulting firm to our small business of two! The professionalism, ‘client first’ mantra, rigorous research, clarity of communication and relentless focus on ‘so what?’ are the cornerstones of our approach and enjoyment. It gave us a great network too!

Work comes

Not usually in a nice, even flow, quite the contrary, but it always comes. That doesn’t stop us getting anxious when times are leaner, but that is the nature of small business.

Good work is the best marketing

When the work speaks for itself, repeat business and recommendations follow. So it can be worth going that extra mile or just being.

Don’t apologise about price

Let the work do the speaking again!

Education and health are our favourite things

For Research Matters at least. So many interesting issues and sectors researched, but all our client work on education and health has been especially satisfying and fascinating. These have become ‘themes’ for Research Matters, as well as areas of expertise and from time to time we will post or retweet about these.

Girls matter too

We’re women in business, working with other women in business. And we’re Mum’s of girls. We’ve done lots of research into the impact of education for girls at one level, to issues around the glass ceiling for working women at the other end of the spectrum. Here’s another important ‘theme’ for us that we support and will raise from time to time.

Home is best

We love visiting clients around the country, especially in London, but it’s great coming back to York and Yorkshire!



So mostly, our learnings are about having confidence, knowing what we’re good at and loving what we do – it’s that increasingly hackneyed idea of working authentically (Why have we become so obsessed with the pursuit of authenticity?) What have other small businesses learnt about working in ways that feel right and work well (or authentically?!)?