Biblical Animals

November 1, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

You can get tips to better practice from many sources – and one of my favourites is the Bible. There are several bible stories that convey lessons for today’s competitive intelligence professionals. One example is in the story of Noah. After the biblical flood, Noah sent out a raven and a dove to search the earth for clues that the flood had truely ended.

The story seems simple, but in fact it is not. Why couldn’t Noah just look outside and make a decision? The reason is that when he did this, all he could see was water. It wasn’t even as if he was on low ground. The bible says that the Ark came to rest on Mt Ararat which is in today’s Turkey. However Noah realised that what you see close up is not necessarily the real situation. Sometimes you need to look further afield. A colleague of mine pointed this out to me – stating that what Noah needed was an unmanned air-reconnaissance vehicle (UAV) (this colleague works for an aircraft / defence manufacturer). So Noah used birds who spied out the land. The first came back with nothing whereas the second, the dove, brought back an olive branch. So what!

It is not the evidence that counted, but the analysis. Noah had gathered information – that with the raven there was nothing to be found, whereas with the dove, there was an olive twig. The analysis showed that with the raven, the waters had not receded whereas with the dove they had.

The same lesson still applies. It is not the information that is important, but the analysis that you make based on this, turning information into intelligence and leading to operational or strategic decisions..

(At this point I can’t resist a “business” type joke: Who was the first entrepreneur in the Bible?. Answer: Noah. He floated a company when the rest of the world was under liquidation!)

In fact, it was not Noah that made me think of this theme, but an article I recently read about Bilaam and his donkey. In synagogues throughout the world, the story of Bilaam (told in the Biblical book of Numbers) will be read this Saturday. Essentially, the heathen soothsayer/prophet Bilaam was paid by King Balak to go and curse the Children of Israel (plus ça change…). On his way, an angel appeared blocking the way forward. The donkey on which Bilaam is riding sees that the way is blocked and turns aside. In response, Bilaam hits the donkey – and this happens twice. (Hence the joke that Bilaam had a stubbon ass).

At this point, the donkey spoke to Bilaam and asked Why are you hitting me? Bilaam then enters into an argument with the donkey about why it turned aside which only ends when Bilaam looks up and spots the angel.

The question is what is going on here? Bilaam is not a fool so why is he talking to animals? And why are animals talking in the first place? (The Bible is not Dr Dolittle or Babe).

The question on why the donkey was talking is relatively easy – God made the donkey talk. (God can do things like that!)

Explaining Bilaam’s response is not so easy. Here is a man who is seen as sufficiently wise that Kings are willing to pay a lot of money for his words of wisdom. Yet in the story he talks to animals and does not see anything odd or unusual in this. The answer to this problem has many lessons for contemporary competitive intelligence practice.

Every now and then, there is some intelligence that does not fit in to the general pattern of things. It is anomalous. The easiest way to treat something anomalous is to ignore it, or pretend that it does not exist. If the anomaly continues to crop up, then denial can occur in which you just accept the anomaly as a fact of life and try and live with it. In fact, rather than face up to the new situation and change direction it is often easier to keep on trying to move forward on the same path – perhaps using brute force to try and continue by increasing advertising spend, reducing prices, or other marketing equivalents. In other words, to behave like Bilaam and to keep hitting your donkey.

It is only when all these attempts fail that the company / organisation / person in denial is forced to face up to a new situation – and look up, as Bilaam did, and see the angel blocking the path.

Part of effective competitive intelligence is to keep an eye out for anomalies and new situations. They may not be part of a current key intelligence topic (or KIT), but just because they aren’t does not mean that they are not relevant or that they can be ignored. On the contrary, they should be incorporated into the current knowledge, and decisions on future actions should take them into account.

This is the lesson of Bilaam. He was in denial and refused to accept that something was wrong or odd. Rather, he incorporated the anomaly into his own world view, until it was almost too late. Only then did he look up and see that his path was blocked.

The story ends with the angel telling Bilaam that he cannot curse the Israelites – but instead should bless them. Sometimes organisations need to change direction and only then will they be able to move forward. It is often the anomalies that give the clues to such situations – rather than the routine intelligence that is collected to a schedule.

© Arthur Weiss, AWARE, 2005

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