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Analysing weak signals for competitive & marketing intelligence

March 5, 2012 6 comments

I’ve just read an interesting blog post by  Philippe Silberzahn and Milo Jones. The post “Competitive intelligence and strategic surprises: Why monitoring weak signals is not the right approach” looked at the problems of weak signals in competitive intelligence and how even though an organisation may have lots of intelligence, they still get surprised.

Silberzahn and Jones point out that it’s not usually the intelligence that is the problem, but the interpretation of the gathered intelligence. This echoed a statement by Issur Harel, the former head of Mossad responsible for capturing the Nazi war criminal Eichmann. Harel was quoted as saying “We do not deal with certainties. The world of intelligence is the world of probabilities. Getting the information is not usually the most difficult task. What is difficult is putting upon it the right interpretation. Analysis is everything.”

In their post, Silberzahn and Jones argue that more important than monitoring for weak signals, is the need to monitor one’s own assumptions and hypotheses about what is happening in the environment. They give several examples where weak signals were available but still resulted in intelligence failures. Three different types of failure are mentioned:

  • Too much information: the problem faced by the US who had lots of information prior to the Pearl Harbour attack of 7 December 1941,
  • Disinformation, as put out by Osama bin Laden to keep people in a high-state of alert – by dropping clues that “something was about to happen“, when nothing was (and of course keeping silent when it was),
  • “Warning fatigue” (the crying wolf syndrome) where constant repetition of weak signals leads to reinterpretation and discounting of threats, as happened prior the Yom Kippur war.

Their conclusion is that with too much data, you can’t sort the wheat from the chaff, and with too little you make analytical errors. Their solution is that rather than collect data and subsequently analyse it to uncover its meaning you should first come up with hypotheses and use that to drive data collection. They quote Peter Drucker (Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, 1973) who wrote: “Executives who make effective decisions know that one does not start with facts. One starts with opinions… To get the facts first is impossible. There are no facts unless one has a criterion of relevance.”  and emphasise that “it is hypotheses that must drive data collection”.

Essentially this is part of the philosophy behind the “Key Intelligence Topic” or KIT process – as articulated by Jan Herring and viewed as a key CI technique by many Competitive Intelligence Professionals.

I believe that  KITs are an important part of CI, and it is important to come up with hypotheses on what is happening in the competitive environment, and then test these hypotheses through data collection. However this should not detract from general competitive monitoring, including the collection of weak signals.

The problem is how to interpret and analyse weak signals. Ignoring them or even downplaying them is NOT the solution in my view – and is in fact highly dangerous. Companies with effective intelligence do not get beaten or lose out through known problems but from unknown ones. It’s the unknown that catches the company by surprise, and often it is the weak signals that, in hindsight, give clues to the unknown. In hindsight, their interpretation is obvious. However at the time, the interpretation is often missed, misunderstood, or ignored as unimportant.

There is an approach to analysing weak signals that can help sort the wheat from the chaff. When you have a collection of weak signals don’t treat them all the same. Categorise them.

  • Are they about a known target’s capabilities? Put these in box 1.
  • Are they relating to a target’s strategy? These go into box 2.
  • Do they give clues to a target’s goals or drivers? Place these in box 3.
  • Can the weak signal be linked to assumptions about the environment held by the target? These go into box 4.

Anything else goes into box 5. Box 5 holds the real unknowns – unknown target or topic or subject. You have a signal but don’t know what to link it to.

First look at boxes 1-4 and compare each bit of intelligence to other information.

  1. Does it fit in? If so good. You’ve added to the picture.
  2. If it doesn’t, why not?

Consider the source of the information you have. What’s the chronology? Does the new information suggest a change? If so, what could have caused that change? For this, compare the other 3 boxes to see if there’s any information that backs up the new signal – using the competitor analysis approach sometimes known as 4-corners analysis, to see if other information would help create a picture or hypothesis of what is happening.

If you find nothing, go back and look at the source.

  • Is it old information masquerading as new? If so, you can probably discount it.
  • Is it a complete anomaly – not fitting in with anything else at all? Think why the information became available. Essentially this sort of information is similar to what goes into box 5.
    • Could it be disinformation? If so, what is likely to be the truth? Knowing it may be disinformation may lead to what is being hidden?
    • Or is it misinformation – which can probably be discounted?
    • What about if you can’t tell? Then it suggests another task – to try and identify other intelligence that would provide further detail and help you evaluate the anomaly. Such weak signals then become leads for future intelligence gathering.

With box 5 – try and work out why it is box 5. (It may be that you have information but no target to pin it to, for example – so can’t do the above). As with anomalies, think why the information became available. You may need to come up with a number of hypotheses to explain meaning behind the information. These can sometimes (but not always) be tested.

Silberzahn and Jones mention a problem from Nassim Taleb’s brilliant book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable“. The problem is how do you stop being like a turkey before Thanksgiving. Prior to Thanksgiving the turkey is regularly fed and given lots and lots of food. Life seems good, until the fateful day, just before Thanksgiving, when the food stops and the slaughterer enters to prepare the turkey for the Thanksgiving meal. For the turkey this is a complete surprise as all the evidence prior to this suggests that everything is going well. Taleb poses the question as to whether a turkey can learn from the events of yesterday what is about to happen tomorrow. Can an unknown future be predicted – and in this case, the answer seems to be no.

For an organisation, this is a major problem as if they are like turkeys, then weak signals become irrelevant. The unknown can destroy them however much information they hold prior to the unforeseen event. As Harel said, the problem is not information but analysis. The wrong analysis means death!

This is where a hypothesis approach comes in – and why hypotheses are needed for competitive intelligence gathering. In the Thanksgiving case, the turkey has lots of consistent information coming in saying “humans provide food”.  The key is to look at the source of the information and try to understand it. In other words:

Information: Humans provide food.
Source: observation that humans give food every day – obtained from multiple reliable sources.

You now need to question the reason or look at the objectives behind this observation. Why was this observation available? Come up with hypotheses that can be used to test the observations and see what matches. Then choose a strategy based on an assessment of risk. In the case of the turkey there are two potential hypotheses:

  1. “humans like me and so feed me” (i.e. humans are nice)
  2. “humans feed me for some other reason” (i.e. humans may not be nice).

Until other information comes in to justify hypothesis 1, hypothesis 2 is the safer one to adopt as even if hypothesis 1 is true, you won’t get hurt by adopting a strategy predicated on hypothesis 2. (You may not eat so much and be called skinny by all the other turkeys near you. However you are less likely to be killed).

This approach can be taken with anomalous information in general, and used to handle weak signals. The problem then becomes not the analysis of information but the quantity. Too much information and you start to drown and can’t categorise it – it’s not a computer job, but a human job. In this case one approach is to do the above with a random sample of information – depending on your confidence needs and the quantity of information. This gets into concepts of sampling theory – which is another topic.

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics & Facebook

June 10, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been impressed with the numbers of people using social networking sites – and the importance of social networking for marketing has become significant over the last few years.

Facebook claims 400 million users (i.e. nearly 6% of the global population that is approaching 7 billion people). I’ve always thought that this figure must include duplicate accounts – as I don’t believe that most people in China, India, Africa and many other areas of the world have Facebook accounts (or even computers – although the numbers are growing). The World Bank stated that there were just under 300m Internet users in China and 52m in India in 2008. (There’s a great graph of this at Google’s Public Data tool – that shows that in 2008 there were around 1.5bn web-users).

Even taking account the exponential growth – let’s assume that web users globally are now over 2 billion  people – Facebook’s figures imply that 1 in 5 users have a Facebook account.

I know of many people who don’t have an account and some who refuse to get one. In my age group (over 40), I’d guess that the majority don’t. So where this 400m figure came from and what it includes is a key question.

It now seems that Facebook has been boosting it’s membership figures. I just read this article from one of my favorite sites (www.pandia.com). Apparently Facebook has been telling advertisers that it has 1.6m users in Oslo. The trouble is that the greater Oslo metropolitan area only has 900,000 people. Facebook apparently counts members by IP address – and I guess that it is feasible that this could include users who access the site via Oslo based web-servers. However not if you consider the next statistic given. The Facebook advertiser tool says that there are 850,000 Facebook users between the ages of 20-29 in Norway – which is 235,000 more than the total numbers (613,000) in that age group.

This over-inflation isn’t just a Norwegian issue. According to CheckFacebook.com (a site that tracks data from the Facebook advertising tool giving Facebook membership numbers), almost 63% of online users in the UK now have a Facebook account. That’s 27m out of a total UK population of 62m. In some countries it’s even higher. Apparently all (100%) Nicaraguan, Qatari and Bangladeshi web users also have a Facebook account, as do 99% of Indonesians, 98% of Filipinos, 97% of Venezuelans, and 85% of Turks.

It’s possible that these statistics are true. However, if so, I’m sure that they also include occasional and infrequent users as well as dormant and duplicated accounts.

One of the most important types of competitive intelligence analysis is to not take everything at face value. When presented with figures, it’s important to sense check them – wherever possible by using other sources (e.g. official population statistics). Only then should such data be used in decision making. You should also ask whether there is an incentive to exaggerate or under-estimate statistics. If there is such an incentive, it is likely that this will be done, at least in the published data. Decisions made using such erroneous or manipulated figures will probably be poor decisions and fail to achieve the expected results. In the case of Facebook, the incentive in exaggerating membership figures is that they can then boost their attractiveness to advertisers, and consequently their advertising revenues.

Quotations & Competitive Intelligence

March 26, 2010 1 comment

I’ve been reading Seena Sharp‘s new book “Competitive Intelligence Advantage

The book is good (at least so far) – and an easy read which is more than can be said for a lot of business books. More importantly Seena’s approach corresponds with mine. She emphasises that competitive intelligence is not just about competitors but about understanding the total business environment and how it is changing, and using this knowhow to make effective business decisions. This means it’s not just a how-to-do-it book like many of its competitors but a why-to-do-it book too. This is important. Many businesses still fail to understand why they need competitive intelligence. If you don’t understand the need, why do it. Others see the focus as primarily on competitors – but they already “know” all about them so are “OK” (or so they believe). The book exposes this canard – and shows why surprise is so dangerous for companies.

Although so far, I have mostly praise for the book, there is one niggle. Making decisions on inaccurate intelligence is dangerous. It is always important to check facts first rather than to assume that just because something is common knowledge or sounds right it is correct. In the world generally, there have been many mistakes made based on information that turned out to be rumour or false. Part of the role of analysis is to verify information – and act accordingly. Failure to verify information is a route to strategy failure.

So what is my niggle. It relates to a quotation on page 20: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” This is a great quotation – and it is widely used. A search on the Internet turns up multiple examples – and most claim it was written by Charles Darwin, in his works looking at evolution. The problem is that Darwin almost certainly never said or wrote this. A few years ago, I wanted to use this quotation in an article I was writing – and needed to provide a reference. I searched through Darwin’s complete works online and couldn’t find it. I then contacted Nigel Rees, an expert on quotations who couldn’t either. Replies to a post I made to the FreePint Bar suggested that the attribution was probably false (but nobody knew where it originally came from). The series of posts at FreePint both by me, and others, debunk a few more commonly attributed quotations too. (E.g. “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics” was definitely not originally said by Mark Twain as many claim and possibly not by Disraeli either, as I and others had thought.

Whenever I use a quotation I try and attribute it – and give a reference for the source, where possible. Maybe it’s because I’m pedantic or overly thorough. However I also believe it is part of the mindset needed for effective competitive intelligence. Just because something is commonly believed doesn’t make it true and I wish Seena had either stated that the quotation was “attributed” to Darwin instead of being by Darwin – or found the source.

In fact, the source was probably a close follower of Darwin – such as JBS Haldane. And Haldane supplies a lesson for all involved in competitive intelligence: just because something is unexpected doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

A discussion between Haldane and a friend began to take a predictable turn. The friend said with a sigh, ‘It’s no use going on. I know what you will say next, and I know what you will do next.’ The distinguished scientist promptly sat down on the floor, turned two back somersaults, and returned to his seat. ‘There,’ he said with a smile. ‘That’s to prove that you’re not always right. Found at Today In Science History‘s page on Haldane – quoting from: Clifton Fadiman (ed.), André Bernard (ed.), Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes (2000), 253.

Emotional responses

May 26, 2008 Leave a comment

I’ve not posted anything for months – not because I’ve not had things to post, but because of work pressures, and perhaps also not having anything I thought worth posting.

That’s not to say that things haven’t happened – but others will have posted on the London Online conference, the SCIP annual and European conferences in San Diego and Bad Nauheim, Germany, and the AIIP annual conference in Pittsburgh. I attended all – and each was worthwhile in its own way. (My favorite was AIIP – but then this is such a great organisation anyway!).

In the last few months I’ve also been to China where I led a workshop on CI, and on a personal level, celebrated my oldest nephew’s wedding in Jerusalem and saw the loss of my father a month later.

So what has prompted this post?

Well I try and link ideas to marketing and competitive intelligence. Those who know me will know that one of the areas I specialise in is competitive intelligence analysis and game theory. My talk at SCIP Europe (and also at the SCIP 2007 conference) was on Game Theory.

One of the areas I emphasise is that when looking at a competitor you should try and look at things from their perspective. Just because something looks stupid or illogical to you doesn’t neccssarily mean that it is stupid and illogical. It could also be that the competitor is viewing something from a different angle to you – and that if you switched viewpoints it would make perfect sense. Developing an ability to switch perspectives could save you $, £, €, or ¥ as it should lead to greater anticipation of how competitors are likely to respond and thus better and more effective strategies. The assumption is that competitors behave logically, and choose strategies based on the information and knowledge they currently have.

There is, however, an exception to this. Sometimes a competitor can be blinded by hatred, greed, fear, or another strong emotion. In such cases their decisions are likely to be stupid and illogical as they can’t see reality and instead, they base what they do on their emotionally biased view of the world.

As a result, when looking at a competitor it is also important to look for any emotional aspect in their decision making. Is this leading to how they behave or react? If it is, then you can use it against them to win out. Of course the same applies to you – and it’s important that you make decisions that are not based on emotional reasons. Decisions need to be made based on facts, evidence and logic – anything else will lead to vulnerabilities that can be attacked by a competitor.

There are many examples of companies that have made poor decisions based on emotion: a classic is the failure of the 2000 Time Warner – AOL merger, which was partly driven by Time Warner management’s fear of being left behind in a digital world. In fact many mergers fail as they are not really motivated by logic but more by fear of being left behind or greed – seeing acquisition as the best way to grow.

So when looking at a competitor, you need to

  1. assume that they are behaving logically – try to see things from their perspective
  2. consider that they may be acting emotionally, and not basing decisions on fact and logic.

Which of these two applies will depend on the pattern of decision making, the decisions made, and the competitor’s management. Part of the job of the CI analyst is to step back from their own emotional perspectives and, dispassionately, look at the competitor and decide what has led to their decisions and strategies: logic or emotion.

I still haven’t answered what prompted these thoughts.

Generally I try to understand the opinions and views of people with whom I disagree – and accept that often there is a valid rationale to these views. I fervently disagree with Islamic terrorist groups, and I totally support Israel. At the same time, I understand the view of the Palestinians and believe that they have a case. I understand the Islamic religious view of Hamas that Israel is occupied Islamic land and that only Islamic rule is valid. I don’t personally agree with this – but I accept that from some Islamic perspectives (not all) this is logical as it follows some Koranic precepts. So I’m applying my rule above of trying to understand the other side, and looking at things from their perspective.

I can even apply this (with difficulty) to some terrorist actions in Europe and the USA. The attacks on 911 were reprehensible, evil and criminal. However using the above principles I can understand these actions – as they fall into a logical pattern.

  1. Western Values represent an attack on Islamic values.
  2. Western Values are winning out – even in Islamic society.
  3. For Islamic values to triumph, Western values must be destroyed, so that the world realises that it’s only true Islamic values that will lead to human peace and happiness.
  4. What the West calls terrorism is actually a misnomer – and is, in fact, an attempt by true Muslim believers to alert their own governments to how they’ve been led astray, while at the same time to destroy the forces that are doing this – leading to a growth in Islamic values and beliefs.

What I fail to understand however, is how a follower of any religion can take advantage of people with mental problems and use them for terrorist activity. One of the basic principles behind all religions: Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist… is the protection of less-well-off and weaker members of society. They teach that it is a major sin to take advantage of such people.

The recent bomb attempt in Exeter, England, when an Islamic convert who was reportedly mentally ill, with low IQ and suffering from Aspergers, was so radicalised that he was preparing bombs to use to maim and kill people, suggests that the people behind him were not acting under any religious framework at all – but were driven by emotions only: hatred and fear. Worse, they bring shame on true Islamic believers, and through their actions will lead even more people to see Islam as an evil creed that only destroys and has no respect for the poor, sick and down-trodden. This is false! So called “Imams” who believe that they can recruit victims like poor Nicky Reilly have desecrated Islam and the teachings in the Koran and Hadith, and should be denounced by all true Muslims as false.

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