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Posts Tagged ‘Competitive Strategy’

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.

Keeping up standards

December 14, 2011 1 comment

I’ve titled this post “keeping up standards” even though this is exactly what I’ve not been doing. Ages ago I planned to write a post every couple of weeks – or at least monthly. Unfortunately I’ve failed in this aim – not because there hasn’t been a lot to write about: all the changes at Google such as the closing of Google Labs, Google+, changes to Google’s search methods, interface and algorithms; the Online Information Conference I spoke at and the Internet Librarian International conference; the Euro zone crisis; and many other news stories.

I even started a few posts – but never finished them, and my excuse is that paid work has to come before blog posts, and I’ve had more than enough to keep me going since the last post. (Actually it’s been non-stop so I really can’t complain).

What’s prompted this post has been another blog post that set me thinking about how important it is to maintain standards, even in the smallest most trivial areas – such as making a cup of tea.

Keeping up standards is always important – as you want to guarantee the quality of what you produce. With more and more mechanisation this becomes even more important. The old-style tea-lady who would bring around tea or coffee and biscuits has long gone from most businesses. Now, you walk to the dispensing machine and select what you want: cappuccino with extra coffee, tea with double milk (powder) and sugar…

There should be a standard to guarantee the quality of the finished drink. And that brings me to a recent blog post from Neil Infield of the British Library where he describes the British Standard BS 6008 for a cup of tea (See also ISO 3103). I’m not sure that this standard actually relates to tea and coffee machines – but at least it shows that keeping up standards is still important. (Although I don’t think it addresses the detailed minutia of whether your little finger should be pointing out from the handle of the tea cup, or in – and whether a coffee mug is an acceptable receptacle for a good cup of tea?)

One of the ways that businesses stay competitive and remain competitive is by keeping up their standards and continuing to delight their customers. This has to be ongoing – as competitors will continue to try and do the same. Letting your own standards drop or stay static will allow competitors to eventually win out against you.

So keep up standards – and make it your cup of tea to do so.

Attacking a castle – or a competitor!

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The leading management guru, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s, latest blog post discusses ways to attack a castle: Four Ways to Attack the Castle — And Get a Job, Get Ahead, Make Change.

Although the article is talking about job-seekers and change agents, the same applies to competitive intelligence and strategy, and I’ve sometimes used the same analogy in my training courses.

So how does attacking a strong fortress compare to competitive intelligence collection. Well – the approach that some still seem to think the best approach – is the full frontal attack. Go for the key contact and hope that they will speak to you. The problem is that these people tend to be surrounded by gatekeepers, guards and you may not even get their name, never mind getting to speak to them. This is the corporate equivalent of having hot oil poured down upon you.

Moss Kanter describes four other approaches that can also be used for CI collection.

1) Find other doors.
Rather than target the main entrance with your battering ram, look for a door that’s not guarded. If you want to interview somebody, don’t call switchboard and ask for the purchasing manager – as switchboard will ask what it’s about and you will find yourself in an interminable voice-mail loop ending with a “send an email to suppliers@companyname.com”. Instead, use networking tools – such as LinkedIn – to find the name of anybody involved in purchasing within the target company and ask to speak to them directly. Knowing the name means you get put through and bypass the switchboard gatekeeper.

2) Befriend the fringes.
Be polite. Switchboards get fed up with rude callers – so be friendly. Chat – and treat the operator with respect. They may know more than you think and you may get a name that way.

You won’t get put through to the CEO or CFO or any C-level executive directly. Instead, you’ll end up speaking to their personal assistant – the guard and gatekeeper for your source. Like the guards and gatekeepers of old, these people know who passes by, and what goes on. So rather than insist on the C-contact, be nice to the PA and chat to them instead. You may well find that all you need to know comes from them instead.

3) Go underneath
Often, going to the top won’t help. If the information you require is sensitive, the people at the top know the sensitivity – including their PAs. They won’t talk and you will get nothing. Rather, consider the people who report to them, or who have managers who report to them. Such people may not know the whole picture – but speak to several and you soon will. Each interviewee will feel flattered that you view their knowledge as important – and won’t realise that the small bits of information they know, when combined with other small bits, can reveal the secrets the higher-ups would like to keep hidden.

4) Go around the castle
Rather than trying to contact the organisation directly, look for people who are now outside but know what goes on inside. These include ex-employees, obviously. However others may also know information – and be willing to share if asked in the right way. These can include your customers, your competitor’s customers, their suppliers, as well as industry consultants, trade association staff and many more similar sources.

Collecting competitive intelligence doesn’t always depend on looking for the obvious source. Like attacking castles, often the secret is to find the weaknesses that allow you to gain entrance, gather what you need to know and leave without anybody even noticing your visit.

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.

Competitive Strategies – the dog fight!

July 25, 2005 Leave a comment

Sometimes selecting the right strategy is not straightforward. You have to think laterally.

People talk about competitive strategy – and how important it is for the business to have an effective competitive strategy. In fact, this is a redundant use of words. If a strategy is not effective, then it is not competitive, and vice versa (i.e. if it is competitive, then it will be effective). So why not just say that businesses need effective strategies.

The following story comes to mind in the context of designing an effective strategy that will beat the competition. (It is also timely, considering the recent London atrocity – still in the news of course). There are five lessons from the story:

  1. You need to know what you are up against (so do a full SWOT analysis)
  2. You need to ensure that you have all the facts
  3. You need to be wary of assumptions – just because you think you know what something is, does not always mean that that is what it is!
  4. Never underestimate your opponent – they could have a more effective strategy than you have
  5. Sometimes, to win requires lateral thought. The obvious or standard approach will not win out.

It is now the year 2010. Around 2007, the US and the Al-Quaida network realised that if they continued their fight they would someday end up destroying the world. So they sat down and decided to settle the whole dispute with a dogfight. The negotiators agreed that each would take five years to develop the best fighting dog they could. The dog that won the fight would earn its owner the right to rule the world. The losing side would have to lay down its arms.

Al Quaida found the biggest, meanest Dobermans and Rottweilers in the world. They bred them together and then crossed their offspring with the meanest Siberian wolves. They selected only the biggest, strongest puppy from each litter, killed all the other puppies and fed the lone dog all of the milk. They used steroids and trainers in their quest for the perfect killing machine, until, after the five years were up, they had a dog that needed iron prison bars on his cage. Only the trainers could handle this beast.

When the day of the big fight arrived, the US showed up with a strange animal: It was a nine-foot-long Dachshund. Everyone felt sorry for the US. No one else thought this weird animal stood a chance against the growling beast in the Al Quaida camp. The bookmakers predicted Al Quaida would win in less than a minute. The cages were opened. The Dachshund waddled toward the center of the ring. The Al Quaida dog leapt from his cage and charged the giant wiener-dog. As he got to within an inch of the US dog, the Dachshund opened its jaws and swallowed the Al Quaida beast in one bite. There was nothing left but a small bit of fur from the killer dog’s tail. Al Quaida approached the US, shaking their heads in disbelief. “We do not understand. Our top scientists and breeders worked for five years with the meanest, biggest Dobermans and Rottweilers. They developed a killing machine.” “Really?” the US replied. “We had our top plastic surgeons working for five years to make a Florida alligator look like a Dachshund!”

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