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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.

Zanran – a new data search engine

April 21, 2011 4 comments

I’ve been playing with a new data search engine called Zanran – that focuses on finding numerical and graphical data. The site is in an early beta. Nevertheless my initial tests brought up material that would only have been found using an advanced search on Google – if you were lucky. As such, Zanran promises to be a great addition for advanced data searching.

Zanran.com

Zanran.com - Front Page

Zanran focuses on finding what it calls  ‘semi-structured’ data on the web. This is defined as numerical data presented as graphs, tables and charts – and these could be held in a graph image or table in an HTML file, as part of a PDF report, or in an Excel spreadsheet. This is the key differentiator – essentially, Zanran is not looking for text but for formatted numerical data.

When I first started looking at the site I was expecting something similar to Wolfram Alpha – or perhaps something from Google (e.g. Google Squared or Google Public Data). Zanran is nothing like these – and so brings something new to search. Rather than take data and structure or tabulate it (as with Wolfram Alpha and Google Squared), Zanran searches for data that is already in tables or charts and uses this in its results listing.

Zanran.com

Zanran.com Search: "Average Marriage Age"

The site has a nice touch in that hovering the cursor over results gives you the relevant data page – whether a table, a chart or a mix of text, tables or charts.

Zanran.com - Hovering over a result brings up an image of the data.

The advanced search options allow country searching (based on server location), document date and file type, each selectable from a drop-down box, as well as searches on specified web-sites.  At the moment only English speaking countries can be selected (Australia, Canada, Ireland, India, UK New Zealand, USA and South Africa). The date selections allow for the last 6, 12 or 24 months and the file type allows for selection based on PDF; Excel; images in HTML files; tables in HTML files; PDF, Excel and dynamic data; and dynamic data alone. PowerPoint and Word files are promised as future options. There are currently no field search options (e.g. title searches).

My main dislike was that the site doesn’t give the full URLs for the data presented. The top-level domain is given, but not the actual URL which makes the site difficult to use when full attribution is required for any data found (especially if data gets downloaded, rather than opening up in a new page or tab).

Zanran.com has been in development since at least 2009 when it was a finalist in the London Technology Fund Competition. The technology behind Zanran is patented and based on open-source software, and cloud storage. Rather than searching for text, Zanran searches for numerical content, and then classifies it by whether it’s a table or a chart.

Atypically, Zanran is not a Californian Silicon Valley Startup, but is based in the Islington area of London, in a quiet residential side-street made up of a mixture of small mostly home-based businesses and flats/apartments. Zanran was founded by two chemists, Jonathan Goldhill and Yves Dassas, who had previously run telecom businesses (High Track Communications Ltd and Bikebug Radio Technologies) from the same address. Funding has come from the London Development Agency and First Capital among other investors.

Zanran views competitors as Wolfram Alpha, Google Public Data and also Infochimps (a database repository – enabling users to search for and download a wide variety of databases). The competitor list comes from Google’s cache of Zanran’s Wikipedia page as unfortunately, Wikipedia has deleted the actual page – claiming that the site is “too new to know if it will or will not ever be notable“.

Google Cache of Zanran's Wikipedia entry

I hope that Wikipedia is wrong and that Zanran will become “notable” as I think the company offers a new approach to searching the web for data. It will never replace Google or Bing – but that’s not its aim. Zanran aims to be a niche tool that will probably only ever be used by search experts. However as such, it deserves a chance, and if its revenue model (I’m assuming that there is one) works, it deserves success.

The car that hated vanilla ice cream!

November 1, 2010 4 comments

I was speaking to a colleague today and he commented that the terrorists who tried to send a bomb from the Yemen to a Chicago synagogue were pretty stupid. His view was that any package sent from the Yemen to a synagogue in the US would be suspect – and so the terrorists had to be stupid.

In competitive intelligence it is important not to make assumptions – and assuming that your competitor is stupid is one of the most dangerous assumptions you can make. It is possible that they are stupid. Alternatively, it is also feasible that they see things differently from you – and their viewpoint may be rational and logical from their perspective. Effective competitive intelligence should always involve you trying to see things from the perspective of your competitor rather than from your own, possibly subjective and biased standpoint.

I cannot really understand the rationale of the Yemeni terrorists sending their bomb, presumably intended to blow up en-route, with an address of a synagogue. It does seem stupid – but that is because I am not an Islamist terrorist. However trying to see things from that perspective I could envisage a conversation such as this:

Terrorist 1: So what address shall we use – something that would not be suspicious?”
Terrorist 2: How about a synagogue – the Jews control the USA / World so they must get lots of mail. Also they need to print their subversive material so won’t suspect our fake printer cartridges packed with explosives.
Terrorist 1: Good idea – which synagogue?
Terrorist 2: Obama came from Chicago. Let’s find the synagogue that he would take orders from….

Of course belief in a Jewish world conspiracy is nonsense, as is the idea that President Obama takes orders from a Jewish cabal. However that is not the opinion of large parts of the Moslem world – who sincerely believe in this, and that the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers was a Jewish plot, etc. If that is your world view, then sending suspect packages to a synagogue probably is completely logical and rational and the best way to ensure that they don’t raise suspicion.

The point is, that even if your enemy IS stupid, they will act based on their own warped rationale. In order to anticipate their actions you need to try and see things as they see them. This is even more important if in fact you are the one who is wrong – as in that case, switching your viewpoint should allow you to spot where your mistakes actually are.

There is a great story that illustrates this point – that what seems crazy may in fact not be. The story is apocryphal – and may be true.

Several years ago, the Pontiac Division of General Motors received a complaint:


     This is the second time that I have written to you. I don’t blame
     you for not answering my first letter as I must have sounded crazy.


     In our family, we have a tradition of having ice cream for desert after
     dinner each night. Every night, after we’ve eaten, we vote on which
     kind of ice cream to have – and I drive down to our local store to
     buy it. I recently purchased a new Pontiac and since then I’ve had a
     problem when I go to the ice cream store. Every time I buy vanilla
     ice cream and go back to my car it won’t start. If I buy any other
     type it starts first time. I realise this sounds insane but it’s true.


     Please help me understand what it is that makes my Pontiac fail
     to start when I purchase vanilla ice cream and easy to start with
     any other type.

The complaints department was naturally skeptical about this letter. However it was obviously written by somebody educated who knew how to write clearly and lucidly. Furthermore the area the writer came from was an affluent area – and a Pontiac is not a cheap car. They decided to take it seriously and an engineer was sent to investigate. The engineer arranged to meet the man just after dinner time – and the two drove to the ice cream store. That night, the vote had been for vanilla ice cream – and just as the man had said, the car wouldn’t start. Bemused, the engineer returned the following night – and the night after that. The car started first time – the votes had been for chocolate on the first night, and strawberry the second night. The fourth night, the choice was again for vanilla – and the car failed to start.

The engineer now realised that there was a problem that needed identification and fixing. He started to log what happened from the moment they arrived at the store – arrival time, time taken to make the purchase, and several other factors. Soon he had a clue – purchases of vanilla ice cream took less time than the other flavours. The reason was that the freezer containing vanilla ice cream was at the front of the store near a quick purchase till,  while other flavours were at the back and required lining up to get checked out.

Quickly the engineer realised that this was the answer to the problem – not the ice cream flavour, but the time required. When purchasing vanilla ice cream there was a vapour lock which prevented the car restarting. With the other flavours, there was sufficient time for the engine to cool down, allowing vapour to dissipate and the car to restart.

Of course the moral of the story is that even if something sounds crazy it may not be. Competitive Intelligence analysts should always bear this in mind when they look at a competitor and fail to understand why they are doing something that seems stupid.

Forte 1 – truth or lie? A brief competitive intelligence case study.

June 10, 2009 Leave a comment

I received a phone call today from a charming lady who claimed to work for a company called Forte 1. I knew nothing about her company which seemed to want me to switch my business telephone line, and also said that they offered computers at great prices, and more.

Whenever I get a sales call out of the blue, a red-light goes on in my head. At the same time I’m not one of these people that will put the phone straight down. For a start, I view it as an opportunity to practice my competitive intelligence elicitation and interviewing skills – how much can I find out about the unknown company. Very occasionally also, they get it right – and do succeed in making a sale (when it’s something I’ve wanted anyway and they offer a better deal).
In the case of Forte1, alarm bells started ringing early on. I was considering putting the phone down but really wanted to know a bit more about the company and its service offering, especially as I was interested in one service that was mentioned and if the company was bonafide, I could have become a customer.
Unfortunately the sales person wouldn’t give me a straight answer. I suggested that she mail me information on her company and if it was suitable for my needs I’d recontact her. Instead she suggested I look at their web-site. This gave me the chance to check up on them – and it’s an interesting lesson in what you can find on a company within 5-10 minutes, if you know how. It also showed that I knew more about her company than she did – confirming my suspicions that this may not be as genuine an offer as the salesperson was claiming. (However I don’t really know – or care. If any Forte1 users want to comment on this post and give a client reference please feel free).
So what did I do? Well first, I went to their web-site – using Firefox (my browser of choice).
The page opened with some Javascript for displaying the date – that was written before the HTML tag – as in the screen print below:
That’s always a danger sign – as it implies that the web-site’s not been properly checked. The next thing was the text – for example

Who we are

ForteOne has applied a tactic of superb timing and entrepreneurial assertiveness to achieve success in the fields of communications through a vast array of business equipment solutions and information technology products and services.


Our goal is to build long-term partnerships with our customers and maximise the potential of our traditional business, through a combination of enhanced quality of service and creativity.

I’m not sure what this means. Although the words are English, the sentences are just a collection of management jargon put together to imply competence. For example, what on earth does entrepreneurial assertiveness actually mean.
My next step was to find out more about the web-site itself. Using Firefox’s Page Info command (in the Tools menu) it turns out the home page was relatively new – from February 2009.
So how old was the domain name – over to www.checkdomain.com (one of many domain checking services). That shows that the domain was registered on the 23 September 2008, as was the parallel domain forteone.co.uk. The US .com domain is owned by somebody else and is bonafide – but my suspicions are still high with the .co.uk domain – incidentally registered by a Mr W Ahmed.
Next step – let’s check the address to make sure that this is genuine. So over to Google and enter the postal code and address: “268 Bath Road” “SL1 4DX“. Now that’s interesting – dozens of hits come up, including the Slough branch of Regus – the virtual office company. Lots of small and SoHo businesses will base out of a Regus branch, but it doesn’t add substance to the veracity of Forte1 – as their web-site description seems to suggest a large profitable business.
Now let’s check to see if it is a real business – so over to Companies House and their web-check service. Enter in Forte 1 (expecting nothing but who knows) and hey-presto, up comes a real company – Company No. 06354706. So it is a genuine business after-all, assuming that this is the correct Forte 1. Only problem is that the address is different to the web-site (which doesn’t include the company number).

In fact, there appear to be several changes to the record since this company was founded – in August 2007. It first appeared as Trus Com Ltd, then changed to Truscom Ltd before metamorphosing into Forte1 Ltd in October 2008. The company has also changed address twice – from a W2 4SA address in London to an address in Barnet on the outskirts of London.

However the key line connecting the two – and confirming that this is the same company comes on the 3 March 2009 – where a 288c “Director’s Particulars” document is filed for Wesam Ahmed. Remember the name – the guy who registered the forte1.co.uk domain name.
So what about that W2 4SA address – is that another accommodation address.
Another Google search shows that there are 2 companies registered at
SUITE 4 REDAN HOUSE, 27 REDAN PLACE, LONDON, W2 4SA.
One is Motiontel Ltd listed on a D&B web-site, and the other is Nationtel Ltd listed on the excellent Applegate directory. Applegate lists the director – our friend, Wesam Ahmed again. Unfortunately a search on some of the people search sites doesn’t give much – as there are too many people with the same or similar name to research in 10 minutes.
So where to now. Well let’s see if our web-site shares a server with any other web-sites. If they have a dedicated server that’s a good sign – and could indicate links between businesses. So over to Domain Tools and it’s reverse IP lookup option. Enter in forte1.co.uk and it turns out that:

There are 5 domains hosted on this IP address.
Here are a few of them:

  1. Aracom.co.uk
  2. Forte1.co.uk
  3. Fortecontactcenter.com
  4. 2 more…
(In contrast, with forteone.co.uk there are 1000s – indicating that the server is shared and not dedicated).
Taking a look at Aracom.co.uk the look and feel are the same (including the same HTML error on Firefox) but in this case the site is under construction. However the fortecontactcenter.com domain is active – with a new contact address:
Smart Village Km 28 Cairo Alex Desert Road – Giza – Egypt
So it seems that perhaps Mr Ahmed is Egyptian – it’s an Egyptian name after-all.
In conclusion – I can’t (and won’t) say whether or not Forte1 Ltd is genuine – with real products and services or not. Not having any experience of them apart from the phone-call it wouldn’t be fair to make a judgement. However from what I uncovered I won’t become a customer. Instead this can be viewed as a case-study in how it’s possible to do a quick competitor analysis while speaking to somebody on the phone – in a few minutes. With more time I’d have looked to see whether Mr Ahmed had more companies under his belt, and whether any had failed. I’d have looked into more depth to see who else (if anybody) was involved and tried to find some customers to give actual opinions on how they performed. This is the sort of work we do for clients – rather than just to satisfy curiosity, as was the case here.
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