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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.

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Wikileaks and Whistleblowing!

December 5, 2010 3 comments

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger….” (Genesis Ch. 42 v7).

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens….a time to be silent and a time to speak….” (Ecclesiastes Ch 4 v1, v7)

I wasn’t planning to write about the Wikileaks affair – as in essence, I agree with Wikileaks that excessive secrecy is wrong. At the same time, as the preacher (identified with King Solomon) in the book of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to speak out, and a time to remain silent.

I believe that many of the items leaked deserved to be leaked. It is wrong to keep details of torture, rape, summary executions, and various other war-crimes secret, irrespective of whether such crimes were committed by the USA, the Iraqis or whoever. War-crimes should always be exposed, and prevented. If a government tries to keep such crimes hidden, then it is the duty of responsible people to expose them. Keeping such information secret just allows for a culture that views the enemy as non-human and dispensable – and ultimately, this makes all who allow this to happen complicit in the crime.

At the same time, there is good reason to keep diplomatic negotiations hidden, however duplicitous they may appear to be – so long as there is a procedure to ensure that such records are not kept secret permanently, but are released when they are no longer politically and diplomatically sensitive. Similarly, information that could put lives at risk – through the identification of people who oppose an oppressive government or who collaborate with others to end oppression – is totally wrong.

Essentially, a leak to prevent wrong-doing is, in my view, correct, whereas a leak for some warped belief that everything should always be out in the open and public is wrong.  Whistle-blowing to prevent corruption and criminal activity is right – whether it impacts commercial or government business. There is a time to speak out, and a time to keep silent, as in the biblical story of Joseph. Had Joseph identified himself when his brothers first visited him, he would have been unable to test their sincerity and repentance. It was important that he kept his status secret – in the same way that it is important that diplomatic cables shouldn’t be revealed as a general rule.

Sarah Palin & Mike Huckabee enter – stage right.

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

One reason I’d avoided discussion of Wikileaks was that Sarah Palin had just commented on the site. Having just written a blog post on her, I didn’t want to reprise some of my comments. Her view that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, should be hunted down “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders” is yet another emotive, and ill-reasoned Palinesque comment showing a lack of understanding of what al-Qaeda stand for and what the Taliban represent. Assange may have caused damage to USA interests but in no way can he be seen as an overt enemy who would like to destroy everything that the USA stands for, and to impose a totalitarian belief system on the world.

However along comes Mike Huckabee who, apparently, does not wish to be outmanoeuvered by the outspoken Mrs Palin in his dreams of entering the White House. Huckabee has called for the execution of the person accused of leaking the material to Wikileaks. 

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning

I agree that the man accused of leaking the material, Private Bradley Manning should be tried and if found guilty, punished (assuming that the trial is fair, which now with so much negative press is doubtful). I do not agree that he deserves the death penalty. He did not release the files to an enemy government and nor did he do it for cash rewards. According to reports he did it after seeing attempts to cover up possible war-crimes committed by the US – for instance an air-strike that killed a dozen people in Baghdad and where the air crew laughed at the dead, and another in Afghanistan, that killed dozens of children. This makes him a whistle-blower and not a spy or traitor, and as such, this needs to be taken into account in any penalty. An overly severe or unwarranted sentence will just serve to further deter whistle-blowing and allow corrupt officials, politicians or business managers to continue in their actions.

I also question whether it is Manning alone who should be blamed. The US government must share some blame in not protecting material they viewed as confidential. Apparently the material leaked was available to many thousands of people. Following the September 2001 terrorist outrages an attempt to stop the silo mentality that had prevented different bits of information being linked together, correctly allowed for improved sharing of intelligence. Evidently such sharing did not consider the security implications of making so much information available to so many – with minimal protection. If Manning had not leaked the material, I’m sure that somebody else with a moral conscience, seeing the Iraq video, would have.

Additionally, it was not Manning (if the leak came from him) who posted the material but Wikileaks. Wikileaks would like to be seen as a channel whereby whistle-blowers can alert the world of crimes (commercial or governmental) that are being kept hidden, and I believe there is a need for such a service. Had they fulfilled this role, they would have edited out any material that did not serve a public service in being released.

The free-rights-for-all crowd enter – stage left.

Facebook Group Logo for Boycotting Amazon over Wikileaks

Wikileaks, trying to remain online, used Amazon’s hosting service for the site. Of course, Amazon was then criticised for ostensibly supporting the service, and came under pressure to boot the service. Had they not done so, I’m sure that they would have faced a large and damaging right-wing campaign against them – especially as the peak holiday buying season approaches.  Their action however has, instead, led to a call for a boycott from those who believe in total freedom of speech regardless of the content, including a dedicated FaceBook fan page.

Had Amazon not hosted Wikileaks in the first place, neither side would have complained. Instead, Amazon has been criticised from both sides for doing what it felt was the right thing – both commercially and morally. They hosted the site – I’m sure because they believe in the moral principle of Freedom of Speech. It was not just a commercial decision – as I don’t believe that you will find any Nazi or Ku Klux Klan sites on Amazon servers. They host sites that they believe are not objectionable to their ethos. When, in the case of Wikileaks, this then threatened to be commercially damaging, they pulled the site – and get blasted by the “Freedom-of-Speech-at-all-costs” crowd who I’m sure would quickly campaign against the company if Amazon took this literally and started hosting racist, Nazi or kiddie-porn sites.

Julian Assange and Wikileaks

Wikileaks is not the first whistle-blowing web-site. My favourite – www.fuckedcompany.com – has unfortunately shut down, along with its sister site www.internalmemos.com. These two sites were important in warning investors of commercial shenanigans and companies that were having problems. Unfortunately I know of no other good sites offering such services. Wikileaks could, and should, have taken on this role. However with Assange as their editor-in-chief, they seem to be looking for headlines and controversy rather than fulfilling a role in preventing corruption and crimes being committed by both government and commerce.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange. (Is it just me who thinks that Assange has a strong resemblance to Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films? He just needs to grow his hair a bit longer and they could be twins!)

Assange, according to Wikipedia, has led a peripatetic life. He claims to be constantly on the move – starting from his childhood, where his mother, in conflict with his father, hid Assange and his half-brother for five years. Obviously very bright, Assange became a leading computer hacker at the age of 16, and claims to have studied at university level, physics, mathematics, philosophy and neuroscience.

In 2006 he founded Wikileaks with an overtly political aim of encouraging leaks to change organisations that he felt were unjust or secretive:

…the more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…

Prior to the current 2010 leaks, WikiLeaks has published material relating to extra-judicial killings in Kenya, information on toxic waste dumping off Africa, Church of Scientology manuals, a report on share price manipulation (that led to criminal charges and a jail sentence for the culprits) by the Icelandic Kaupthing Bank and many more reports and items.

What next?

The latest leaks have caused severe embarrassment for the USA and many of its allies. Worringly, the response by some of the opponents to Wikileaks show how freedom in the USA is at risk. Rather than accept that their security was lax and that the leaks show signs that illegal practices are being covered up, blame is being pinned on the message and the messengers (Manning and Assange). That is not to say that either are totally innocent. Manning, if he was responsible for leaking all the documents was naive to say the least. Assange strikes me as a petulant, spoilt and amoral man who loves the publicity he is getting, and doesn’t really care who gets hurt in the process.

Scene from the film "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" - the third book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

Meanwhile, I wonder whether the accusations of rape that have been made against Assange in Sweden are just an attempt by his enemies to put him behind bars. It would not be the first time that the Swedish authorities were accused of falsifying evidence to imprison an undesirable element linked to computer hacking, violence against women, espionage and the security services.  Stieg Larsson‘s Millenium Trilogy are works of fiction, detailing how corrupt elements within the Swedish secret services conspire to frame the heroine Lisbeth Salander, and keep her locked up, so as to save their own skins. Salander, like Assange, is a computer hacker who takes on and challenges authority. It would be ironic if the Swedish accusations against Assange also turned out to be false – and were an attempt by his enemies to put him away. However such things only happen in fiction…. don’t they?

Scene from the film "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" - the third book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

 

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