Picking-up Weak Signals
During the postwar years, and a few years after, the economy was growing regularly and our environment seemed fairly easy to predict. We thought we knew with certainty what was going to happen, and traditional planning and forecast activities were well adapted to this period. Today, however, we are entering a new sphere. The environment is increasingly complex, technological leaps continue and new players emerge in traditional industries every day.
Managers get confused as changes in the environment are constant and leave no or little time for reflection. This turbulence in itself is not dangerous as it offers multiple new opportunities. What is dangerous is the risk of making decisions using yesterday's logic. The faster one is driving, the farther the lights need to project.
To survive, a company must no longer trust existing trends or "strong signals;" instead, it needs to identify "weak signals" - those which announce future changes in their strategic landscape. This article will illustrate how for those who know how to observe, the future is already written in today's viscera.
Shifts occur at the point where an industry or an environment is about to change dramatically and where the rules for playing the game are being transformed into drastically different ones.
It is often difficult for managers to identify these shifts:
The notion of subtlety
Each event (ideas, situations, actions or products) can now be communicated around the world as soon as it emerges and will be taken into account in the decision-making process of executives. In this context where executives get bombarded by a large amount of information, the key to competing effectively is no longer to make a lot of noise - it is to make a different noise.
In particular, it is important for companies to understand subtle actions that can make a difference: either by creating a small gap (a new approach) or a large gap (an incubating idea for tomorrow).
This is why governing by "weak signals" has become a new way of
managing in companies. The two questions to ask about weak signals are:
1 - Make surprise a way of life
This habit can be observed by Japanese tourists visiting a foreign country: each tourist forces him or herself to write notes about everything that has been surprising during the trip, without knowing what will be interesting to keep when they return to their country. As a result, a wealth of new ideas is generated at no cost for the country.
To be effective, this systematic collection of individual notes needs to
be conducted by a large number of people. This means that:
2 - Learn to screen trends
A key success factor in screening trends is to develop a solid filter to be used to sifter through the immense mass of information available. This filter can be much broader than just observing competitors or technology trends. It usually also includes the notion of ideas and competencies.
The process of screening trends is especially developed in companies which have understood that, often, answers about the future are already here, but need to be uncovered.
To learn more about tools to help you screen information automatically using keywords, refer to our article last December, "Automatically Screening the News." (at www.competia.com ed.) When you have gathered the information, use tools such as "Umap" to analyze results and find the weak signals.
3 - Learn from others
Benchmarking consists in comparing your company or industry to the "Best-in-class"
4 - Listen carefully
Interviewing experts to understand an industry is a well-known technique to obtain information about future trends. What is often not done well, however, is knowing how to conduct a good interview. Often, the experts will not tell you exactly what market trends might be because they do not know that they know it. This knowledge is unconscious.
To unveil this dormant knowledge, CI specialists learn techniques (please
refer to the excellent October article by Bruno Vanasse in Competia : "Basic
Interview Techniques"). In general, such interviews are conducted as
I just left L'Oreal, where I had implemented a strategic process to understand the future based on seven angles: societal, competitive, geopolitical, technological, market, legislative, geographical.
This screening of trends took place in all areas where the group could
face threats or opportunities. I would add to those seven angles another
one: the "president and decision-making executives' intelligence."
Robert Salmon is author of the book "Competitive Intelligence: Scanning the Global Environment" with Yolaine de Linares) London & Paris: Economica (9, Wimpole St). April 1999.
Robert Salmon's article was originally
featured at www.competia.com in February 2000,
Competia Online is a production of Executive Resource Inc.
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