20 Jan 12 The future is already here – can you read the signals?

antenna“Can you do research and tell me what my key intelligence topic should be?” was a request from a market intelligence analyst to us recently. What he was actually saying, is that he needs pointers on what trends or developments will be relevant to his company going forward, so that he can focus on them and prepare for them now. He wants to identify relevant “weak signals”.

All new trends/ patterns/ macro changes in  technologies, society, economy, etc. start with small shifts in opinions or behaviors . Weak signals are these faint indications of macro changes that are poised to take place in future.

Weak signals are of tremendous value to competitive intelligence analysts, as they allow the analysts to anticipate what the future will be and hence caution the organization to proactively prepare for it. The company that recognizes the trend first, stands to gain advantage over its competitors.

Of course, it is hard to know whether a particular shift in behavior is a true signal of the future or just an random anomaly. Either way, a CI analyst cannot ignore a weak signal and may want to follow it till she can ascertain whether the change will die out or persist. If she does catch a major trend before everyone else, it could turn the fortunes of her organization. On the other hand, missing a trend could mean huge losses for the organization. Remember what Nirma did to HLL? And recently, what happened to Nokia?

So how can a CI analyst work to increase the chances of hitting this jackpot?

To start with, she must acknowledge the fact that it is possible to anticipate the future by looking for signals of change.  A successful trend-watcher must have a passion for it.  She needs to have her antennae up and eyes and ears open at all times, to minimize the chances of missing patterns and trends.

Additionally, she needs to monitor all the relevant places for picking up signals – such as blogs, news, magazines, publications, and other social media. It doesn’t hurt if she is open to surfing a few not-directly-relevant places too, as one sometimes finds clues in the most unexpected places. For long term trends, she will need to monitor demographic information, economy, political landscape and new technologies.

It is very important that she constantly communicate with people within and outside the industry – talk to industry experts, hang out with smart people, attend events and share information and insights with them. Particularly in India, with low internet penetration and low quantum of published data & information, there is absolutely no substitute for networking and socializing to pick up clues and views.

Finally and importantly, the analyst needs to have and open mind and be fearless in looking at all possibilities. Many  times organizations tend to ignore signals that threaten the current status quo or are uncomfortable for the organization!

“The future is already here, it’s just unequally distributed” – William Gibson

Varsha Chitale

Varsha led the competitive intelligence practice at ValueNotes. As part of her drive to educate India Inc. on the merits of competitive intelligence, she often conducted webinars and seminars on CI for senior executives of Indian companies.

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