INFOTECH: Avoid Business Blind Spots
Recent Western Cape Business News
Businesses are compromising their strategic planning by basing decisions only on data easily accessible within their formal information systems. Intelligence derived from the external environment and unstructured information in an organisation can provide the necessary cues which provide strategists and executives forewarning of opportunities or impending organisational failure.
“Too many businesses turn a blind eye to the unknowns in their competitive environment. The winners are generally those that do investigate, analyse and react to cues and signals in both structured and unstructured information sources.” says Dr Herman van Niekerk, director of knowledge management and competitive intelligence consultants, Suritec. “In order to make sound strategic decisions in a competitive business environment, it is essential to interpret this information.
”Only 20% of the total information of a business is held in a structured format. This structured data resides in databases and data warehouses and, over the past few years, a significant amount of money has been spent by businesses on developing business intelligence and management information systems to analyse this information. It is relatively easy to develop systems that have causality as a platform. Executives then make rational decisions based only on causal information.
”Basing decisions on 20% of the data is a severe constraint, but it is the 80% of unstructured data that businesses have found difficult to manage. This 80% of data is scattered all over the organisation – in individuals’ minds, their personal filing systems and personal Excel spreadsheets and desktops, not to mention scattered throughout external sources such as the Internet.”
“Most business environments are complex, and quantitatively orientated systems can’t cope with this complexity because they don’t allow for unstructured data,” says Suritec director Ryno Goosen. “As a result, executives haven’t been able to reappraise their views based on what is happening in the external environment. This creates business blindspots specifically when it comes to strategy.
“It’s been difficult to develop software that analyses unstructured data. And, until recently, it has been exceedingly difficult to link structured to unstructured data.”
“New visual analytic technologies enable organisations to explore the totality of information available to them and simultaneously to uncover the relationships that exist within this mass of data,” says Van Niekerk The Starlight visual information system, originally developed for the USA intelligence community, enables companies to uncover key relationships hidden in large, complex, dynamic information collections. Unlike other technologies, Starlight integrates structured, unstructured, spatial and multimedia data simultaneously, making it possible to identify patterns, trends, and warning signals.
“From a strategic perspective,” says Van Niekerk, “it’s important to ask what issues the business needs to deal with to be competitive over the next few years. How can you leverage your information assets to make your organisation competitive?
”Information about economic, technical and environmental trends resides in unstructured data, yet organisations often don’t look at that. Often even information within the organisation, such as e-mail, is not properly analysed and shared.
“Technology can analyse e-mail and photo and PDF files and look at various topics and interrelationships. For example, in an information flow, who are the important people? What happens if you take one or two people out of the network? This can be crucial in terms of retaining intellectual capital within the organisation.
“Insight into this information improves and accelerates the decision-making process and ensures you can motivate the decisions you make.”
“Making sense of unstructured data also provides good early-warning about your environment,” says Goosen. “You can never know the future, but you can look at scenarios in your organisation and find indicators that give you an idea which scenario is unfolding, allowing you to adapt your strategy to fit what is playing out in the environment.
“Organisations need to use ‘wetware’ – the human mind – along with IT systems and software. It makes sense to set up a think-tank in the organisation that scans the external business environment and engages in organisational dialogue so as to test different hypotheses and build an agile business strategy.
“You would then make use of structured analytical techniques and applications such as Starlight to gather information from the external environment. This enables you to gather information from myriads of data. You can then integrate the two main information sources – structured and unstructured – to improve decision-making on how to go forward.
“Take, as an example, a possible conflict of interest in a tender procedure. An analyst could spend more than two weeks going through Internet data and looking for linkages. Visual analytic software sorts through masses of documents in a short time and indicates connections. So it enables the organisation to be a lot more accurate in its analysis of competitive activities.”
“Ultimately,” says Van Niekerk, “it’s about developing the agility and skills to be competitive in a world of information overload and globalisation. This demands that the business has the right culture, the right people and the right tools.”
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