Just connect the dots

September 11, 2012

People sometimes ask, “How is it that you make sense of raw data?”  Well, the short answer we give is that somehow we “just connect the dots”.

Now that sounds very simple, but it really isn’t.  It erroneously conjures up one of those children’s puzzles that used to be on paper place mats in highway restaurants, placed there to keep children who had been cooped up in a car for too long busy for a few minutes.  You remember those place mats, if you’re over the age of 25, as also having other simple puzzles, and perhaps a maze or two.

Competitive intelligence is not that easy.  However, compared to national security intelligence, it is.  Given today’s date, it is hard not to reflect on the terrible losses 11 years ago.  Numerous and extensive postmortems have been conducted in an effort to determine whether or not there was an intelligence failure before 9/11, and if so, what was the intelligence failure, and how can we prevent it in the future? I do not propose to argue about that, nor am I in a situation where I can do so.

But the dot connecting facing our governmental analysts is not what we see in a child’s puzzle.  Rather, it is substantially more complex. In most cases, we know the environment in which we work, and feel reasonably sure that we really understand what is happening and what is not happening.  In business, we usually know when we have enough data to come to a reasonable conclusion.

But for government analyst, the world is very different. Visualize now a swimming pool, Olympic size, if you wish.  We are now going to fill it with beads of 12 (or so) different dark colors, including some with spots and stripes.  In those hundreds of thousands of beads, there will be about 200 which are black, but we do not know exactly how many.  There are another 100 or so that look like they have some black on them, or perhaps they just have a very dark blue smudge on them.  They’re another 50 or so which are broken, but which, at least to some people, appear to have had some black on them before they were shattered.

Your job as analyst is not only to find all of the beads that are black, remembering you don’t know how many there are, but also to determine whether or not these beads are actually black, that is, do they relate somehow to those other black beads which you have already located?  Oh, by the way, you probably have reason to believe that some of the black beads were actually once another color, but have been painted black, just to confuse you.  And you are pretty sure that you cannot find all of the dots. Also, you are doing all of this from the springboard 12 feet above the level of the pool. Okay, now, “just” connect the right dots.

While it is true that the national security intelligence community is now attempting to learn from those of us in the business intelligence community about the effective use of monitoring such new sources as social networks, their job and our job are markedly and remarkably different.

We in business are not facing people and even groups who intend actively and persistently to mislead and to confuse us, to engage in misdirection, and to do us grievous harm.  We may use the same skills, but the price of an analyst being wrong, just once in a month, a year, a decade, or a lifetime, may for us be a loss in a particular market, not a loss of almost 4,000 people.

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