Is Early Warning for You?

April 7, 2017

 

You have probably heard, and even thought about, having an early warning system. Why? Well, early warning is an area where CI skills are quite valuable. However, there are some major issues that you should consider before going further.

In case you are not familiar with it, an early warning system provides – wait for it – early warning of major economic, environmental, market, and political changes impacting the organization’s businesses. In practice, it can often one of the most effective way of communicating strategic intelligence to senior management.

Let’s look at a few issues that are not readily evident:

  • Commitment – By commitment, I am referring to both time and money, and most importantly, participation by management. Without active management participation, an early warning system is just a set of musing given to management. Participation includes the commitment to act on it.
  • Bottom line – It usually takes a long time to see the results of an effective early warning system. And, they are often impossible to quantify. What is the bottom line impact of avoiding the future entry of a new firm into part of your market? How much would you have lost if you did not launch a new product defensively?
  • Verify results – This is related to the bottom line problem. Avoiding problems (or crises), beginning reacting months earlier than you might, and the like often serves to lower risks and potential costs. But, again, you may not be able to see that. Take for example, the parallel of a watchman on a merchant ship in World War II. He is scanning the horizon, looking for anything that could pose a threat to the ship, its crew, passengers, and/or cargo. He spots what he thinks might be the periscope of a submarine. On being told, the captain begins evasive maneuvers, which costs time and fuel, moves the crew to combat quarters, which reduces their ability to do ordinary work, and calls for naval and air assistance to hunt down the sub, which ties them up. The result – the ship is not attacked by a sub. But, was a successful attack going to happen? The captain will never know.
  • Changing the future – Well-done early warning systems can make it impossible to measure, or even to verify, results. Why? Because, first, they are talking about trends (probabilities), not hard facts. And second, by responding to a warning, they may have changed the predicted future. Think about it.

I am not saying that an early warning system is not valuable. Shell’s experience seems to show that it can be extraordinarily valuable. What I am saying is that if you do this, do it right, control expectations, get by-in early and often. Then, effective early warning will product its real benefits: doing many things better, faster, and smarter while reducing risk and the exposure to risk and avoiding the many traps of short-term thinking and actions.



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