Turning External Information into Actionable Intelligence – Part 1

Good Intelligence is a Critical Requirement

The last article covered the subject of “Knowing where we are,” and I discussed if from the perspective of specific analyses that your organization can perform itself. Many organizations spend a great deal of money, time, and effort in collecting and/or purchasing data, and often bring in experts to provide further information. All this information can be very useful if it is used effectively, but in our experience much of it is wasted.

The problems generally stem from an assumption that information itself is intelligence. The solutions emerge from turning that information into actionable intelligence. This Part 1 article provides a discussion of the problems, and Part 2 will provide insight into how your organization can make more effective use of all the data that is available to you.

Information from External Sources – Benefits and Problems

Many leaders believe that they and their teams do not know enough about their strategic environment to enable them to make effective long-term decisions. Because of this, organizations will often subscribe to external environmental scanning services and commission global trend reports or, prior to conducting a strategic planning process, they will invite subject matter experts to speak at their planning event. Sometimes they do all of these at considerable cost.

All these approaches can be useful, but they can also have their drawbacks, so they need to be handled with care. We have been involved in all these activities as report and event producers, speakers, and users, so we understand how to get the best out of all of them.

There are four key areas that should be considered when selecting external sources:

  • Who are the experts you will choose for your analysis and/or as speakers, and how might their perceptions be biased?
  • Do you select the subjects on which the experts or foresight groups are going to speak/report—or do they?
  • How are they going to report their findings—reports, presentations, spreadsheets, graphic representations, models?
  • Are those insights likely to be useful for your organization?


Let’s start with speakers, as they are the most frequently used external experts. When you select a speaker, make sure he/she is an expert in an area that is relevant to your organization and the information to be given in the presentation is in a form you can use. The following paragraphs may seem contrived to make a point – but this is a real-life example.

Say your organization is thinking about developing some new products and expanding its markets into India and China. You have heard that Dr. X is a world-renowned expert on India, and Professor Y has helped many similar organizations develop markets in China. You decide that, when your organization holds its strategic planning meeting, you will invite Dr. X to give a 40-minute keynote presentation first thing in the morning, followed by a 20-minute discussion. Then you will invite Professor Y to do the same thing over lunch. In the time between Dr. X’s speech and Professor Y, you will probably give an overview of the past year’s performance, and the VPs for business development and marketing will give their perspectives on the new products and the potential for the new market areas. Following lunch with Professor Y, the executives will reconvene—perhaps breaking into small groups—with each group focused on some aspect of the new products or new market development.

Meeting day arrives, and Dr. X gives his morning presentation. He really knows his stuff, and it is a fascinating lecture. However, it is about the socio-political relationships between various regions in India, and although he does his best to bring in some elements of trade and international business, he doesn’t say much that is relevant to the company’s business. And the 20-minute Q&A period does not provide the executives enough time to get into some of the details that they would like to hear. After Dr. X’s presentation, you go back to the meeting agenda and get on with your business.

At lunchtime, Professor Y is more attuned to business interests in China, but the lunchtime speech, interrupted by food, is too short, and the 20-minute Q&A is also too short to get into details that are relevant.

Worse, still, what few people realize is that presentations put people into a passive, receptive mode—some psychologists would call it a trance. This is particularly true when combined with food. So when people return to what is supposed to be the active, working part of the meeting, they are in a frame of mind that is the opposite of what is wanted: active, creative, and interactive.

In summary, including “expert speakers” in workshops is generally counterproductive, and we discourage the practice. More will be said about this later in Part 2

Environmental Scanning and Foresight

These two areas are closely related, so we will discuss them together. Sometimes they are conducted internally if the organization is large enough to be able to afford a team devoted to these areas. If not, there are consultancies that specialize in these areas, frequently through subscription services. In these cases, the consultancies will conduct some general environmental scanning and foresight studies, and then develop a customized report for each of their clients.


Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty
CHRISTINE MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting, Wiley, 1971 and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, August 2016. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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  1. Good points. I’ve found that despite the inputs, it’s best having people be able to see the end game and how they fit into it. Then they’re ready to take what they need and act on it. Story telling, sharing a joke, or even offering a candy bar are excellent approaches to establish readiness.