Turning External Information into Actionable Intelligence – Part 2

Solutions for Getting Information from External Sources

So here are the solutions for getting the best out of your speakers and environmental scanning subscriptions – and they are so simple and so common-sensical, most of you will probably want to say “Well, duh!” So why do so many organizations approach it from a less than useful perspective?

Editor’s Note: See Part 1 HERE

Having seen so many examples, the reason is that the Leader and/or the leadership team delegates the responsibility to a planning group or a consultant, without giving details of the requirements. I have heard comments such as: “Find someone who knows about this subject who is a really good speaker.”   “We want a really good futurist who can help us get out of the box.” “My colleague in Organization X used this guy and said he’s very good.”   “This consultancy has a very good scanning service and they told us that several of our competitors subscribe to it.”

Good speakers and scanning services can be very expensive – so you need to make sure that they are going to provide you with what you need. Why do you think you need a speaker?   What do you hope the speaker will provide?   What do you want the scanning service to provide?

Speaker Solutions

If you believe your leadership and management team needs an external speaker who will provide information that the rest of the organization needs to hear, or a speaker who will provide a different perspective than that held by people in the organization, then you need to identify such a speaker very carefully. As in the example given in Part 1, it shouldn’t be someone who is an expert on, say India or China, it needs to be an expert who can provide answers to the particular problems and questions that the organization needs to address for doing business with each of those countries. These may be questions related to available resources—human as well as material; to government policies regarding business ownership and taxation; problems with counterfeiting, piracy, terrorism; or a myriad more.

Once a speaker is identified, it not good enough to ask that expert to provide a 45-minute presentation. You need to prepare a proper brief for the speaker, explaining your problems and requirements. Then you need to discuss with the speaker exactly what you want to get out of both the presentation and the Q&A. And, ideally, you want the speaker to provide a short paper that describes the key points of the presentation. The leadership and managers who will be attending the presentation need to be briefed. They have business interests in India and China, for instance. What specifically do they need to know? You might ask them to write down questions, send them to you so you can provide them to the speaker, or bring them to the presentation, so if they have the opportunity to ask their question, it will be brief and concise. And the Q/A should be almost the same length as the presentation. So for a presentation of 45 mins, the Q/A should be 30-45 mins.

Then—and this is the most important part—you need to turn what the speaker has said into actionable intelligence. Immediately after the speaker has left, you, your leadership, and managers should discuss the key points you have heard and identify the main implications for the business. Ideally, the group needs to set aside 60 or even 90 minutes for this discussion. This may seem like a lot, but if an organization is going to benefit from the speaker’s knowledge, it needs to take the time to digest it. Then, and only then, is it OK to move to the next step on the agenda.

One final point about speakers: We mentioned earlier that, when listening to speakers, participants are in a passive, receptive mode. When they are working on strategic planning, they need to be active, creative, and engaged. When we bring in speakers to our workshops, be they external or internal speakers, we hold all the presentations (and the discussions following them) the day before the workshop begins so the participants can be actively focused and engaged for the strategic planning work.

Environmental Scanning and Foresight Solutions

When our clients have subscribed to an environmental scanning service, or have purchased a global trends report from an external source, or if they have had their own department provide such a report, prior to the planning process, then we take a similar approach to the one we employ with speakers.

We insist that you and every member of the leadership and management team that is going to participate in one of our strategy or futures workshops reads the whole report—and thinks about it. We ask each participant to consider the implications of each major section of the report, the scenarios (if provided), and the report as a whole. Then, before we get into the main work of the workshop, we hold sessions to explore and discuss the implications of what they have read. If we think there are areas missing from the report we will add them, either by ourselves or through other experts. In other words, we are helping the organization turn the report into actionable intelligence. Only then do we continue with the rest of our workshop. This approach is the sensible thing to do. Why do organizations prepare or purchase such reports, if they are not going to take them seriously?

One important point about scanning services and reports is that they require synthesis, not just analysis. Sometimes, a scanning service provides a report that is really a data dump. Our approach to education focuses on analysis, not synthesis, yet it is synthesis that you need in order to use the results of the scanning. Scenarios provide synthesis, but you need to ensure that everyone understands the assumptions on which the scenarios were produced.

As mentioned above, we believe it can be useful for an organization to undertake or purchase an environmental scanning program or a trends report prior to conducting major strategic planning or futures activities, as they lay the groundwork for what follows. However, you do not need to do this very often, perhaps only every three or five years or so. Rather, our recommendation is that, once the strategic plan has been prepared and developed in a WarRoom[1], which is a way of making information and intelligence actionable, then an internal group (planning or foresight) should scan on a regular basis for emerging trends, events, and circumstances that could counter the assumptions made in the strategic planning process. When they find some issue, event, trend, or circumstance of concern, then they should prepare all necessary documentation, and provide it to you and the leadership team, with a detailed explanation of the implications, including where and how its impact can be seen in the WarRoom.

In other words, rather than a foresight group preparing a detailed report of miscellaneous analyses at frequent intervals, a much better use of its time and efforts is to be more focused on what you and your organization need to know to ensure that you can achieve your vision and strategies. And should it appear that certain trends are going to push it off-course, then focus on analyses of what you might do to counter or adjust to the trends, or calculate a new direction. Focus and implications should be the hallmarks of any futures and foresight activities.

Key Points from Parts 1 & 2

Experts as speakers can be useful, but make sure you invite those who actually have something to contribute to your organization.

  • Describe to them in detail what you are looking for—what subjects need to be covered.
  • Ask them to prepare a short paper, or at least key points of what they will be saying.
  • Ask your leaders and managers to prepare questions, and bring them in writing to the presentation.

Scanning and foresight can be useful, but make sure that the analysts or service providers are scanning and analyzing useful, relevant material, and are capable of synthesizing it. You don’t want to end up with a data dump.

Allow adequate time to discuss and turn all the information from the speakers and reports into actionable intelligence.

[1] A WarRoom is a way of setting out information about an organization’s strategic plan or operations in such a way that all the steps in a process can be seen clearly and in a chronological sequence.   Our clients have used it very effectively – displaying it down a corridor or around the walls of a Boardroom.


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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