How ‘social intelligence’ can guide decisions

How ‘social intelligence’ can guide decisions

Aug 14, 2017: Weekly Curated Thought-Sharing on Digital Disruption, Applied Neuroscience and Other Interesting Related Matters.

By Martin Harrysson, Hugo Sarrazin and Estelle Metayer

Curated by Helena M. Herrero Lamuedra

In many companies, marketers have been first movers in social media, tapping into it for insights on how consumers think and behave. As social technologies mature and organizations become convinced of their power, we believe they will take on a broader role: informing competitive strategy.

In particular, social media should help companies overcome some limits of old-school intelligence gathering, which typically involves collecting information from a range of public and proprietary sources, distilling insights using time-tested analytic methods, and creating reports for internal company “clients” often “siloed” by function or business unit.

Today, many people who have expert knowledge and shape perceptions about markets are freely exchanging data and viewpoints through social platforms. By identifying and engaging these players, employing potent Web-focused analytics to draw strategic meaning from social-media data, and channeling this information to people within the organization who need and want it, companies can develop a “social intelligence” that is forward looking, global in scope, and capable of playing out in real time.

This isn’t to suggest that “social” will entirely displace current methods of intelligence gathering. But it should emerge as a strong complement. As it does, social-intelligence literacy will become a critical asset for C-level executives and board members seeking the best possible basis for their decisions.

From identifying data to mapping people and conversations

Social media creates a new information map. Competitive analysts today differentiate between primary sources of information (from experts, competitors, employees, and suppliers), on the one hand, and secondary sources (such as published data, articles, and market research), on the other. Social intelligence operates on a different plane, identifying people and their conversations in social spaces. Its logic is that if you can find the right “curators” and experts collecting and channeling vital, accurate information, that eliminates the need for extensive searches of traditional databases and published information. Identifying the right people ultimately should induce companies to join existing online conversations and even shape them. This real-time information may help preempt key actions of competitors or lead to adjustments of strategy.

Intelligence analysts often report exclusively to a single department, such as communications, marketing, or strategy. That can make analysts gravitate toward the approved pattern of thinking within their function, potentially limiting the breadth of insight they distill and sometimes even interfering with their judgment. Curating a variety of perspectives from multiple social-media sources should help internal checks and balances play out more freely and, in some cases, lead to necessary whistle-blowing. To reinforce this diversity of thought, companies can embed analysts across the organization in functions ranging from strategic planning and product development to R&D, customer service, and M&A planning.

As companies make such moves, they will probably need to update the profiles of their competitive-intelligence analysts. Recruitment from outside the company or even the industry can improve the odds that analysts will pick up a variety of signals that now may be missed. Leaders, too, will need to understand that decrypting weak signals may offer better strategic insights than the familiar patterns traditional intelligence sometimes serves up.

From data gathering to engaging and tracking

Analysts typically spend 80 percent of their time gathering information before they begin to analyze it. Social intelligence radically alters this process. Numerous tools allow analysts to create dynamic maps that pinpoint where information and expertise reside and to track new data in real time. The most effective way of obtaining new information is to engage a carefully mapped network of experts on specific subjects.

Companies today normally hire people with outstanding research and analytical skills. But socially astute analysts will need more, such as the ability to manage and engage an online community of trend spotters and, above all, the curiosity to reach out for novel sources of expertise. In effect, they must become hunters of information rather than gatherers. Companies will need to invest in the tools, such as network-mapping and influence-rating metrics, that analysts need to manage these new networks—for example, by helping to assess the expertise and relevance of community members. An obvious corollary is that companies should also be trying to reduce the odds of competitors “hunting” them in social spaces by making their people aware of how easy it is to inadvertently divulge valuable information.

From analysis and synthesis to structuring and mining

Few analysts deploy tools robust enough to draw useful insights from the turbulent new streams of social data. Most use older-line approaches taught in business schools—such as standard SWOT. Even analysts who have dipped in the waters of social media often find themselves swimming upstream. Most of today’s techniques simply extract conversation flows found on the “usual suspects”: Facebook and Twitter.

Yet the availability of vast quantities of social-media data points has spawned an array of new analytic methods that can structure and derive insight from complex information. The range of analytical techniques has exploded, and to stay ahead of the game companies must tap new areas of expertise. Some may have to seek talented people from outside the organization who are familiar with the new methods or to invest heavily in upgrading the skills of current intelligence analysts. Central to this quest will be convincing senior leaders that the new methodologies are sound and the insights they provide will improve decision making. With little history and few case studies demonstrating their impact, this is often an uphill battle.

From reporting to curating and embedding

One complaint we often hear from analysts is that senior managers don’t act on the information channeled their way. There are good reasons for this inattention: intelligence reports often are formal documents sent by e-mail, broadcast by corporate newsletters, or posted on intranets. Content sometimes covers the waterfront of competitive topics, and information can be dated by the time it gets into decision makers’ hands.

By contrast, new social software now on the market lets companies rapidly, even automatically, curate highly pertinent information—from news sources, Web discussions by experts and influencers, freshly minted market data, and customer feedback. This software allows companies to produce “micro-publications” that can be dispatched to decision makers instantly. Almost any user within a company can therefore create a personalized information dashboard, which “democratizes” intelligence and embeds relevant data deep within the organization.


The information that companies need to meet competitive challenges is moving quickly from published and proprietary sources to the open, chaotic world of social platforms. Navigating this new environment effectively will require new skills and a willingness to engage in social conversations rather than merely assemble information. This is a mission that should extend across the organization. Senior executives can’t leave such important work to specialists. Social intelligence will sharpen strategic insights, and leaders must be immersed in the new information currents.

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