Analytics and Forecasting

My father’s footsteps

3 Aug 2007  

When I started my own business in 1991, my late father showed a more keen interest in my career than he had previously. He had gone into business for himself late in his own career (as a business writer), and I always found his insights helpful. I always gave him whatever papers and books on intelligence I had written, and he always made an effort to read them, and respond “intelligently”.

But one day, he confirmed what I already suspected by asking, “Tim, I’m still not really sure what you, your company, and your colleagues do for a living. Can you explain it in ways that the rest of us can understand?”

My father was a smart and well-read man, and worked as a business executive for decades without the benefit of an academic college education. What formal training he did have came from the US Coast Guard Academy, where he trained to be a navigation officer in the Pacific Theater during WWII. He subsequently was in advertising and promotions work for companies in the insurance and publishing businesses.

My answer was that I basically do the same things he did. He was a navigator—who tells the captain exactly where the ship currently is, what kind of conditions should be expected ahead, and therefore what course he recommends.

That is exactly what intelligence does—for the enterprise, intelligence finds out where we are, what we’re up against, and how we get to where we want to be.

My father had been in the insurance business, and often wrote about risks that insurance clients face and must manage. Intelligence, too, is about managing risk-both opportunity (the upside of risk) and threat (the downside). In both cases, the value proposition typically involves avoiding an unfavorable outcome.

Convincing someone that an intangible “might happen” scenario could really happen, and should be planned for, is never easy. You are constantly in the realm of possibility—this might happen, that could happen. Business people tend by nature to be empirical in their thinking—their ability to see clearly what is “there” is a major part of what makes them successful. Describing future possibilities without hard data—which by definition is unavailable—is pretty tough.

Insurance industry people over the years have had to overcome this, and they have done so by building up the actuarial science that in effect “predicts” the likelihood that a given negative event will occur. They know exactly what the odds of, say, your being in a car accident are—and can price their coverage accordingly.

The main difference here is that while insurance is focused mostly on providing a financial settlement once something bad has happened, intelligence is focused on preventing its happening in the first place.

Excerpt from the Introduction to The Knowledge Value Chain Workbook by T.W. Powell.

1 Response

  1. Tim, your comments are so true and most interesting because my father says the exact same thing to me. I’m a strategic planner by profession and for the past five years I’ve been building a global information database of over 9,000 industries. He really wants to understand what I do – but except for the word “information” – none of the details are grasped.

    In the corporate world, especially with the pace of activity and personal time constraints, few people have the time, interest and capability to learn something new – especially if the new information doesn’t easily build upon that person’s unique knowledgebase (and brain circuitry). This is a dilemma for many competitive intelligence professionals because it’s so much easier for the users of the information to just grab the results – the minimum amount of information and summary knowledge to make a decision – rather than think about each of the potential outcomes and plan for each scenario.

    I greatly applaud your focus on the possibilities – what might happen – because the alternative is to hit the automatic pilot button and to stop thinking altogether.

    Alan S, Michaels, Co-founder

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