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From trend-spotting to enterprise intelligence

Posted on 24 January 2010 by Pierre Picard

JM Rondeauby Jean-Michel Rondeau, Head of the Economic Intelligence Unit at Bull Services.

After ten years as a Project Manager with Bull and having successfully delivered seven major projects in the defense sector, at the beginning of 2009 Jean-Michel Rondeau took over as head of the Competence Center at Bull Services focusing on trend-spotting and enterprise intelligence.

Jean-Michel is a graduate of the Technology University in Compiègne, France, and also spent two years in Canada, working in a research laboratory.

As the number of digital information sources multiplies, along with tools which enable them to be exploited, trend-spotting is taking on a whole new dimension: internal data is being combined with external information and every function in the business can benefit from this approach. These days, everyone is talking about ‘enterprise intelligence’. But for these kinds of projects to successfully deliver the anticipated benefits, certain safeguards are needed, as Bull’s teams have seen first hand.

In a hyper-competitive world, identifying future trends is becoming increasingly vital in business. More than ever before, it is crucial to take the right decisions as early as possible, to anticipate which way the market is going and how regulations are likely to change, in order to make wise investments. As part of this process of systematically monitoring and analyzing the environment, the explosion in digital media represents an outstanding opportunity. Organizations have never before had this level of access to so much information about technological innovations, competitors’ initiatives or their customers’ expectations. Over recent years we have seen an extraordinary increase in the number of information sources (Internet and Intranet sites, blogs, forums, social networks…), types (technical data, financial communications, expert reports, customer commentaries…) and formats (structured and un-structured data, text, images, videos…).

This proliferation has two major consequences in the area of trend spotting. The first is the possibility to consider a much wider range of sources around a given subject, and in particular to be able to take into account both external data (mainly from the Internet and Web sources) and at the same time internal information (from Intranets, documentmanagement systems, Business Intelligence, Knowledge Management…). Thanks to this global approach to information sources, the organization itself is an integral part of the trend-spotting process. The second consequence is that there is a huge variety of informaiton available, which means that more and more areas can make use of trend-setting approaches: from Marketing, which could use it to measure the notoriety of a particular product or brand, to Human Resources, which can understand changing skill patterns more effectively, or Purchasing, which can gain a better understanding of its suppliers… the whole organization can now be involved. Current evolutions are transforming trend-spotting, which is built around a limited number of external sources and destined for a limited group of people into ‘enterprise intelligence’ that potentially touches all the functions within a business and in which the organization itself becomes a vital source of information.

But all this diversification of sources, the explosion in the amount of data to be processed and ways of using it have a downside: complexity. Many tools are available to help automate the various stages of the trend-spotting process: source management, data gathering, search engines, analysis tools, knowledge management, distribution, information processing… But just putting in place such solutions is not enough to guarantee that the right elements – which are relevant, reliable, complete and up to date – will be sent to the right people in a usable form. Without proper organization, without effective ways of qualifying or classifying the information, without precise search criteria, without a clearly defined goal for using the information… too much information actually kills information. We only have to think of all the various sources of business information that we ourselves receive: how many newsletters and RSS flows do we hardly glance at? How many bookmarked sites to we rarely, if ever, visit? How many notes, reports and dashboards have we still not go round to reading? And if tools are at the heart of enterprise intelligence solutions, the projects that are implemented will only deliver the anticipated benefits if they follow the kind of best practice that Bull’s teams have observed and successfully tried out for real, in the field.

1 -Set clear objectives

When you embarkon an enterprise intelligence project, the range of options is so vast that it is easy to go astray very quickly if you do not set a precise goal. So the main priority is to restrict the boundaries of the approach by establishing clear (and definitive) answers to a number of key questions: What are we looking to find out? What information do we need? Where will we find it and in what form? Who will it be given to? Everyone involved needs to know the answers to these questions, because eventually they will form the ‘tags’ for the project. Initially, it is a good idea not to be too ambitious: go for limited areas where you are keen to identify trends, which will help everyone to really understand the concepts, tools and use of the information, and measure the results.

2 -Think about how the information will be used

Given the rich wealth of available information and material, it is always very tempting to gather as much as possible or to design absolutely vast solutions, without thinking about the organization and the ways it will be used which are already in place and are likely to evolve over time. Unfortunately, these kinds of idealistic vision often run up against practical reality! Generally, trend-spotting is already part of existing business processes, and its results are added to other sources (Business Intelligence, business communications, internal notes…). So for example, when you define the way that the information is presented or how often it is distributed, it is essential to take into account the expectations and constraints faced by the end users, so that they really take on board the tools and approach you are using. It is always worth remembering that the value of the information which is collected depends totally on the use which is made of it.

3 - Choose and scope your tools carefully

Only when you have defined all the parameters outlined above (objectives, sources, types of information, target audience, how it will be used…), you can start to consider the question of which tools to use. Good up-front preparation makes it much easier to clarify the functional specification and so to choose the most appropriate solution, whether that is an integrated enterprise intelligence software suite or independent modules (source-crawlers and information gathering tools, indexing, search engines, publication tools, semantic analysis tools…). Over and above integration with different sources of information, one key technical challenge involves scoping the solution: processing and storing information (and indexes) requires significant computing and memory capacity. And you will need to plan ahead for the evolution of the platforms being used, as the amounts of data to be processed are likely to grow extremely rapidly.

4 – Take a coherent approach to change management

There are various different approaches to trend-spotting and the methodologies used can vary widely. And we have seen that the principles that are explained to users up front, during awareness-building sessions, are not always those which are actually implemented. This can result in a certain degree of confusion, which can damage the credibility of the approach which is used and prevent the people who use it from being fully committed to it. Which is why it is important to adopt coherent principles and communicate effectively throughout the project, using terminology that is set in stone from the start and understood by everyone involved. It is also important not to forget to evaluate the impact that the approach has on existing processes.

5 – Put in place a dedicated team, for the long term

Given the highly dynamic nature of digital information, the basis on which the solution is built can rapidly become obsolete or impossible to manage, because of the multitude and heterogeneous nature of the sources created. In effect, new sources of information can appear, others may disappear, others may become more or less relevant… So it is essential for the long-term future of the approach to establish a dedicated trend-spotting team or unit, to administer the solution and provide a central point of contact for user demands and requests. This does not necessarily have to involve a great deal of work, but it has to be done very regularly to avoid any deviation or possible loss of information that may proved to be strategic to the enterprise.

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