Posts Tagged "weak signals"

on Jul 17, 2014 in Blog

  An edited version of this article was originally published in theHRDIRECTOR in June 2014 The buzz is about Big Data, but does that mean ‘Small Data’ is brushed under the carpet? Big Data is a fashionable phrase describing the vast amounts of digital information now available – from stratospheric growth in online traffic and reductions in storage costs – and the clever analytics used to find patterns in that data. But, with Big Data grabbing so many headlines, what is ‘small data’ and why is it so important? Far from being trivial, small data on a human scale can herald early warning signs of change in organisations. That’s why it is so important for HR Directors and other business leaders to ensure it is not simply brushed under the carpet. ‘Small data’ refers to the kind of information that we can all pick up, every day, in the normal course of our work. It might take the form of an unexpected comment which suddenly galvanises people into action; a growing disconnect between two groups; a new story that starts circulating virally; or a dip in energy within a team. As the name suggests, small data may be indistinct, so it can be tricky to define and articulate, even when we sense it. What makes it still harder to grasp is that small data is distributed around organisations. We each hold a piece of the puzzle, yet no-one can stand aside from the constant creation and flow of data in organisations to see the whole picture. Nevertheless, small data is human scale data, often qualitative, that we can all notice if we know what to look for. Small data, on a human scale, can herald early warning signs of change in organisations.  And small data can be powerful in challenging what we think we know. You only need to notice one black swan in order to prove that swans can be black. Even more importantly, it is the best data we have about how an organisation is changing, until after the fact. The power of small data is that it can give us advance warning of potential problems or completely new opportunities. It can signal important twists and turns...

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on Apr 15, 2014 in Blog

A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly highlighted the strength of ‘weak signals’. If you haven’t read it, the authors explain how snippets of information, often hidden in social-media streams, offer companies a valuable tool for staying ahead. Their focus is external scanning for potential opportunities by capitalising on weak signals hidden within a torrent of digital information. They argue that weak signals can be strategically important, and therefore worthy of top management time and attention. However, weak signals within organisations are also extremely valuable for leaders and decision-makers to understand. They can provide early warning signs of potential problems and opportunities which are being created as an organisation is changing and developing. Understanding these weak signals can help leaders act sooner – to take responsive action in live change to help seize opportunities and head off problems, while they are still small. For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail. A well-known proverb describes events escalating until a Kingdom was lost, all for the want of a horseshoe nail. Here, the implications of responding later, rather than sooner, are clearly spelt out. We can also see this on a practical level in organisations. For example, one senior manager made it his business to tune into the ‘rumour index’, as he called it, to gauge people’s concerns during a particularly volatile period. This gave him clues about the unintended effects of managerial actions and also gave him the opportunity to target his communications to nip some of the more outlandish rumours in the bud. However another manager wrote off murmurs of resentment about new initiatives as an inevitable resistance to change, which is normally short-lived. So he failed to realise that they forewarned a serious deterioration of trust in senior management – to his cost. As these examples clearly show, weak signals within organisations are not just hidden in social media. We can find them in everyday actions and words. But they are also...

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on Oct 16, 2013 in Blog

 A Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog entitled The Embarrassment of Complexity concludes that we need to: “Draw on the faculty of human judgment to focus on the smaller picture in order to comprehend the larger one” But why, at a time that Big Data grabs so many headlines, should we focus on small data? Well, for several reasons, small turns out to be really interesting: As people interact over time, small differences between them can create novel patterns across organisations, industries and communities. And these can never be predicted in advance. In a similar vein, who’d have thought that flocking starlings could resemble a whale chasing a dolphin across the sky? Small events can have large consequences, known as the Butterfly Effect. Anyone remember the throwaway comment which led to the demise of Gerald Ratner’s business empire? Outliers – small numbers of odd, unexpected, unusual things, cannot safely be ignored. They deserve our attention. We can ask ‘why are they there?’ and ‘what do they mean?’, just as Malcolm Gladwell, or Sir Alex Ferguson have done. Small things can serve as weak signals – giving us early warning signs of emerging problems and opportunities. In 2008/9 we found it hard to believe that more questions hadn’t been asked about bankers’ bonuses. So big data is big, but it’s the computer analytics that help us to see patterns in that data, which are clever. The danger here is that we’re always using our old ways of thinking to make sense. So we may well miss small data and weak signals which are potentially frame changing – heralding completely new patterns that we may never have seen before. The clever thing about small data is how it can signal new opportunities and emerging problems. If we notice and interpret that data, then we can choose how we respond much sooner – helping us to capitalise on emerging opportunities and head off emerging problems It’s here, in noticing and interpreting small data, that we need to cast off our reliance on data crunching machines and start using and honing our very human skills of perception and judgement. So that’s why I agree with HBR that using human judgement to focus on the smaller picture in order...

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