A couple of centuries ago the Ninja of Japan would infiltrate castles and do what spies do. In case of trouble, they were always ready to explode a smoke bomb and disappear without a trace. If confronted by the enemy, they had a good chance of standing their own in a fight using their swords and quickly finding the ideal time to escape.
Along with deep training in how to walk softly and communicate silently with their compatriots, they learned the art of constant situational awareness. Always have an escape route, listen like a bat, never make a sound unless it is to distract, know where all of your enemy are located, and see your surroundings as if perched in a tree. Rules such as these built natural vigilance and contextual understanding that produced a meaningful advantage over the enemy.
What is the equivalent today for corporate functions that can have a big impact on reputation? Monitoring popular media by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) is key to achieving the necessary hyper-awareness.
What is (radical) situational awareness for an influence function?
Situational Awareness is essentially the ability to comprehend what is happening in space, time, and stakeholder, social and political contexts. Good situational awareness enables good planning for managing risks and opportunities.
Recently, a top global natural resource extraction company requested assistance in developing a capability to monitor the horizon for emerging issues and characterize its operating environment with an eye toward risk. They operate in over 50 countries and want to have a sense of new concerns earlier in their life cycle to avoid situations where they were put on their back foot in a reactive mode. This means monitoring public reaction to every operating facility or sales presence in every country, and rating the potential risk for over 100 distinctly different business operations based constantly refreshed information. This is a tall order.
Media, legislative, regulatory, and judicial information sources are available to provide the needed insight. But the effort required to analyze each unit’s setting, public acceptance, then to characterize and rate its risk level could easily demand a small army of analysts.
The only way to meet the requirements of this company is to use AI to process the information on an ongoing basis. AI can access the same sources the army of analysts use, but process it by essentially converting words to mathematical relationships using contextual analysis to reach similar conclusions that the army of analysts would.
This is the power of Artificial Intelligence. In this case, it acts like a robotic reader, note taker, and rater of risk in a tireless and speedy fashion.
The issue “landscape” seems to be on potent fertilizer these days. It has grown in three dimensions, making it more challenging to identify and interpret issues.
First, is the amount of information that is produced on a daily basis. To keep up with the growing volume of data, many companies have developed big data strategies. Google uses over a thousand computers to answer a single search all in under a second. There are projections that information volume is soon going to be growing at over 1.5 MB per person per second. That data would fill most personal computer hard drives in under a day. Huge volumes, but only a little bit of it is relevant and valuable. It is the sorting part that is difficult and time consuming. This is where AI excels.
Second, the stakeholder field has grown to include more sub-groups that deserve dedicated attention. Some corporate staffs that fundamentally dealt with only a few aspects of federal or state governments are now dealing with employees for PAC contributions, watchdog organizations concerning corporate governance arrangements, or social responsibility. Companies now have to develop and respond to demands to measure their environmental performance and material risks as the SEC and accounting-related organizations set standards to adapt to the new expectation.
Third, the number of corporate functions has increased as more stakeholders demand transparency and express their concerns. Each function deals with a specific domain. Examples include corporate social responsibility (CSR), environment, sustainability, and governance (ESG), or diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Some companies try to put these under a consolidated umbrella, or at least to act as a focal point, by naming a single leader for impact on stakeholders.
Why is situational awareness important? Benefits and risks.
Having context helps in a business conversation. That’s why we research individuals we’re meeting with for the first time on LinkedIn, to better understand their interests and domain expertise. The context obtained can help shorten and focus business conversations so that more “real work” can get done, and less time is needed for “getting to know you” and “where you are coming from”.
The same happens for public and social policy issues. A company can respond better and plan for scrutiny when given a little warning. Surprises are never fun.
The main benefit of early warning is that of gaining context to form perspective, analyze, evaluate options, and develop a position. It reduces the likelihood of missteps or reactive and incomplete responses to issues. Over time, the early warning capability will help you protect and shape your company’s reputation.
Some of the benefits of using AI to build situational awareness are that it is:
- Far cheaper than employing an army of analysts to accomplish the same tasks
- Easy to cheaply add or adjust topics to monitor
- Capable of being analyzed for risk features once the content is collected
On the other hand, depending on AI to magically save your corporate reputation is not very practical. Human intervention through analysis and decision making among tradeoffs will still be required.
Some of the main risks of using AI include:
- Unrealistic expectations
- Poor data sources
- Infrequent updates or lag times that can cause you to be out of date
- Blind faith in the AI technology
- Being distracted by search results that are not entirely relevant because the algorithms have not yet learned enough to provide reliable content
As with any meaningful machinery, you cannot fall asleep while operating it without risk to your safety or others. The same holds true for deploying AI to provide issue monitoring support. It does take some time to master its power.
The best way to get going is to run a pilot on a limited scope. You will learn quickly while managing risk.
Situational Awareness strongly affects several of the other pillars of Radical Influence
Situational Awareness is the headwaters of the river that an issue flows in over the course of its life. The capability to identify issues and evaluate their importance is essential for any organization wishing to be responsive to its public stakeholders.
Social media, traditional media, and various public records can provide insight on people’s sentiment about certain topics. Surveys are another useful source but can be comparatively expensive and sometimes slow.
First, identifying and rating issues to then engage stakeholders cannot be performed without an external sensing mechanism such as issue tracking or horizon monitoring to point in the right direction. One could say that the RIN Issue Management pillar picks up where the RIN Situational Awareness pillar leaves off. Issue Management will be the next topic in this series.
Second, the same could be said for the Value Management pillar, which to a large extent depends on clear definitions of issues to identify specific impacts, is totally dependent on good Situational Awareness capabilities. The question often asked by executives, “So what’s the potential impact on the business?” has no meaning without their being an issue of some sort providing the basis for the question. All issues trace their roots back to Situational Awareness.
Third, the delivery of business advice to executives by influence functions about how to react to an issue cannot produce value unless that advice is contextually sound in terms of political, social, business, financial, economic, and so forth. This context comes from good Situational Awareness, and the advice is a core part of another RIN pillar, Business Partnership. Providing sound functional advice requires deep understanding of the issue, along with a good understanding of the context of the business in terms of what is making it perform the way it is and why. Having a ready understanding of external and internal context is required for influence function advisors to be able to give immediate responses to most questions from business leaders. Only the most complex questions might require going away and coming back with advice only after some dedicated analysis.
What are typical stages of maturity for situational awareness?
|1. Traditional||Keyword search||• Google and generic search engines|
• Agency issued briefings and custom policy reports
|• Limited scope|
• Expensive, labor intensive
• Passive recipient of a service
• Time lag
|2. Aware||AI-driven search with mainly NLP and machine learning||• Broad search results from limited content sources on a single platform||• May not provide coverage needed|
• User must analyze results presented
• Supports issue management processes
• Begins to handle information overload
|3. Practicing||AI-driven search with broader toolset for limited analysis||• Several content sources to provide coverage|
• Customized or home-grown special applications for tracking
|• May need several solutions due to limited sources|
• Moving past information overload
• Can feed business strategy if processes are in place
|4. Radical||Comprehensive content leveraged through AI to feed a strategic response system based on dynamic sentiment data||• A network of tools managed as a portfolio, tightly linked to business planning processes with tracking of issues by stage of development with risk ratings|
• Quantitative measures can trigger decisions and actions
|• Inform and update risk-based strategies|
• Move or adjust resources and tactics for optimal impact
• Direct link to business strategy development
• Readiness for proactive stakeholder engagement
• Value impact radar screen
Give yourself an objective evaluation of what stage you are in. Statistically, it might be reasonable to assume a normal distribution of companies across these four stages, with the peak being somewhere between Aware and Practicing. There are few companies Stage 1 using only traditional keyword search techniques, just as there are few in Stage 4 using advanced technologies.
But the pace of technological innovation, along with the number of active players means that it will soon get easier and easier to take advantage of technology to reach a whole new level of situational awareness across your current and future issue portfolio.
That is why Situational Awareness is essential to reaching Radical Influence. What is your plan to get there?