Competitive intelligence (CI) is a field dedicated to the study of information gathering and analysis, with the goal of reducing uncertainty in decision making. Many business continuity professionals are responsible for collecting and analyzing information to provide senior management greater visibility and insight into their business environment. In this capacity, they are constantly faced with the challenge of sorting through a glut of information: some critical, some useless, some credible and some rumor. The CI process involves several steps:
- Defining the question(s) to be answered and the timeframe for answering.
- Establishing a plan for gathering the information.
- Collecting data.
- Analyzing, confirming/vetting and filtering of data.
- Sharing the finished work product.
The information filtering methods used within CI are particularly helpful for refining a social networking strategy and using it to generate actionable information — or “intelligence” — for business continuity planning and response activities. This intelligence can be invaluable in an actual disaster or in improving an organization’s readiness. It contributes to the risk awareness of the continuity planning team, identifies experts that can provide guidance and information, and identifies local sources of information that can provide situational awareness in an actual disaster.
Step 1: Define The Question
The initial question serves as the focal point for subsequent gathering and aggregation of raw data. It helps determine the most applicable sources of information and the time constraints on its collection and analysis.
This approach may be applied in a business continuity environment by brainstorming scenarios and associated questions relative to social networking:
- How can we quickly contact our employees in the event of a disaster?
- How can we engage the local community for help during a disaster?
- Where can we listen for updates and information when an event impacts our local community?
Step 2: Plan To Gather The Information
Information audits are procedures that inventory and assess sources of information available to an organization. They identify what kind of information might be required by the organization, what information is currently available and potential gaps resulting between the two. The audit identifies, records and ranks these information resources in such a way that facilitates their use for the future collection of information.
Audits begin by considering the question defined in Step 1 and then identify available sources of information. The audit then helps the user select those who are best suited to provide an answer. This involves classifying and ranking the resources based upon their relevance to the question, taking into account the time sensitivity and context for the question. Time constraints will have implications on the processes applied and the social networking technology leveraged.
When identifying resources or recipients for real-time information, the planner should consider potential barriers to reaching a community of individuals via social networking. These include both technical and logical requirements for participation in any social networking community.
Technical conditions are those underlying infrastructure dependencies necessary to connect with the community. Disruptions to the following dependencies in a local area can prevent a target audience from being reached:
- Functioning hardware (computer, hand-held device)
- Functioning network access
- Social media platform bandwidth (over capactity)
These limitations should be considered when assessing social networking strategies for specific disaster scenarios known to cause major infrastructure disruptions. For example, the use of Twitter and Facebook might not be helpful in reaching individuals impacted by an earthquake, but could assist in communicating with first responders or relief organizations outside the impacted area.
Logical requirements are those that govern a resource’s ability and willingness to answer the question once they are successfully connected. These include:
- Knowledge of how to access the social networking platform.
- Knowledge the community.
- Relevant expertise and/or information on the disaster/question.
- A clear understanding of what is being asked and what information is sought.
- Sufficient trust of the community to share information.
- Participant motivation (need information, need support, desire for prestige, financial incentive).
- A mechanism for the business continuity team to provide feedback to the community in order to get ideas and retain the community’s focus on the question.
Social networking communities, however, are generally more fluid than regular websites and need to be audited in a different manner. Once a helpful community is identified, the planner should ensure that he/she is regularly participating in it. This serves the purpose of ensuring the planner is aware of changes that may make the community a more/less desirable source of information. In addition, it allows the planner to establish credibility and trust, which will result in increased access to information held by the community.
|Event Type||Location||Source For Real-Time Updates||Platform||ID||Credibility||Expertise||Notes|
|Fire||Los Angeles, California||Yes||uscFire||High||High||Los Angeles Fire Department|
|Fire||N/A||No||Go Forward Fire||High||High||Regional Event Sponsor|
Table 1: Sample of Information Audit Results and Question
A social media information repository does not need to rely on expensive technology. A simple Excel spreadsheet can be used to record information on specific resources as it is gathered. This can be added as an appendix to the business continuity plan and provide the continuity planner a quick inventory of relevant, previously vetted sources for intelligence.
In addition to spreadsheets, more complex information maps may also help the continuity planner. A social network map shows the flow of information among sources. These information maps reduce “noise” by helping to zero in on the root sources of information, instead of chasing the same information that is simply rebroadcasted by multiple sources.
Once the best sources of information are cataloged, the business continuity planner is in a better position to rapidly focus their search during a time-sensitive crisis. This minimizes delays and “noise” caused by duplicated broadcasts of information, focuses intelligence gathering on credible sources and helps engage relevant, online communities for assistance and information.
Step 3: Gather Information
Gathering information requires a similarly well-planned approach. For those sources not already vetted during the information audit, the BC planner must be sure that the information they are receiving is timely and precise, and that sources are credible and independent.
This process typically involves an initial brief review of “secondary resources” that are broad in scope. This might be an article on a well-known website. After using this material to become grounded in the question area, a BC planner would move to primary sources, such as interviewing the author of a post from the website.
In similar fashion, social networking can be examined in aggregated form for information. Tools such as Socialmention, Twazzup, Addictomatic and Howsociable can be used to provide a quick, composite picture of a disaster scenario. The planner can use this aggregated information to identify specific contributors within the community in order to engage them.
Step 4: Analyze Information
Social media produces a great deal of information, but without a basis for verification of sources, none of it provides a good basis for business continuity decision making. The information must first be vetted and analyzed before it can be used.
The process for analyzing raw data is more art than science, and involves critically thinking about the information assembled and comparing individual components. The analysis connects various pieces of information from different, unrelated sources in order to establish a clear picture.
During this process, the BC planner must qualify sources and work to filter out irrelevant or inaccurate information. The end product of this process is actionable information or “intelligence,” which feeds the decision-making process. This intelligence is the result of information pieced together from a wide variety of sources and from the relationships and themes that the analyst has identified.
The business continuity planner should remember to follow the TRACKS of information during the analysis. This mnemonic highlights the criteria for analyzing and evaluating both data and data sources within social networking communities:
- Timeliness: How quickly since the event occurred did you receive the information?
- Relevance: How relevant is the information to the question you posed?
- Accuracy: How specific is the information to the question you posed?
- Credibility: How believable/trustworthy/familiar/accountable is the source?
- Knowledge: How did the source come upon the info? Was it first, second or third hand?
- Substantiation: Is the source’s information consistent with other independent sources?
As the planner obtains various pieces of information, each should be used to test and validate the other. The various components of information should be assembled around the question asked in Step 1 and used to create an overall picture. When pieces of information do not agree, the one that meets the greater number of TRACKS criteria should be maintained and the others discarded or set aside.
Step 5: Share/Disseminate Information
Disasters are catalysts that cause information about an organization to be rapidly generated and released. This can be the result of increased media attention, the filing of mandatory regulatory disclosures regarding the incident or increased attention from activist groups. Such events provide a wealth of data and must be effectively managed to minimize the potential advantage it could provide competitors or detractors.
This is a clear area in which CI and business continuity overlap. While the business continuity response coordinator needs to prioritize the health and safety of the constituents they serve above all other concerns, they cannot ignore the potential ramifications of providing too much information to unintended audiences.
Effective crisis communication also requires covering one’s TRACKS. Specifically, it involves critically considering what is being communicated, what can be inferred from the communication and who is likely to be listening within the social networking communities receiving the information.
Table 2: TRACKS Communication Evaluation Criteria
Based on the considerations in Table 2, the continuity planner should consider the communities and content that will get the information most directly to the desired audience, while delaying or inhibiting receipt of it by detractors. Potential detractors could include competitors, activists who oppose the industry or actions of a company, or other audiences whose interests run counter to the planner’s organization or industry.
An effective social media strategy should allow the continuity planner to quickly engage target audiences. This is important for several reasons:
- It is a method of informing or rallying key stakeholders, experts and other resources.
- It can identify key concerns within a community and help prevent “outrage factors” from enflaming public anxiety, fear or anger.
- It prevents competitors/detractors from defining the event with their own narrative.
- It reduces the uncertainty within target communities, and corresponding conjecture and rumors about the event.
In the absence of a method to effectively process this information, social media can result in rumor and misinformation misdirecting response and recovery efforts. In a recent article, Duncan Geere noted that “During the August riots in London ... Twitter spread little but paranoia, scaremongering and fear.” This included rumors that the British Army was mobilizing to combat the rioters, that a tiger was released from the zoo by protesters, as well as misinformation about the approach and activity of non-existent rioters.
After the shootings in Fort Hood, Texas, misinformation on Twitter included reports of more than one shooter. These reports were echoed by mainstream media sources, further spreading incorrect information.