The recent events leading up to and during the Sandy storm in the United States will provide a great deal of fodder to the blogosphere over coming weeks and months – some of it useful. Hopefully some of the experience and insights will register somewhere deep down in the instincts of the key stakeholders in government and emergency management as well as those who either profited from or suffered losses as a result of the storm.
Encouraged by a professional interest and driven by an inherent obsessive compulsive appetite to drink from the fire hose of real-time data feeds, I was glued to the Twitter feed for many hours. This experience alone was educational in that it helps you to see how, even in such a short message format, the consistency of content and style helps you to develop (or imagine) a cast of characters playing out in a vast story. Emergency management agencies and official government public information channels were quite rightly, measured and clear and projected a trustworthy, capable impression. I found some commentators offered mind opening insightful views, while others were clearly using the storm to push their own, often unrelated, agendas. I developed a sense of what was sensationalist vs what was genuinely incredible.
With my mind still boggled this morning, I saw a blog post by Andrea De Maio at Gartner pointing out that while social media was a good, scalable channel for communication, it didn’t offer any help for strategy development and day to day management. “Proof that social media is nothing else than a tool that many people as well as governments decide to rely upon when something out of the ordinary happens.” The suggestion I took away was that social media fails to support the development and formation of strategy which occurs during ordinary times when people are “chatting about sport results, or favorite actors, or how to bake”. In an extreme event, when people “feel compelled to collect and relay information that can help other people, then it is time for authorities to join the chatter, search for patterns, use this additional and powerful channel.”
In my 30 or so years of watching operational and strategic contexts, it seems to me that these observations are not about social media – but rather about business and society and in saying so, demonstrates the amazing and rapid maturation of social media to reflect, influence and co-create business and society.
Unlike previous strategy and execution environments, the technology of social media allows you to listen and partake in a never-before-experienced tsunami of diverse conversations aligned through a consistent underlying theme. In this case it was Sandy, it might otherwise be your customers, your brand, your product or your competitors.
On the surface, this may appear as a very large, very fast, stream of random noise. Research shows that too much noise in our neural networks, in particular too much noise with out of the ordinary spikes, can limit our ability to interpret and retain information. Classic signal-to-noise research confirms this and highlights the ability to cancel certain consistent patterns of background noise in order to improve fidelity of the signal. We do this kind of thing all the time in our own processing of sensory inputs in order to avoid melt-down and pay attention to things which are out of the ordinary. The trick is to know what is noise and what is signal.
Interestingly, new research indicates that the act of identifying something as being ‘out of the ordinary’ is not a fully automatic pattern matching algorithm in our robot-brains but rather requires some of our cognitive attention bandwidth.
A strategy is a set of principles which you can use to navigate a network of possibilities to steer you towards a goal. Our brains have had a lot of practice doing this kind of thing and I believe that social media offers us a glimpse into a network analogy for social interaction which any strategic thinker would do well to understand.
In order to regulate how much attention we pay to certain things, our brain has a way of surfacing things which ‘operational sensor’ think are important. In a grossly simplified way, these signals have a similar challenge to those of Tweets. It may be that our brain has found a way to selectively synchronise multiple impulses, assess the energy of those impulses and synthesise these into an appropriate directed amplification – in the words of the researchers – “We propose that selective synchronization renders relevant input effective, thereby modulating effective connectivity.”
Social media analysis techniques are evolving and, by coincidence or not, applying selective synchronisation concepts. Software developed by the CSIRO in Australia offers hope of improved situation awareness during out of the ordinary, extreme events.
This leads me back to Andrea’s post – in which he refers to the CSIRO technology, but seems to only see the data analysis/situation awareness element and not the bridge towards cognitive processing patterns and human behaviour.
I’ve had the good fortune to work with clients from the bottom up and the top down in the strategy to execution space in commercial organisations and government, including national security and emergency management. I have never seen a reliable, repeatable process for strategy design and successful execution. At this stage of my journey, I believe that is because traditional strategy assumes that we live in a complicated but controllable – ordinary – world and that unexpected events are exceptions. The real world is complex, you’re fooling yourself if you think you can control it. The best strategy is to become exceptional at adaptation and resilience and this requires an out of the ordinary ability to sense emerging changes.
As long as they get a time to reflect, people can learn a lot from extreme impacts – just ask an emergency commander.
The Sandy Social Media experience will be one more set of connections in our collective network of interaction and memory and, in time, we will all learn to manage strategy with selective synchronisation to achieve more effective connectivity.