Trusted news sources vital for making strategic plans

Today’s effective strategic decisions will be made by those leaders who tap into the few trusted news sources outside of their organisation and mine the balance in the rich veins of information sitting within.

Many executive teams believe the responsibility for their organisation’s strategy lies with them. To a large degree that is true, but in a post-truth and fake-news era, is scanning the day’s headlines the best way to get a grip on the rapidly changing world shaping their organisations?

The decision by Business Day to introduce a paywall would not have been taken lightly and, it should be supported. It places the title alongside a handful of other trusted legacy titles worldwide that refuse to abandon the principles of committed, investigative journalism.

Such a service is costly in terms of time and resources, but the output is more rigorously tested and, therefore, more reliable. For top business decision-makers, that makes it more valuable. This is especially the case in a disrupted media environment in which politicians lie behind the veil of “alternative truths”, sidestep qualified journalists and sidle up to activist bloggers, making it increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Legacy media titles such as Business Day are in an ongoing battle to ensure a credible narrative within a burgeoning wash of deception and trumped-up story lines.

This has sparked a degree of panic amid many of the business leaders who turn to me for advice. The world seems that more uncertain for them: What is true? What shock event is real? To what degree is the fallout from an event accurate?

For answers, they turn to diverse news sources, invariably on their phones. Not a good idea.

Recent research by Jonathan Albright, professor of media analytics at Elon University in North Carolina, tracked vast swathes of fake news back to their original sources and uncovered “an influence network that can tailor people’s opinions, emotional reactions and create ‘viral’ sharing”.

The algorithms used by search engine giants such as Google, and social media powerhouses such as Twitter and Facebook, play their part in spreading the virulent torrent of stories that circumvent the critical eye of trained specialists. The result: a post-truth and fake-news noise, where what is read is often not real. How then can today’s business leaders find the necessary information to make key strategic decisions? They need to rethink their strategy.

Strategy is not something within a document, to be dusted off every year and re-examined between rounds of golf at the annual strategy getaway. It is also not a straight path within a single projected future. It is a fluid, living thing that should be constantly examined, assessed critically and continually adapted in light of new information.

An organisation’s strategy is not something to be ring-fenced by the executive team, isolated from the rest of the organisation save for a few dictates that trickle outwards.

It requires the constant input of those within the organisation to breathe life into it. They have the information.

When Clem Sunter and I help organisations define realistic scenarios, a key component to unlocking their power is the identification, and then monitoring, of the flags that could herald a change in the scenarios. These flags could be anything from significant global economic events, such as changes in international trade agreements, to more subtle events in a sector, such as a merger between two smaller players. Some flags are only evident to the trained eye: a drop in house prices in Vancouver could prelude a drop in China’s growth rate.

People within an organisation who are plugged directly into a sector’s matrix can help identify and monitor such flags. They are sensitive to the sometimes imperceptible changes in the pulse of a sector: the feedback from a cancelled order, a trickle of unusual data, a burst of activity or a flurry of chatter within the system.

Even someone sitting behind an organisation’s switchboard is armed with a valuable source of information: the shifting sentiment of customers and consumers. Those in the big offices may see each of these events as merely a dot, but if they connect the dots, they will sketch a clearer picture.

What is needed is the space to connect these dots continually. The term “war room” comes to mind.

It is unfortunate that political malfeasance on the part of the ANC in the lead-up to 2016’s municipal election has sullied such a concept; corporate strategy, after all, has its heritage in war.

However, organisations should be developing something akin to war rooms to process the information received from within the organisation — to connect the dots, develop the flags and watch the scenarios play out.

Gone are the days when a vigorous read of the morning paper and a glance at the TV over morning coffee would equip the business leader with a scan of the events affecting their world.

Today’s effective strategic decisions will be made by those leaders who tap into the few trusted news sources outside of their organisation and mine the balance in the rich veins of information sitting within.

First published on BDLive, 21 February 2017