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10 Keys to Collecting Information

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This article first appeared in our TECHMANAGE newsletter
May 1998, Volume 2, Issue 3

"Information overload; time is money; accelerating speed of change."

There are lots more. You've heard them all. When significant decisions are at hand, what's a body (manager or leader -- that's you!) to do?

We've been helping our clients gather and assess information that's critical to achieving business success since 1973 (25 years this July!!). We've learned a few tricks and uncovered a few truths over these years, and I'd like to share them with you.

[NOTE: Before we start, I'd like to remind you that information by itself isn't worth very much. It's what you DO with it that counts.]

Everyone seems to like lists of 10, so...why not? Here are my 10 keys to collecting valid information.

1. Trust not a single resource, e.g. search engine, person, book.

The Wall Street Journal recently noted that the search engine with the most coverage of the World Wide Web only hit a third of the total estimated sites out there. The others, including the most popular, search far fewer, covering 20% or so of all sites. Let me give you an example.

We were asked to look at the trends in titanium use in a couple of industries. This was at a time when several developing countries were planning on bringing new mines on- stream, perhaps doubling the world's then-current output. Now, whether you are a producer or a user of titanium, you know what that means. Lower prices. Long-term purchasing contracts would be in jeopardy, and would probably have to be re-negotiated on the one hand; new applications that would have been too expensive in the past could now be feasible, on the other.

If you were a producer, what would be the impact on shareholder value if prices would plummet? As a user, what would you do with your savings? Increase retained earnings or dividend payout? New directions in R&D?

Critical questions, no?

I hit my top five favorite search engines, and guess what? Got just about the same hits with each one of them. And I wasn't finding what I KNEW was out there. A friend out in California suggested a hot new search engine I hadn't even heard of. Tried it and...BINGO! Everything from NASA and DOD sites (all non-classified!) to trade associations, to white papers.

2. Trust not a single medium , e.g. only primary (interviews or surveys) or only secondary (articles or databases).

Contrary to popular opinion by some really talented researchers, not EVERYTHING is on the Web. Yet. ;-)

If you rely heavily on the Web and database resources, try dialing a few numbers. Include those who you might not think of right away, such as association executives and editors of trade journals, even consultants (some WILL talk to you without the meter running!) and, of course, people in the organizational trenches.

On the other hand, if you're the people-oriented type, do some reading homework before calling, get some background so you can hit the ground running and not waste their time and yours covering the basics. I've found that I get a much higher level of information if I start out a telephone conversation by saying that I discovered such-and-such in my research and I wanted to get a more in-depth perspective.

We've posted detailed information on our research process at our Web site at:

http://www.techmanage.com/about-us/7steps.htm

This is a LOT of work. But you can't be swayed by the allure of a silver bullet if there's a lot riding on the decisions you (or someone else) will make. That's why this process is called "due diligence" I guess.

3. All the world's a stage...an electronic stage.

Those "guide to fame and fortune" books frequently recite success stories of people who build and maintain a personal mega Rolodex file...and USE it...to tap into specialized expertise, get referrals, form alliances, or even ask for favors.

It's easier, faster, less expensive (and, from a standpoint of courtesy to the recipient, less intrusive) to do when you do it electronically. Let me explain.

About five years ago I received an urgent international phone call from a client. They had planned an important technical conference and had an impressive roster of big- name executives of major companies in the field to whom they were giving awards for technical excellence. The event was less than five days away and they somehow forgot to invite the president of a highly-visible, very respected company. His name was on the brochures and all their promotional material. Evidently somebody dropped the ball. They were too embarrassed (and had no clue about the propriety) to contact the company and it's chief executive. Could I help them out?

What to do? I knew a phone call would wind up a dead end. E- mail was not yet popular, but faxing was still all the rage. I crafted a letter stating how clients sometimes ask us to do the most difficult things and then proceeded to describe the situation. Since the CEO's last name was very Irish I chanced putting a "Happy Easter!" up front, since it was the Monday after the holiday.

The crowning touch, apparently. The fax went out about 9:30 in the morning. His executive assistant telephoned me within an hour and the deal was done. (And I got paid handsomely!)

[NOTE: I think in cases like this, a third party can be more effective than trying to accomplish an uncomfortable mission yourself.]

Today, I do the same thing with e-mail. A courteous request via non-intrusive e-mail, sometimes with a statement that I will follow up in a more personal manner. I've obtained (and shared) non-proprietary information, received literature and software of all sorts, and have even been able to persuade companies and their people to sponsor events, donate equipment and give talks, all by initiating the contact via e-mail.

It costs no more to communicate with a colleague in Israel or a client in Japan than it is to the office next door. Geography is irrelevant from a cost stand point. Now if we could all just be in the same time zone... ;-)

4. A rose is a rose is a rose

But it's sometimes known by another name: a car is an auto is a vehicle. It's also transportation, so don't stop with a single key word or phrase. In fact, I've found that combining several key words that may be interchangeable (such as car and vehicle) cuts down on the number of non- relevant hits, such as "freight car" or "marketing vehicle."

5. Finding the roses among the thorns, or needles in the haystack (BIG haystack!)

You can use intelligent agents, such as Firefly or Executive Assistants, such as execmag.com to help you find relevant information, or searchable services such as BusinessWire. And I do. But I also like to be the master of my own information destiny (so to speak), so I'm partial to using the "advanced" features that many search engines offer.

Learning simple Boolean logic is a no-brainer (truly!)...but the challenge is in knowing which engine uses what kinds of protocols. Some require spaces between the operators (such as the words "and" or "not" or symbols such as "+"), some don't. Unfortunately, some use their own "logic." I've set up a file of the major search engine protocols and you should too. Knowing how to use "advanced" searches will save you hours of time and keep you from singing the blues.

6. Building your own information

This is specific to obtaining business information electronically, outside of tracking your Web site visitors. The technical details of Web site analysis for determining where your visitors have been are well covered by others. Here's a good example:

http://www.wilsonweb.com/webmarket/traffic.htm

Have you considered doing a "customer satisfaction" survey by e-mail? It works! As noted in number 3 above, making your contact as unobtrusive as possible will increase your odds of getting a response. I just completed a quick, very targeted survey that received a better than 33% response rate. Pretty impressive!

Your survey, whether it's for customer satisfaction information, "reason for buying" or even for more academic research purposes, need not be limited to multiple-choice. E-mail surveys I've done always include several open-ended questions with unlimited space for reply. A good number of people take advantage of this opportunity and you get great qualitative information that people would not take the time otherwise to provide on a paper-based (or even telephone) survey.

You can also conduct a survey from your Web site, either directly, or by e-mailing targeted prospects to direct them to your site. Generally, the easier you make it for people to respond, the greater your response rate will be. The REAL beauty of conducting surveys electronically is that the responses are ready for database analysis without needing to key them in!

A caveat. As with conventional surveys, it's always a good idea to test the survey for areas of confusion or inconsistencies.

We provide for an ad hoc survey at our Web site through our "Guestbook." The last question asks "if there were one thing you'd like to improve in your organization, what would that be?" Not only does the answer give us a basis for initiating a dialog with prospective clients, we get to see the kinds of concerns managers have and general trends in thinking over time.

7. Leave no stone unturned: you never know what you'll find under the next rock.

And the Web makes it easy! Do you need a market assessment and competitive analysis in an industry? Select the major publicly-traded companies in the industry and check out their 10K filings with the SEC's on-line Edgar database. You might also look at industry suppliers and even their customers... in other words, up and down the entire value chain. Some company's filings are more detailed than others, so don't get discouraged.

Be creative. Try checking out the Web sites of non-profit special interest groups. For example, when we did a study a while back on the impact of a particular environmental legislation that had been recently passed, we contacted Greenpeace to get something other than the "party line" perspective. As it turns out, the issues they brought out had a major influence on the direction of newer legislation. And we looked like clairvoyants!

Venture out beyond the tried & true. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

8. Avoid the deadly "paralysis by surf-alysis" syndrome.

Tempus is fugiting (sorry, Latin scholars) faster than ever before. Windows of opportunity in the high tech world slam shut awfully fast. You don't often have the luxury of a leisurely 3-month (or 6-month) market study that may have been the norm a half dozen years ago.

On the other hand, the siren song of the Web is a very strong lure for those with a soul of a researcher. The time you take to look at "just one more site" has a way of grabbing hold and pulling you under with yet another fascinating location. And another. And another.

It's addictive for some. Know "when to say when."

9. The many faces of truth: what do you do with conflicting data?

Or conflicting advice, as you've probably noticed between numbers 7 & 8 above. ;-)

Let me address the conflicting advice issue first. If you set up a process of constant environmental (marketplace, technology and other business issue) monitoring, you won't get caught trying desperately to play catch-up.

It's also an issue of organizational culture. Many very successful companies (such as the subject of the book review below) rely on heavy-duty scenario development, first popularized (and capitalized on) by Shell Oil during the first oil embargo of 1973). These companies are quick on their feet in times of crisis...or opportunities, such as conducting a "white knight" rescue operation from a hostile take-over attempt. They leap with very little information. But, don't mistake this for "seat of the pants" management. It isn't. Not by a long shot.

Other successful companies are heavily into collecting mountains of information, drilling down (oops, should have said "wells of information") into the buying habits of individual people or families. Reams of data, but collected and analyzed in near-real time.

What am I saying here? Just this. The AMOUNT of data and information needed changes according to circumstances and to strategic and corporate "style." But, timing is often critical, and not only in the world of high tech. Leverage the technological and personal resources available to whatever extent you can to get the information you need in the time you need it.

(Hint: we have three super-fast T1 Internet connections, we're skilled researchers...on-line and in the real world, too...and we're affordable.)

Now, back to the original question of this section: What do you do with conflicting data? See number 10, below. (Is this cheating? Do we really only have nine keys?)

10. Take the next step...from information to understanding.

Many of you know our guiding principle:

With all thy getting get understanding

Straight out of Proverbs. (Good book. Have you read it?)

This is what consulting is all about. Taking information and making sense out of it. Through study and analysis, through experience, and through plain old common sense. And this understanding leads to action, to successful business decisions.

We'll explore getting from information to understanding in our next issue.

Technology Management Associates, Inc.
(312) 984-5050jogucwa@techmanage.com

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