10 Keys to Collecting Information

From the Archives. Seriously updated from its first publication

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

You’ve heard these business expressions and can recite dozens more. When significant decisions are at hand, how do you start the decision-making process to optimize results while minimizing business risks? We’ve learned a few tricks and uncovered a few truths over these years, and I’d like to share them with you. Everyone seems to like lists of 10, so…why not? Here are our 10 keys to collecting valid information.

[NOTE: Information by itself isn’t worth very much. It’s what you DO with it that counts. See our tutorial Applying the Scientific Method to Business).]

[IMPORTANT NOTE: Before we begin, we want to make it completely clear that collecting information ethically is your only morally responsible route. Thinking about corporate espionage, gaining unauthorized access to data electronically (hacking) or through psychological means (social engineering) and other improper tactics to acquire information? Just don’t do it!]

(1) Trust not a single resource, e.g. online or print article, person, book…or keyword, or group of keywords.

Here’s an example. Years ago, 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?

If you’re getting the same answers, you may not be casting your keyword or resource list far enough afield. Why is that? More importantly, why should you? If all your sources agree on whatever it is (fill in your own details), chances are very high that you’re not getting the benefit of different perspectives. Form your own conclusions after reviewing what may be diametrically opposite conclusions of thoughtful, respected resources

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

If you rely heavily on the Web and database resources, try emailing a few resources and dialing a few phone 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 your first email or phone contacts. This way you 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.

Please see 7 Steps for detailed information on this process.

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.

MANY 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 results, such as “freight car” or “marketing vehicle.”

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

Search engines still use Boolean operators, and knowing how to use these few simple words can save you a lot of time and frustration. Here’s how they work. Note that they are all in CAPS because they may otherwise eliminate results.

  • AND – both terms must appear in the results.
  • OR – either term or both terms will appear.
  • NOT – the first term will appear in the results, with results including the second term removed from those results.

You can really fancy and include parentheses and other symbols to further refine your search. Here’s how they work.

  • Parentheses: (exercise or activity) and aging will result in articles on aging that also include either exercise or activity.
  • Quotes: “queen of hearts” will return results only with that exact phrase.
  • Asterisk: chem* will return results for chemist, chemistry, chemical, etc.

Experiment to see which modifiers work with the search engine you are using.

(6) Collecting custom information from your own target list.

The technical details of Web site analysis for determining where your visitors have been are well covered by others. There are many good apps available as well. But have you considered going directly to your customers or site visitors? You can incorporate a quick email survey of all or portions of your mailing list or use a survey instrument such as Survey Monkey. For one very targeted survey I created, a full third of the recipients responded rate. Some hints on how to elicit cooperation:

  • Start out with a statement of respect for their time
  • Offer an incentive, such as a summary of your survey’s findings (if appropriate)
  • Keep it simple, short and to-the-point
  • Add a final, open-ended question, such as: If there were one thing you’d like to improve in your organization, what would that be?” Not only will the answer give you a basis for initiating a dialog with prospective clients or customers, you get to see the kinds of concerns managers have currently and general trends in thinking over time
  • Express appreciation for their time and valuable input at the end of your survey

Test your survey on a small number of recipients first. If you’re new at this, you’re likely to find areas of confusion or inconsistencies; you can easily tweak most of them and enjoy a higher (and better quality) response than you would have with a slightly-flawed survey.

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

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 with the sparcity of information provided by some companies.

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 Greenpeace brought out during our discussion 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 can 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 in the past.

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 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 are we 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.

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

This is what business (and life) 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.

Knowledge Branches:

  • Management. Functions: Business Intelligence; Strategy Development
  • Management. Sector: RELEVANT ACROSS SECTORS
  • Management. Soft Skills: Change Navigation