The snowball unleashed by the former contractor of the NSA, Edward Snowden continues its path of unravelling long standing alliances, implicating global tech giants while allowing the world to look deep into the way, America collects information about friends and foes. US intelligence’s extensive reach however, is a reflection of how we use information today. With so much data available on the world-wide web, with technology so entrenched in our lives, the NSA merely built a comprehensive recording system to listen at will and store them for later use. But does knowing so much about your competitor really give you an edge?

For a start, if you really like to build a NSA on your own, there is certainly a lot to take in. According to IBM, there are about 1 trillion machines that are connected to the internet. About 2.7 billion people are on mobile devices linked to the net. And about a quarter of the world’s population are on some form of social networks making it efficient to spread and share information. This scenario has resulted in a sudden explosion of data, with about 90% of the total data volume, known to humanity, created in just the last two years. IBM believes the future lies in cognitive computing, where with so much information, it will be impossible to programme or determine absolutely what is going to happen. It means that organisations need to be able to be prepared to analyse unstructured data such as conversations and images. So there is a ton of data out there but the question is, how can we harness it for action?

Organisational paralysis impedes the ability to act on useful data
Many top executives in Asia are just starting to feel the heat about data and certainly it is also not a secret that there is a lot of competitive snooping and analysis going around. The challenge is not in the collection of these information but how to establish a process to respond efficiently based on the insights received. In our work with Asian organisations, here are three signs why they are usually unable to act on the information in an effective way:

1) Isolated pools of data as no one is connecting the dots
Most Asian companies are already knowingly or unknowingly gathering tons of data and information but in silos. The marketing department may have received insights through their channels about improving customer service or how competitors are planning to raise the bar but because there is no means to share that piece of information, it remains useless. At the same time, the customer service department continues to collect feedback on their level of service in the traditional way of surveys for years. All these while, without the additional perspective from marketing, the level of service remains the same without any breakthrough. This is happening at so many organisations in Asia that it is just sad to know that the colleague next to you, can tell you so much more than hiring a consultant.

2) Who is going to champion this insight?
Once anyone discover a meaningful insight based on the information received; the next big problem is, who is going to be the champion of this insight and see that it gets done. This is another sad reality in many organisations in the region, a lot of people have useful insights and the ideas to solve the challenges at hand. But they tend to prefer to let the idea die because they weren’t sure if management was going to support them. This is how insights and ideas die in larger Asian organisations because it is so difficult to push through an idea, build a cross-disciplinary team to oversee it. So people then tend to settle and dismiss these insights as it would be almost impossible to muster the will and resources to see it through.

3) Drown by additional information
Sometimes, an insight gets nowhere because it is drown by additional layers of information. Quite a number of top executives like to ask their subordinates, to investigate more on the insight before taking a step forward. This then slow things down, and an oversupply of information soon emerges, with so many scenarios that make it almost impossible for the insight or idea to move into the stage of action.  Information alone is not enough because at the end of the day; it is human ingenuity and boldness to take that first step that will make a strategic difference.

The will to harness useful information is more important
At the end of the day, information is like the constant flow of a mighty river, deploy it well and you can irrigate entire fields but without a proper process of harnessing it and identifying decision points, it will simply flow along. Therefore, it is important to build an organisation that knows how to harness insights and act on them. Here are three ways to achieve this:

1) Create processes to share information internally
Every department in the company has useful insights to any issue, and it is important to create conditions, processes to share those information with each other. But having sharing sessions alone does not work, it is important to revise performance indicators to reward departments who share insights with each other and helped to advance the company’s performance. In addition to this, the CEO must act as the ‘disruptor’ to challenge the departments on how to solve problems based on shared information. Jeff Bezos of Amazon achieved success in building an organisation that knows how to act on information by having access to customer feedback. Once a feedback require action, he would forward it to the relevant departments to resolve it together. This random and at times, disruptive approach, keeps Amazon on its toes and forced the different departments to work together because the boss is demanding action. But in essence, Jeff is practicing what he learnt during his time in Wall Street, every bit of information has the potential to generate a massive trade if anyone can connect the dots faster and execute it well.

2) Give small teams limited powers on decision-making
It is impossible to treat all information with equality so it is important to break them into broad categories and establish a system to allow people to differentiate and empower them to take action. Many times, information stops at a certain level because either no one knows what to do with it or no one knows who is responsible for it. In this new age, it is important to create a rule that emphasizes on sharing and not underestimate the power of any insight. This is not easy because many organisations have deeply ingrained hierarchies making it hard for staff at the lower rungs to share useful insights. We have found that it is useful when smaller teams are empowered to act on information and make decisions. These decisions also include giving them the opportunity to bypass traditional power structures and bring that information to top management. To enable this, it is important to highlight innovations that have started out as a simple insight and how it has made its way to achieving success for the company. Therefore, it is necessary for the human resource department to assess how information is shared as a sign of a culture that is open to innovation. The different ways of allowing smaller teams or teams that are far away from the center of power to share information will bring fresh perspectives which can potentially give the company a powerful upside.

3) Review organisational reaction to the types of information received
Every year, any organisation with at least 100 employees should do a simple assessment on how they react to a certain piece of information. An external consultant could be hired to send different pieces of information to the departments to see where the information travels. This type of assessment has allowed us to see how well an organisation receives an insight and how far it goes so as to benefit the organisation. Very often, you will see that the information is stuck and, so it is then necessary for top management to redesign rules of information management to ensure that relevant actions take place. It is also very useful to have different scenarios involving different departments on how they manage different pieces of information. Such exercises let top management see the capabilities of the leaders on the ground, how well they think and react to the information received. The military conducts such exercises regularly and corporations should adopt this approach so as to build a culture that is always on the alert for a useful piece of data to complete the puzzle.

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This article is part of a weekly column called Shaping the World where Lawrence and Shiraz share insights and ideas about building innovative Asian Brands. It is published by one of the leading dailies in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Today.

Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus, an innovation consultancy specializing in helping Asian companies transform their business models to rise up the value chain through business design, organisational development and designing new brand experiences. Consulus’ country representative in Sri Lanka is Shiraz Latiff who is also the CEO/Lead Consultant  of Hummingbird International, a regional knowledge house specializing in coaching, consulting & outsourcing through global partnerships & collaborations.