Picking up weak signals in the new digital age: challenges for the HR professional

Picking up weak signals in the new digital age: HR challenges


In 1996, Ralph Stacey said “ At least 90% of textbooks on strategic management are devoted to that part of the management task which is relatively easy: the running of the organizational machine in as surprise-free a way as possible. On the contrary, the real management task is that of handling the exceptions, coping with and even using unpredicability, clashing counter-cultures. The task has to do with instability, irregularity, difference and disorder.” ( Strategic Management & Organizational Dynamics). I have taught now for over 15 years to managers and senior executives, and have found little evidence in  business school of training that focuses on that skill. How can one help and train corporate executives to cope with unpredictability?

One of the crucial stepping stone into making sense of the world’s unpredictability is the ability for managers and executives to be able to pick weak signals early and to know how to act.Weak signals are particularly tough to deal with. It is crucial for the credibility of a weak signal that it comes from acknowledged experts – yet most will be spotted first by those on the fringe. Hence the challenge for Human resource professionals and in particular for those involved in talent management and acquisition is twofold: first, to be able to spot and hire those professionals who will have a keen eye for those weak signals, and second, to train the organization and ensure processes exist to interpret those weak signals.

This article was published in May 2013 in the Journal of National Human Resource Development in India. Established over 25 years ago, NHRD is autonomous, not-for-profit professionally managed organization, playing a catalyst role in grooming Leaders for Tomorrow. It has 12,500 members representing, Multinationals, Public & Private organizations including Government, MSME & NGOs spread across 30 chapters in India and serves as a reference point for HR Professionals in Indian Industry.

Four sources of information to pick-up weak signals

My definition of weak signals is quite simple: “Weak Signals are events or issues with ambiguous, possible multiple interpretations of their origin, meaning and/or implications that can have a major impact on the future”.

The key to weak signals spotting is the ability to find the outsiders who can look at your industry, company, or socio-demographic trends with a different eye. I am hopeful that with the explosion of social media, it has never been easier to tap into new pools of expertise, be part of new communities, or attend conferences without been there physically.

You will find below my pick of the four reliable sources of information 7 inspiration to spot weak signals:


1- Listen to the fringe by attending unusual and eclectic events

One of my favourite examples is the Burning Man festival. Situated at the heart of the Black Rock desert, this festival does not have any program, speaker or official sponsor. Yet each year, about 100,000 people gather for a week, creating a gigantic melting pot where imagination and creativity blossom and where future trends emerge ( see a video here )

Few can afford to take a week and spend it in the American desert. Thanks to the ability to mine social media for insight, I have used a simple cloud builder (www.wordle.net ) to summarize the keywords generally attached to the Burning man conversation: weak signals can be found in the “fine prints”.



This analysis highlights some interesting signals: for example the words Northern, precursor of the current issues developing with the opening of the northern sea routes, or with the inclusion of aboriginal communities. This might feel for many companies irrelevant. Yet, this will have a lasting impact on global trade (the opening of new sea routes), shift of political power ( to Russia, Canada or Finland), price of commodities (oil...), etc. Another keyword of “free”, in relation to new business models ( so called “freemium”) which are emerging where products might be “free” but components or services expenses (think about the car sharing schemes in major cities )


2- Take part of these four vibrant, innovative communities


Communities are blossoming on social media allowing fringe experts and listeners. They offer a unique opportunity to link-up with people you’d met naturally meet. Here are a few I recommend:


3- Visualize by leveraging new social technologies such as Pinterest

 Pinterest started as a digital scrapbooking tool. Members could “pin” images that touch them on a personal level and share them with a larger community. Lately, it has been used by professionals to also share insights about trends in a wide range of industries. Because the ideas are shared globally, and take the form of images, this is the ideal tool to take the pulse of what is touching the heart and imagination of the population worldwide.

 I like to use Pinterest as a way to spot weak signals. As an example, the following images have been shared in the “education” category as I write this article. I can see many weak signals emerging from this one page only. The people who pinned those images are typically not HR experts or professionals, and therefore tend to offer a new vision of what education is- or might become.


4- Get out of your zone of comfort by reading differently

To help you to get out of your zone of comfort, I suggest that you buy a magazine you have never read before every time you are passing by the newspaper and magazine stand in a train station or an airport. By picking up an antiques, a teenager, a kit-surfing magazine and reading it cover to cover, new ideas will without doubt emerge. I have done this exercise countless times with the participants in my leadership programs around the globe, and have witnessed many “aha” moments, such as:

-          An operation manager in a garbage removal company who realized how dashboards can help him get closer to his clients ( he was reading a pilot magazine)

-          A chief financial officer understood why shipping wedding dresses on time and building “personal social capital” can help his B2B department as well ( he was reading a women fashion magazine)


Two challenges to overcome to be able to spot weak signals


First challenge: swim upstream

Most companies I know rely on secondary (published) data to understand their market and the future trends. They scan the media and clip relevant press releases and newspaper articles, subscribe to expensive databases to get a collection of data, buy market research reports, and listen to experts in international conferences. Those sources are typically the last ones I’d recommend to identify weak signals, as the graph below shows.

As an example, these are some of the subjects currently discussed in the media today: 3D printing, Cyborgs, Genetic engineering, Embryonic stem cell research, Robotics, mobile. These subjects are all already well documented emerging trends.

On the other hand, science-fiction authors are discussing today Artificial General Intelligence  (greater-than-human), Neuro/Brain simulation and enhancement, post scarcity society,  DIY science, existential technology risks, radical life-extension/”immortality” and technology singularity.

The implications for the HR professional: When you recruit a new strategy analyst, do you ask if they have an MBA or the type of books they are reading?  When you analyze and map their LinkedIn network. Do you find mostly school friends, colleagues, or do they connect also wit people outside of their sphere of interest? Do you try to attract those reading science-fiction?


Second challenge: interpret the data

The key of the process lies in the interpretation of the signal.

  • What does it mean for my company?
  • What is the likely impact?
  • How strong a signal does it have to become to start acting on it?

In a company, this “”making sense” phase can take many shapes. Some use a full fledge scenario planning exercise; others play “red teams” an exercise use during the war by the British army to review strategic plans and ensure no blindspot has developed.

When internal resources are not available, one can always rely on external consultants and their work. For example, the following WI-WE database has taken the first step into spotting potential weak signals, but also interpreting what they mean:


Six practical tips on how to build the ability to spot weak signals in your organization


Tip1: Create a“”Crows Nest”: this term was developed by IBM as a reference to the crows nest situated on top of sailing ships. It is designed to be able to spot upcoming danger or weather changes. This is a good image to the process companies need to implement to scan the horizon beyond the next quarter, and have a team who will have credibility within the organization to challenge common wisdom.This “crows nest” concept has given birth in the social media age to “command centers” such as the acceleration Team at Nestle: a room dedicated to spotting signals on social media.

Tip2: Hire those with imagination: Talent development and acquisition professionals should therefore aim to identify who in the young talent they are hiring have imagination. Maybe a piece of creative writing should be part of the interview? Some companies provide candidates with a few random concepts (bionic man: apple: teacher), and ask them to write a short story, or create an impromptu improvised theatre piece.

Tip3: Open social networks to let ideas flow, and allow your employees to develop networks outside of their sphere of comfort: if your company is still today restricting access to social networks during work hours, change this policy. Those tools are as essential to the personal development of your employees as using a computer or a phone is.

Tip4: Train to develop networks:  very few executives have been trained in the art – and sometimes science- of developing a network. Training should be planned, but companies could also incorporate the notion of network into the performance evaluation (with a focus on internal as well as external networks).

Tip5: Create time to be creative: we all have heard of Google employees dedicating 20% of their work time to work on “ pet” projects. You need as talent management professional to ensure there is time and space for employees to flex their creativity. This can take the form of meetings without PowerPoint slides (triggering discussions rather than passive listening”), or applying reverse meeting techniques (like in an MBA class, reading the documents and the case in advance, and using meeting time for questions and discussions).

Tip6: Recruit from outside: companies need to include in their workforce employees who can bring new fresh perspectives to the business. While industry knowledge is important, candidates from adjacent or even drastically different industries can bring a wealth of new ideas to a business. One of my clients in the transportation industry is hiring professionals from the customer good or the banking industry. They bring a new view on how customer relationships could be develop and how to use data analytics.





Spotting weak signals requires companies to set-up the processes to spot the signals, and invest time to interpret them. The new social media tools and technologies offer an essential and unparalleled window to spot those weak signals. But above all, success depends on the ability of those companies the ability to recruit and retain those managers and senior executives who have an inquisitive mind, a wild imagination and an insatiable curiosity.




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  • Posted by Share Books said:

    16/04/2014 11:47am (6 years ago) very well written :)

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