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What Are Sensing Networks?

November 15, 2021

Germany is infamous for its unrestricted autobahn speeds. In the country with such recognized high-performance car brands as BMW, Mercedes and Porsche, there are no speed restrictions on many stretches of public highway. If you are not used to driving at speed, this can be quite a shock. Cars that seem a long way off are suddenly in the rear-view mirror, flashing their lights to get by. Potential dangers come up on you much faster than expected, making avoidance harder. It requires a different approach to driving.  

Now imagine driving a car as a metaphor for an organization. We are good at driving on North American roads, with speed limits of 110 km/h (70 mph) or less, but the pace of change in today's organizations is like driving on an unrestricted German autobahn. Cars come at us, or overtake us, at much faster speeds than we are used to. Objects in your rear view might be closer than they appear. We cautiously stay in the slow lane and avoid venturing out into the faster lanes. It is only when we have adjusted our senses and learned to look for upcoming cars further in the distance that we become comfortable driving on the roads. This is an example of how we learn to adjust our sensing network.  

Our sensing networks are how we get information from the world around us. In the case above, we are sensing primarily through sight. We watch the dashboard, more specifically, the speedometer. We look at the road ahead for upcoming traffic and obstacles. And we use our rear-view mirror to keep an eye on traffic coming up from behind. Occasionally, we may have auditory sensing networks; a passenger verbally communicating warnings or observations on our driving or the traffic around us. If we want to really get ahead, we might be listening to the radio for congestion or construction warnings.

Making informed decisions

We use sensing networks to make informed decisions. The information we gather combines with our experience and understanding of the situation to allow us to make decisions. How we use this information impacts the quality of our decision making.  

Effective decision making requires timely information, not too late or too early. Information must also be relevant. Not an avalanche of data but informed analysis and credible insight. Effective decision making depends on seeing connections between seemingly unrelated information. This final step is the magic that great leaders bring to the table. This ability to draw conclusions from disparate information depends on an appetite for consuming information across boundaries.

In a dynamic and complex work environment staying current with what is happening is a necessity. As the pace of change accelerates, our familiar sensing networks, like the reports we read or the people we take time to talk to, prove inadequate. In dynamic environments we need to invest time sensing what is going on around us, so that we have an early warning system for potential risks or changes. In complex environments we also want to look for unique connections across boundaries and between seemingly unrelated information sources.

When our environment is more dynamic and uncertain, we need to adjust how we sense what's going on around us. We learn to adjust our habits. We look around us more often. In the driving example above, we look further into the distance for other vehicles and potential dangers. We increase the information we take in from our environment. And we broaden the sources from which we gather information.

Growing early warning capabilities

We all need to review where we get information. For the case for why you might want to change your sensing networks, listen to General Stanley McCrystal in his TED talk. When deciding to review and strengthen your sensing networks, consider the following three strategies:

Increase the frequency with which we review our information networks

Monthly status reports become less relevant when things are changing weekly. Weekly status reports become less relevant when the number of interruptions is high. Look at near real-time dashboards instead of focusing on more frequent status reports. If you want to understand end-user behaviour, we can wait for a weekly report or look at dashboards of near real-time behaviour any time we choose.  

Increase the depth of our information networks

Beware of diluted information from the front lines. This dilution can occur as proximity to the front lines diminishes, or as information is interpreted along the way. Seek information as close to the front lines as possible. Listen to your existing network, but also reach beyond your current network. Push past the people you usually get information from. Talk to the agents that speak to end-users, or even better, the end-users themselves.  

Increase the number of sources in our information network

Broaden where you get information from. If you look at status reports from within your organization, look at status reports from neighbouring organizations. If you rely on insights from your internal strategy team, look for insights from outside your organization. Look outside the obvious sources of information to help identify trends and opportunities. The harder you have to work to access information the fewer people are likely to be looking at it.  

Using the sensing network radar diagram  

To help our clients understand their sensing networks we have created a simple tool to look at your current sources of information. We have consciously mirrored a radar screen when creating the tool. Think of expanding your sensing network as increasing the range of your radar. The further you can see the more time you have to make decisions, the more aware you are of the current landscape, the more informed decisions you can make.

The diagram is a simple tool used to reflect and map our primary sensing network today (the inner ring).  Once the current sensing network is identified, the goal is to extend that network in one or more of the core dimensions (the outer ring).  

The inner ring – mapping your current sensing network

Start by considering the sources of information. List where you get information from. Consider how frequently you get that information, and where you get the information (how close to the source).  

The outer ring – extending your sensing network

Now look for opportunities. Are there simple changes you can make to increase any of the three dimensions described? Additional sources you can seek out? Information sources you can make more relevant by sampling them more frequently, or networks you can deepen?  

Finally, consider sharing the load. Information is all around us and relatively easy to access. The real challenge is finding which information is the most valuable and can help make impactful change. As you review your sensing network, consider how you might broaden the impact by bringing people into your leadership circle with different perspectives, with access to sensing networks of their own that compliment yours. Create time to share observations and look for cross-over connections.

Interested in becoming a catalyst for positive change in your organization?