Written by Dominic Weeks, head of Madano’s technology practice.

Ignorance is bliss goes the age-old adage. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, we’re told. Of course, they’re not always very helpful maxims. In business and other large organisations, there is a growing trend towards continuous improvement and data-driven decision making. But notable exceptions still remain.

Take, for example, the decimation of the political left in most major democratic nations. In a recent essay, political scientist Yascha Mounk argues convincingly that the root cause of the loss of popularity is a fracturing of the shared interests that previously tied together the “bohemian” to the “proletariat”. It is worth a read, but it leaves the impression that many of the changes in voters’ interests and drivers have not been acted upon. It begs a serious question – how can so many organisations which regularly gauge the sentiment of their audiences, across so many countries, have fundamentally become so out of touch. Of course, there are notable electoral surprises that have raised the same questions in recent years.

Still today, we too often make assumptions about what our key audiences’ opinions, motivations and intentions. At best, we ask them to tell us what they are, apparently unaware that the answer they provide could be polluted by all kinds of contexts.

However, the parallel rise of mass digital communications, machine learning algorithms and also behavioural economics, means that the opportunity to observe people’s communications behaviour at scale can create a much more accurate picture of how stakeholders feel about our organisations and related issues, and how they are likely to act in relation to us. Combined with primary research and contact with stakeholders, we can use advanced analytics tools to build a more detailed picture and identify the best areas for focusing attention in order to drive change.

There are manifold areas in which big data analytics and AI are reshaping the communications disciplines, from intensive topic modelling to intelligent marketing automation. However, perhaps the most crucial is what can broadly be termed advanced stakeholder analytics.

Last week, Madano held a roundtable on this subject with people from a broad array of sectors and disciplines to investigate this trend and look at a couple of the most powerful, exciting tools around.

Harry Toukalas, co-founder of Blackhall & Pearl, discussed how machine learning algorithms are being used to analyse internal communications channels and spot, amongst other things, damaging cultural issues and disaffected teams. One scientific trial of such technology showed that, by spotting patterns in employee communications and addressing them, a large consumer facing company was able to improve net promoter score by over 17 points in just 18 months.

Toukalas and his colleagues are delivering technology that can map internal communications and present a picture of organisational health, identify culture carriers and help build trust among teams. This is all based on a close understanding of how the key stakeholders, employees, are performing.

While these kind of tools do run into hesitancy from companies and employees on questions of privacy, Toukalas says that, once reassured on security, many employees embrace the opportunity to understand their behaviour better and ask for the opportunity to see their individual data (this is available only to them) so that they can work on improvement. Furthermore, the technology has been used in improving risk and compliance behaviour and in identifying blockers and change agents in M&A situations where teams and cultures are being brought together.

The use of advanced data analytics with external stakeholders is an increasingly important part of informing communications strategy. Darren Fleetwood, Senior Research Manager at Madano and one of the architects of our own data analytics tools, discussed how advanced stakeholder mapping has presented new opportunities to identify potentially hugely influential stakeholders who connect important groups, but essentially don’t have the fame or notoriety of others. What we can see with the human eye can involve blindspots that the analytics can bring to the fore.

For many people with communications experience that stretches beyond a decade, they will remember that most strategic decisions were previously taken with a mixture of qualitative insight, experience and gut instinct. With the range of tools now at our disposal as communications, PR and public affairs professionals, we have a fantastic opportunity to combine the best of both worlds and improve campaign outcomes.

While the world is getting more complex, the technologies and techniques to navigate it are keeping pace. It is an exciting time.

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