Ask the Expert: Q&A with Philip Bell
Our latest Q&A is with Philip Bell, Head of Research at Stirling Assynt - a company specialising in Country and Terrorism Risk as well as Strategic Business Intelligence.
They have successfully deployed Digimind as a collaborative research platform to help identify and extract information sources on the web.
1. Tell us about Stirling Assynt. What type of clients use the service and why?
Stirling Assynt (www.stirlingassynt.com) is a global intelligence network run from offices in London by a team of professionals with significant government and commercial sector experience. We also have representations in Hong Kong, Beijing and the Gulf. Our clients come from a wide range of sectors and industries in the United States, Europe and Asia-Pacific.
Sectors include Financial Services/Hedge Funds, Telecoms/Electronics/IT, Manufacturing, Defence & Aerospace, Travel/Hospitality, Energy, Legal and Oil & Gas.
Our country risk reporting covers an expanding list of countries (currently 32) and provides fortnightly reports, short country papers and Special Reports on the key threats. Our reporting is not just a re-hash of the news, but is actionable analysis on which clients can make strategic business decisions.
We produce authoritative reporting on al-Qaeda, including a monthly paper on the strategy and activity of the jihadists, as well as Special Reports. We have an unrivalled knowledge of the jihadists' culture and ideology, which enables us to make reasoned predictions with authority.
We also provide worldwide Business Intelligence services such as due diligence on prospective partners, or where clients wish to enter new and unfamiliar markets we can provide strategic intelligence on national, regional and local issues including the identification of key commercial and political stakeholders.
2. One of your specialties is delivering country risk intelligence to clients. What are the main challenges in gathering and analysing this type of information?
One of the biggest challenges is the volume of information available. When major events are taking place, such as in Syria at present, the number of articles on a subject can be daunting. Every day we check over five hundred specific web sources as well as the Digimind Content Factory. Digimind helps enormously in identifying possibly relevant articles and we make extensive use of queries within the system. However, this process can still result in many articles in a given area and we rely massively on the knowledge and expertise of our small research team to select the most useful items. This is definitely a case where computers are limited and human judgement essential.
3. How do you evaluate the quality, credibility and relevance of your online sources?
Control of the media is a fact of life to some extent almost everywhere and the truth can be hard to determine. Many of the sources that we use are partial in some way and since we typically cover areas of conflict there are often widely varying reports about the same situation. Again we rely on the judgement of the individual researcher to pick out the items that will be most useful to our analysts. They will sometimes select articles that they believe to be inaccurate but which are still of interest since this may be an indication of the attitude of the organisation or government behind that source.
This is where social media can be of value. Blogs can be very informative although they have to be taken with a degree of scepticism since they will also have their own agenda.
In a breaking news situation Twitter can be indicative but we would not rely on a tweet on its own. As a company we try to produce considered analysis and do not compete with the newswires.
We always look for corroboration of reports. However just a brief solitary mention of a key individual can result in an entirely different interpretation of a complicated situation. We do not use such tools as word-counts since they just follow the mass trend. Our analysts like to see the fine grain of events and form their own judgements.
4. It’s been a year of major political, economic and social upheaval in many parts of the world. What kinds of risks are facing companies with global business operations in 2012?
These are some of the major issues that I would identify – but I’m not an analyst, just a researcher!
The Arab Spring has evolved into a new form in Syria and whatever outcome is eventually achieved there it seems likely that the balance of forces in the Middle East is going to change. Events in Syria are starting to have a distinctly sectarian element to them. The increasing impact on neighbouring countries and the involvement, direct or otherwise, of other major international players means that there is a growing potential for disruption to commercial operations throughout the region.
We are noticing signs of Al-Qaeda’s involvement in Syria. Other al-Qaeda franchises are active, especially in the Arabian Peninsula and the Maghreb, illustrating that the organisation has not gone away and still represents a credible threat to Western interests.
Countries such as the UK and USA have recently introduced strict legislation regarding bribery and corruption anywhere in the world. The resulting potential for reputational damage for international companies is considerable so appropriate precautions need to be taken.
About Philip Bell:
Philip Bell has a degree in Aeromechanical Engineering and initially served in the British Army for six years. Thereafter in 1980 he started in the computer industry as a programmer and subsequently acted as systems analyst, project manager and consultant working both for system development companies and end users. In 2005 he joined Stirling Assynt and is now Head of Research.
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Written by Jerome Maisch
Marketing Manager @digimindci. Passionate about big data & social marketing. Photography, music and hiking lover