Building a Global Sensing Network

Building a Global Sensing NetworkIf the innovation war is just beginning, then you need to make sure you’re fighting it outside your organization — not inside.

The old way of succeeding in business was to hire the most clever, educated, experienced and motivated people you could afford and then direct them to come up with the best customer solutions possible, organize and execute their production and marketing predictably and efficiently, and do their best to outmaneuver the competition.

But the battlefield of business success is changing. Future business success will be built upon the ability to:

  1. Utilize expert communities.
  2. Identify and gather technology trend information, customer insights and local social mutations from around the globe.
  3. Mobilize the organization in organic ways to utilize resources and information often beyond its control.
  4. Still organize and execute production and marketing predictably and efficiently in the middle of all this complexity.

At the same time, market leaders will be increasingly determined not by their ability to outmaneuver the competition in a known market, but by their ability to identify and solve for the key unknowns in markets that will continue to become more global and less defined. Future market leaders will be those organizations that build superior global sensing networks and do a better job at making sense of the inputs from these networks to select the optimal actionable insights to drive innovation.

By this point, hopefully you are asking yourself two questions:

  1. What does a global sensing network look like?
  2. How do I build one?

One View of a Global Sensing Network

The purpose of a global sensing network is to allow an organization to collect and connect the partial insights and ideas that will form the basis of the organization’s next generation of customer solutions. This involves collecting and connecting:

1. Customer insights

  • Ethnography
  • Private Communities
  • Focus Groups
  • Surveys
  • Lead User Observation

2. Core technology trends

3. Adjacent technology trends

4. Distant technology trends

5. Local social mutations

  • Demographic trends
  • Sociological trends
  • Economic trends
  • Political trends (including regulation)
  • Behavioral trends

6. Expert Communities

  • University Research
  • Government Research
  • Corporate Research
  • Charitable Research
  • Hobbyists

To actually build a global sensing network you need to start from the inside out. You have to take a look around inside your organization and see what employees you have, what natural connections they have, and where they are currently located on the globe. At the same time you need to understand how employees in your organization naturally connect with each other and define what core, adjacent and distant technologies mean in the context of your organization. You must also look and see what tools you have inside the organization for managing insights, expertise and information within the organization, and what expert communities you may already have connections into.

I would recommend beginning to establish your global sensing network inside your organization before venturing to build it out completely with the resources and connections that you will naturally need outside your organization. This will enable you to get some really great feedback from employees on the connections that will be necessary to foster and manage outside of your organization and to prepare your information sharing systems and internal communications to enable increased sharing and improved innovation inputs and outputs.

It is likely that many organizations will already be gathering some level of customer insight information from ethnography, private communities, focus groups, surveys, lead user observation, etc. but not have a good infrastructure, policies or procedures in place for sharing this information. If you’re truly serious about creating a deep innovation capability and working to achieve innovation excellence in the same way that you pursue operational excellence, you should experiment with your systems by making customer information more available.

Next, you should leverage your employees and existing partnerships to reach outside the organization to organize and establish stronger communication channels with the relevant expert communities, including those focused on university research, government research, charitable research, corporate research (industry associations and competitors), and even to inventors or hobbyists.

And then finally from the connections you’ve built to this point, you should have identified where you have good people internally to provide information on local social mutations (local developments of interest spawned by local demographic, sociological, economic, political and behavioral trends), and where you have gaps. Hopefully by this point you may have also identified people outside your organization in countries around the world that you already have formal or informal connections to that can be leveraged to fill the gaps in your global sensing network footprint.


If you’re already involved in innovation, or have read a lot on the topic, it should be obvious to you why your organization needs a global sensing network. The main reason is that innovation can come from anywhere, and so you need to be listening everywhere. The purpose for building a global sensing network is much like the purpose for having a SETI program. We know that there must be intelligent life outside the four walls of our organization, but to find it, we must be listening. And we must be listening so that we can amplify, combine and triangulate the weak signals that we might pick up so that we can find the next innovation that our organization is capable of delivering – before the competition. After all, there is a war for innovation out there. The only true unknown is who’s going to win.

If you’d like me to help your company build a global sensing network, please let me know.

In 2011, I will be a regular contributor to the American Express OPEN Forum on the topic of innovation.

This post may also be viewed on the American Express OPEN Forum Idea Hub.

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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B pull marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is currently advising an early-stage fashion startup making jewelry for your hair and is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.

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16 Responses to Building a Global Sensing Network

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Blogging Innovation » Building a Global Sensing Network --

  2. Contigo says:

    Nice post, but, what do you think about the innovation in small ventures?,In their case It´s more important choose what to listen, are you agree?

  3. John Cooper says:

    Very interesting post. Many of the points that you mention are echoed in a very interesting book called “The Power of Pull”. Two central themes in the book are the importance of serendipity and the concept of “return on attention”. Contrary to the definition of serendipity the authors suggest that there are ways that you can shape chance by harnessing 3 elements: environments, practices and preparedness. If you can work out ways to orchestrate and control the interactions between these elements your effort will be rewarded with a higher return on attention. Here are some goals you can set yourself to start shaping serendipity:

    - Choose environments that increase the likelihood of encountering people who share your passion
    - Become and stay visible to people who matter most in relation to your passion
    - If possible, influence their professional endeavours; in turn helping to amplify your own
    - Discover and interact with the right people at the right time
    Make the most of every relevant encounter

    There is also an important point that the authors mention regarding what you say about “identifying and gathering technology trend information, customer insights and local social mutations from around the globe.” The source of economic value will move from “stocks” of knowledge to “flows” of new knowledge. These knowledge flows will flourish on the edge. Why? Because unlike those at the core, participants on the edge are battling with how to serve unmet needs with unexploited capabilities and all the uncertainty that comes with this. The brave who toil on the edges focus on ways to innovate and create value by connecting unmet needs with unexploited capabilities and then scaling these opportunities as rapidly as possible. Let’s call it Edg-ovation. Maybe not…any suggestions?

    As a summary, we can think of building global sensing networks as a way of preparing ourselves for an unpredictable future. Louis Pasteur said over 150 years ago that “Chance favours the prepared mind”, his statement is no less true today.

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  8. Felix says:

    Interesting article which inspired me to think about setting up a global sensing network for a Mbiz or microbusiness in order to collect the business domain specific knowledge in a efficient way. I described the approach which is based around Evernote, Zite and Flipboard in the following blog article

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