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Bears, Gators, and Snakes: How Jim Barksdale's Insightful Maxims Apply to Narrative Intelligence

June 19, 2024Evan Robert

“In the battle between the bear and the alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain.” 

-Jim Barksdale

These words are attributed to Jim Barksdale, the former CEO of AT&T Wireless and Netscape, who used such maxims to simplify complex management tasks and inspire his employees to think critically about their industry. 

What does this quote mean? Well, at face value, it means that an entity that has the advantage of familiar terrain will often prevail in a battle that would otherwise seem equal. We could assume that in the water, an alligator wins. On a mountain slope, a bear wins. This is all well and good in the animal kingdom, but how does it apply to business? 

For Barksdale, it was a way of thinking he instilled in his employees. If they were going into a new market (or terrain) inhabited by an existing competitor, they needed to learn every aspect of the market and how the successful competitors used the environment to their advantage. 

But this adage applies to more than just business in a modern setting. The information environment today is so oversaturated with content that it is more difficult to make decisions, and certainly more difficult to understand the online terrain which is seemingly being reshaped almost daily. We can call this amorphous and volatile online environment “the cognitive domain.”

Regardless of the ever-increasing online static, Barksdale’s words remain true: we have to make sense of the cognitive domain to succeed. And it's not just corporations that need this analysis of the cognitive domains: governments, nonprofits, and any organization wishing to succeed online has to have a thorough understanding of the information environment.

Narrative intelligence is a key solution to the issue of not understanding the terrain that is the cognitive domain. Simply put, narrative intelligence analyzes text, video, photographs, and other media to detect viral narratives, identify which entities are proliferating the narrative, and contextualize the conversations.

Careful and expedient analysis of large batches of data is the only way to survive in a terrain like the internet which thrives on its variability. Narrative intelligence uses AI to accomplish this by giving quick actionable insights to decision-makers which would otherwise be a painfully slow manual process of poring over hundreds of articles to get a sense of the state of an online conversation.

Take EdgeTheory’s narrative intelligence briefs, for example. On any given trending topic, EdgeTheory’s AI can instantly produce an executive brief that not only surveys the issue in a given set of media sources, but also provides the top stories affecting that narrative, including who published them, who shared the published article, and how that narrative has evolved to get where it is today. And that’s just scratching the surface: these narratives can be traced by common themes, viewed in in-depth data visualizations, and even mapped using a geospatial overlay. That is a decision advantage. That is knowing your terrain and how to succeed in it.

To learn more about EdgeTheory’s narrative briefs, click here.

Armed with detailed insights from the cognitive domain that affects your industry, you can feel confident in the terrain that at one time felt impossible to comprehend. But now what do you do with that advantage? Luckily, Jim Barksdale has another adage to help us out:

“One, if you see a snake, kill it. Two, don’t play with dead snakes. And three, everything looks like a snake at first.”

Snakes, in this sense, are simply problems. The three tenets of this method of thinking are:

  1. Identify the problem and resolve it (see the snake, kill the snake)
  2. Once it is resolved, move forward (don’t play with dead snakes)
  3. Problems could turn out to be opportunities (everything looks like a snake at first)

Narrative intelligence takes care of the first tenet by identifying the snakes (narratives) that could harm your industry or organizational goals. It can also help resolve some of those malicious narratives by providing counter-messaging and direction on how to take a narrative to your advantage. In this way, those problematic narratives that would crowd you out of the cognitive domain can become fodder for your success in establishing a resilient narrative of your own. 
The playing field is never level in a cognitive war. If you are a decision-maker in the information environment, you are in constant conflict for the mind of the everyday internet user. Using tools like narrative intelligence will help you fully understand and use your terrain to your advantage.

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