Note: This post represents the synthesis of the thoughts, procedures and experiences of others as represented in the articles read in advance (see previous posts) and the discussion among the students and instructor during the Advanced Analytic Techniques class at Mercyhurst University in November 2015 regarding Timeline Analysis as a modifier specifically. This modifier was evaluated based on its overall validity, simplicity, flexibility and its ability to effectively use unstructured data.
Timeline analysis is a modifier that can be used to generate a historical context before a decision-making process. The modifier displays events chronologically in a visual manner. Successful applications of this tool can reveal important patterns, key events, or areas on which to focus.
- Timeline analysis is very easy to conduct
- Can utilize unstructured data
- Easy to visually represent for all audiences
- Identifies key events, thus providing a starting point or key variables for other analytic methods
- Organizes information for further analysis
- Timeline analysis is heavily dependent on the ‘binning problem,’ or how many events are grouped into each segment
- It can be subjective depending on the topic and does not represent causation
- One must be mindful of biases (i.e. anchoring, confirmation, recency, etc.)
- Both the visual and the statistical representation can be deceptive
- Reliant on the chosen starting point, or causal event
- Once a pattern extracted from a timeline analysis, it may cause an analyst to generate causation from correlations even though that may not be the case
This generic process for conducting timeline analysis was taken from the book, Business and Competitive Analysis: Effective Application of New and Classic Methods by Craig S. Fleisher and Babette E. Bensoussan.
- Decide what the timeline will show: major events, market expansions, product introductions, events related to a geographic area, randomly chosen events, and so on.
- Make a comprehensive list of events that you want to put on the timeline. This will require you or others to gather the population of events that are associated with the subject matter being focused on.
- Consider how you will choose events to include and exclude from the final timeline. Not all events will be of equal importance in developing an understanding of the evolution of a firm’s decisions and/or actions. As such, defining the rules to use for excluding and including events for consideration is important. The ultimate criteria employed for this task is that these should be based on the client’s critical intelligence needs or topics.
- Research and note the specific dates when the events that you want to include occurred. Making a detailed note of your source(s) is a good idea so that you can later verify dates or the details of what transpired. As well, background documentation should be maintained in separate files for each event, should further examination or inquiries of the events be required.
- List the chosen events in a chronology. A chronology is a sequence that starts with the earliest item and ends with the most recent one. Make special note of the earliest and latest dates that you want to include. This will also allow you to determine the period of time that their timeline will cover.
- Decide what units of time you will use (days, months, quarters, years, decades, and so on) to divide the timeline into segments. These decisions may be a matter of trial and error. Calculate the number of segments that your timeline will have.
- Draw a line and divide it into the number of equal segments that you figure you will need.
- Put the dates on the appropriate segments, from left to right.
- Using the chronology that you made of events and dates, figure out where they would fall on your timeline. Devising a scheme for how you mark and label them is useful. For instance, you could write certain symbols (for example, $ for acquisitions and * for alliance formations) on the timeline, attach different colored labels, or make a code that refers back to your chronology.
- If you do not have room on your timeline to include all of your chronology, cull some of the dates or make a timeline with larger segments (for example, one timeline for events in the firm’s home country and one for events that take place outside its primary market). If your dates can be divided into two or three smaller categories or themes, try making parallel timelines with identical segment sizes. You can then see how the theme develops, and you can also compare two or more themes at a time.
Personal Application of Technique:
We used a fictitious scenario regarding US and Russian involvement in the Syrian Conflict. A list of fictitious events were provided and students were then asked to analyze the events and determine what the relationships were and what events were important. Several students then shared their key events and we compared. Students also then discussed what the hypothetical question they believed they were answering when conducting their timeline analysis.
Below is the listed fictitious events that students analyzed:
ISIS executes Russian officer in video
Russian troops begin to embed with Syrian Army
US commits division sized force to conflict in Syria
US and Kurdish forces drive ISIS from critical crossroads town
US and Russian ambassadors to the UN engage in heated argument over the actions of their respective militaries in Syria
Hezbollah is effectively driven out of Syria
US Special Forces, working with a moderate Islamic group, are killed by Russian air strike
US lead coalition declares no fly zone over Syrian airspace
US troops killed by members of the Syrian Army, equipped with the latest Russian equipment
ISIS conducts suicide bombing in Moscow, American tourists are among the dead
US F-35 shoots down Russian jet in Syrian no fly zone
US ground forces engage Russian special operations at a distance in Syria
Russia launches ballistic missiles at a US Navy vessel in the Mediterranean sea
The general question students decided they answered was what was the cause and the events leading up to the outbreak of war between Russia and the United States. In this case, the timeline analysis was conducted post-mortem, although usually timeline analysis is ideally conducted pre-mortem.