If you see two competitive intelligence folks talking to each other, you can guess the conversation. One is telling the other about how the Big Boss has just paid them a visit. The BB had heard some very juicy, surprising, and disturbing news. The BB had come down to inquire how they’d happened to miss the briefing on this item. The CI guy had to explain he’d heard nothing about it. The BB replied with the obvious: Why do we have you here if you’re not going to find this stuff out for us?
I suspect everyone who’s ever done competitive intelligence work has had this moment, probably many times. CI is often sold as an asset that will prevent surprises, and when surprises still happen it’s no wonder those in charge ask why.
The problem isn’t that CI is ineffective, it’s that it’s not implemented properly.
I think the problem is that while CI can help with surprises, the mechanism is different than people often expect. First, let’s look at the method that doesn’t work. The one that grew out of traditional military thinking.why the traditional thinking doesn’t work so well for business.
CI grew out of military intelligence, and much of traditional CI doctrine comes from that history. After all, business is war, right? Well, not really.
In the military intelligence is gathered at the bottom. The folks in the field, the people observing the enemy, people sifting through data gathered from everywhere. It has to be this way, because the leadership of opposing sides either isn’t talking to each other, or isn’t saying much if they are. After all, if they got along they probably wouldn’t need to spy on each other quite so much, right?
So intelligence is gathered at the bottom, analyzed in the middle, and presented to the top. Obama isn’t on the ground in Afghanistan, so he’s got to rely on the people who are.
Business has a better mechanism.
Opposing leaders not only chat with each other on a regular basis – through trade associations, trade shows, charity work, and other occasions, they probably have a rapport with each other. They probably have much in common. Business is not war – the leader we vanquish tomorrow could show up as the CEO of our best customer tomorrow – and everyone knows this. This is the reason that the traditional bottom-up CI mentality is probably going to fail in being the source of all new juicy stuff. It’s not that it is inherently flawed, it’s that there is a more effective mechanism at work int he business world.
Who has a better chance of hearing of a possible new direction or intention? The guy who’s got a rapport with the target CEO and is having dinner with him tonight, or or someone a few layers down who might hear the same news as a rumor filtered downward through the target chain of command, and back upward through their own COC?
That’s why the BB is hearing about it first. That’s not a bad thing, and once it’s understood a CI effort can be rearranged to provide much better value.
In business CI is better seen as a tool for understanding and validating what is learned, not as the source of learning.
Traditional or not, CI folk do have good means to sift through data, consider many facts from disparate sources and validate what is coming in.
Upon hearing something new, the BB shouldn’t be concerned that she heard it first. Instead she should be happy she’s got a CI team who has the time to investigate it, validate it, and tell her what it really means. Was this real? Was it a trial balloon? Or was it just a little polk to get a rise out us?
Leaders need to realize they not just consumers of intelligence, they’re sources of it.
Until they realize this, and leverage it, they will be disappointed.