Curbing competitive intelligence dissapointment

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.

What should SCIP do?

A while back Ellen asked me to suggest what scip should do.

I’ve thought about this for quite a while, and until I read SCIP’s mission and goals, I really couldn’t articulate what was wrong. Having read them, now I can.

When I read SCIP’s mission and goals, it’s clear to me that there’s not much focus on increasing value for members or their employers. Instead the focus is on increasing recognition for SCIP and CI. The problem is that without value there isn’t anything to recognize. I left SCIP because it stopped adding value to me and my employer and became impossible to justify.

Things like certification, codes of ethics, and having a Body of Knowledge sound good, but they don’t help members or their employers thrive or even survive.

Consider what SCIP stands for: Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals. The emphasis is on the professional, not the profession. Compare that with ASQ, or AMA, or BMA.

When I used to work for a ~100 million company, I was asked to create a CI function. It was in conjunction with pricing, not a dedicated position. A sensible move. Based on the reactions I got from others, and observations, I think it’s pretty odd to have a formal CI effort in a company that small, let alone a dedicated person. But for the sake of argument let’s say that $100 million is the minimum company size to have a dedicated CI professional. $100 million companies and larger account for about .2% of the total number of companies out there – an unneccessary limit on market size, and a huge loss in potential value to bring.

Focus on the value created by the profession, not the recognition of the profession.

Let’s look at a few graphs. First, competitive intelligence’s popularity as a search string in google:

A decline. Not usually the sign of something that is increasing in value.

Let’s compare with business intelligence (red line):

Ouch! A nice reality check. I tend to think of business intelligence folk as IT report writers, but really it’s understanding your business and companies are interested in that.


Then let’s add market research:

Ok, no wonder when you say competitive intelligence most people say ‘Huh?’ Competition is only part of one’s market so we shouldn’t be surprised. Also notice the downward trend, even in market research.

Google trends is not the final word, but I think the data are useful because they help put things in perspective. CI can be useful, but it’s not a solution. It’s part of the solution, and a part that needs to earn its keep.

The most valuable stuff I ever did in CI fed middle managers who used to make profitable decisions almost immediately. It was also some of the cheapest & easiest stuff I did. It wasn’t glamorous, and it didn’t even brush against the c-suite, but it didn’t need to. There needs to be a strong focus on creating value whereever possible. If the value’s there, the recognition will follow.

The value needs to be accessible. Real world stuff that non-PhD, non-ex-CIA people can do and it needs to address the needs of companies that exist in large numbers. This means small companies who will NEVER have someone do CI full time. Pharma, insurance, aerospace and giant consumer products companies have a strong interest in CI, t the CI approaches & budgets of those companies are irrelevant to 99% of the companies out there. They’re not a useful example to anyone but their peers.

So what to do?

How about this mission and these goals:

Mission: SCIP will show companies how to enable better decisions through competitive intelligence by educating their staff, providing guidance in ethics, and enabling them to learn from the community they form through SCIP.

Goal 1: Make CI accessible to more companies

  • Increase the usage of CI by smaller companies through education and outreach.
  • Create membership opportunities aimed at the part-time practitioner.

Goal 2: Increase the value CI brings

  • Education practioners on how to identify and communicate the value intelligence brings to decision making.
  • Educate practioners on how to identifiy and anticipate situations where intelligence can bring value.
  • Educate practioners on how to obtain the intelligence they need to bring value.

A Critical Element in BlackBerry vs. iPhone

Or maybe “Should Be A Critical Element…” Because American business by and large doesn’t really care about security very much.

Thanks to Bruce Schneier we learn that the Indians are pushing to get the encryption keys to RIM’s BlackBerry system. What this means is that the messages sent to BlackBerrys in the field could be decrypted by the Indian government. Strangely, only non-corporate users are at risk for now.

How long do you think it will be before other governments get the keys in exactly the same way as the Indians did? How long do you think it will be before a corporate user is thought to be enough of a security concern that even corporate users must turn over keys?

The reason why this is significant for the BlackBerry vs iPhone situation is that the iPhone works differently. It doesn’t pass all messages through a server. It behaves like a computer connected to the internet, with a regular email client. So, as soon as someone is allowed to create an email client with encryption capabilities we will have secure mobile email. Apple has released the iPhone SDK, and is expected to unveil applications along with an improved version of the iPhone in June. It might even happen that Apple builds encryption into the mail client themselves.

The problem for RIM is that there is no way to do full decryption on the BlackBerry without doing it on their server, at least with their current software. Creating this after making deals with governments to provide access will be impossible.

So, if you believe in having privacy, and you conduct business overseas, it looks like BlackBerry isn’t the best choice.

More competitive intelligence in printing?

I’m at Print Outlook 2008 in New York City, and I noticed during Andrew Paparozzi’s presentation on commercial printing in 2008, based on survey results, that there were several themes revolving around competition. Print is more competitive than ever, and he stressed differentiation and not doing things just because competitors were doing them.

Will this drive an increased interest in competitive intelligence in printing? My experience is that this is one industry where CI hasn’t really taken hold, at least not in the same way as in medical/pharma and other industries. Perhaps as print gets more competitive and more dependent on innovation and positioning we will see a growing demand for CI in print.