Category Archives: CI

News, practices, examples and theory related to competitive intelligence and market intelligence.

What Do We Do About “Peak Intelligence?”

CI colleague and friend Eric Garland wrote a very provocative editorial in the April 2012 edition of The Atlantic entitled “Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Actually Makes Us Dumber.” This is effectively Eric’s resignation from the field of intelligence along with some very important questions about the value of the intelligence practice in business today. The article is worth a read, and I definitely felt it was worth some commentary. Whether you agree or disagree, it’s worth considering the value competitive and strategic intelligence are delivering in our current environment.

Eric begins his article by telling us that he has observed an “endemic corruption of how decisions are made in our most critical institutions.” He goes on to describe how business decision-makers have become focused on feel-good information that doesn’t challenge their underlying assumptions. Eric says that this preference– nay insistence– on feel-good news has increased since the financial crisis of 2008. An industry has sprung up that feeds in to the executive desire to feel good about the future, executive mastery of their industry and general CYA. These charlatans actually making it harder for those of us who are trying to deliver the real, often uncomfortable intelligence. “Strategic intelligence” firms and many consultancies have become the enablers of senior executives’ addiction to graphs that always move up and to the right.

A tripartite cause for the war on strategic intelligence and emperical insight come in for criticism:

  1. Industry consolidation enabled by cheap capital. It’s intuitive that most mature industries are more concentrated today than they have been in the past. I argue that most industries have a diverse second and third-tier of competitors, there is a tendency towards “too big to fail” market leaders that are given special treatment by central banks, regulators and politicians to maintain their incumbency against market dynamics, disruptive innovation and poor management.
  2. Consolidation has created huge bureaucracies out of once-thriving businesses. The problems of agency in business are well-known, where managers’ and owners’ interests diverge. Firms that have reached this stage do things very differently from smaller, entrepreneurial firms. In these institutions it is better to fail conventionally than to innovate and face risk. Internal politics become the criteria for how decisions are made.
  3. Today’s global economy is driven by policy decision-makers and not by competitive markets. In the wake of 2008 the nation-state has its hands in the economy more than at any time since World War II. I attended a recent session of senior competitive intelligence and strategy executives from diverse industries, and the unanimous top priority for all of the firms represented in that room was regulation. Literally every industry has a set of regulatory and policy priorities that will almost by themselves determine success or failure, or at the very least define the shape of success or failure. The state  of our economy is being decided in Washington, Brussels and Beijing rather than in a competitive market.

Eric finished the editorial with several examples of former clients became frustrated or even enraged when presented with the most basic strategic facts, such as the aging global population or how long it could take for housing prices to regain 2007 levels (if ever). I’ve been here as well, tasked with defending the blatantly obvious against a corporate orthodoxy, only to have decisions put off because “the verdict isn’t in yet” on clearly settled matters of technological disruption or demographic shift.

While I agree with almost everything Eric has to say in his article, he and I diverge  on our personal conclusions about what to do about it:

  • In the last year I’ve moved to a firm where strategic realities are given their day in court. Not all big firms are closed to the value or import of good strategic intelligence. Sometimes you do need to pick your battles.
  • There are smaller firms competing in truly dynamic markets that demand real insight instead of CYA feints at strategic analysis. I’m always happy when I see smaller firms advertising to fill CI positions.
  • Eventually we will see a dramatic scaling back of state intervention into the economy, either at the bond auction or the ballot box. This changeover won’t happen everywhere at the same time, and the transition will be extremely painful to the leading firms in industries that have come to depend on central bank largesse and government intervention, but it will open up a world of opportunity for those small and medium firms to make their marks on their respective industries.

So, what’s your take on “Peak Intelligence?” Do you disagree with the concept entirely? If you agree, where in your career do you see the bright spots? What companies or firms are doing strategic insight the right way to support quality decision making?

As a fun addendum, here is Eric being interviewed about his article on Russia Today. Stick around for the last few seconds because the look on Eric’s face when the anchor has clearly missed the premise of what Eric is trying to convey is really priceless.

How Big Data and the Semantic Web Will Change Competitive Intelligence and Marketing Research

Recently I had the chance to present to the Marketing Research Association corporate practitioners conference. As a competitive intelligence professional, I was particularly interested in how my practice related to marketing research. I also wanted to take a forward-looking perspective, because technology is moving the horizon of where both our practices can deliver value.
View more presentations from August Jackson

SLA Webinar on Using the Internet to Research Private Companies

Today I had the pleasure to talk with the Special Libraries Association‘s Competitive Intelligence Division on tricks and Internet tools to use to research private companies. I always really enjoy presenting to SLA audiences because they are so engaged and tend to teach me new tricks.

Here are the slides from that presentation. I know the CI Division will have replay details shortly. For anyone who has information they would like to add to the discussion or questions they would like to ask please feel free to do so in the Comments to this blog entry.

SLA 2011 Will be a Busy One

Next week is the Special Libraries Association (SLA) annual conference in Philadelphia. SLA is always a great program, and I’m excited to be attending the conference again. I’m looking forward to catching up with my fellow CI professionals in the Competitive Intelligence Division and getting to know the folks from the recently created Taxonomy Division.

Monday night is the Competitive Intelligence Division open house. This year the team from Aurora WDC is sponsoring a Pecha Kucha competition. My topic on creating a professional presence on social media was selected.

I’ll be presenting on using Internet resources to research private companies on Tuesday morning as well.

Inc. Magazine Series on Competitive Intelligence

The April 2011 issue of Inc. Magazine included a series of articles on competitive intelligence by Bill Helm. Helm is a senior writer at the magazine and the former marketing editor of BusinessWeek. For many entrepeneurs this is the first and most detailed view of the deliberate practice of competitive intelligence they will see. Overall the articles are a positive for both for the competitive intelligence practice and entrepreneurs. That said, the series did leave some things to be desired. What I will try to do here is to summarize the series and reflect the good, the bad and the ugly.

Here are the links to the individual articles in the series:

The Good

For many if not most entrepreneurs this will be their introduction to the notion that there is a structured practice of understanding competitive market dynamics. Even for those who are familiar with the practice this is likely to be the most detailed look at the practice. If any press being good press, this series constitutes a win right there. My hope is that entrepreneurs will read this article and realize that they need to make systematic competitive intelligence part of their standard business practice. I hope those same entrepreneurs will follow up with some of the excellent CI resources that are out there.

Helm avoided jargon to make CI accessible to entrepreneurs. CI professionals can fall into the trap of diving too quickly into the details of specific collection or analysis practices. The community that has grown up around the practice can also sometimes be infatuated with the cutting edge of analysis or collection, desirous of expensive tools and is often invested in the narcissism of our minor differences. I know I’ve been guilty of this, and I’ve always tried to correct for this tendency by insisting that every presentation I deliver has to give my audience something new they can take away and try right away at no cost.

The series quotes a number of leading thinkers and figures in the field and mentions SCIP as a professional association for CI professionals. It’s clear that Helm interviewed some of the key people in the field, and this lends legitimacy to the material. Helm also interviews entrepreneurs that have used or conducted CI themselves for great value.

Helm clarifies that it’s best to narrow intelligence requirements at the beginning of the process. AMEN! If entrepreneurs or managers takes only one thing away from this series I hope it is the admonish to not say “I need to know absolutely everything about Company X” but to be laser-focused with their intelligence requirements. If CI customers will remember just this one bit of mindfulness they will save themselves a lot of time, a lot of money and avoid needless frustration. This one piece of advice is the key to getting value from competitive intelligence.

The Bad

Despite the fact that I was pleased to see this series of articles, there were some specific aspects that I didn’t like about the series.

While the series did a good job describing some of the basics of CI as a practice, the collection opportunities described came across as being based on serendipity rather than a systematic and often tedious practice.

Grateful as I am for the admonition to focus on specific needs, the description of the CI practice is over-focused on finding specific pieces of information. The modern CI practice is more about interpretation and analysis of information and data flows rather than uncovering that one hidden gems.

It seems that this series, as with all articles about CI, maintains a sheen of cloak and dagger about the practice. There are numerous mentions of former government, military and law enforcement intelligence types involved in CI. The skill sets are applicable across domains, and many of the best intelligence education opportunities are geared towards these communities. The mark of a good CI professional, though, is their ability to analyze and interpret findings to the world of a profit-making business. A government intelligence background does not guarantee a person will possess these skills.

The Ugly (or “What I Would Have Liked to See”)

Many entrepreneurs who read this series will probably want to learn more about CI. I would have liked to see a brief section on where they could go to find more information and a few of the books they could read to learn more. My top web site candidate is the SCIP web site, a great source in itself and useful jumping off point. While a number of books come to mind as best candidates for your first CI read, Seena Sharp’s Competitive Intelligence Advantage is excellent for an entrepreneur to better understand CI.

I thought the series over-emphasized primary research. Some brief descriptions of basic secondary research would have been a strong addition. Some basics on how to examine a competitor’s web site would have been useful. Maybe the feeling was that this sounds too obvious. As obvious as it is, I’m often surprised how much low-hanging secondary fruit is overlooked. Social media in particular offers some very useful opportunities to easily and inexpensively deliver valuable insight.

It would have also been very valuable to illustrate some of the basic analytical frameworks such as SWOT and Porter’s Five Forces. SWOT is very easy to understand and compile, and when done well quickly summarizes the state of the competitors in a market. I know some in the CI profession look down on SWOT. I still find the framework so readily accessible to be a useful with stakeholders.

Finally I would have also like to have seen greater coverage of the issues of legality and ethics. While the articles hints at some of the questions of legality related to activities like dumpster diving, a whole article is devoted to the subject of eavesdropping at trade shows. Richard Horowitz, one of the CI thought leaders and a practicing attorney referenced in the article has asked the question whether or not CI professionals are obsessed with ethics in past presentations at SCIP conferences and local chapters. I agree with Richard that some organizations apply an overly-strict interpretation of ethics that go far beyond the SCIP Code of Ethics for CI Professionals. However, I do believe that CI practices must be far beyond the standards of behavior laid out in the Economic Espionage Act and guided by SCIP’s code (a policy analysis of the act by Horowitz is here in PDF format).

Ethics and Efficacy of Suggested Practices

Some of the specific practices described in this series create concerns for me that some entrepreneurs may engage in activity that at best runs afoul of ethical standards and at worst may violate the Economic Espionage Act or other laws. These practices include posing as customers, eavesdropping and dumpster diving. To my mind none of these practices constitute ethical or acceptable practices for competitive intelligence professionals.

Posing As Potential Customer

Houston-based Private Investigator J.J. Gradoni is quoted as saying. “I will pose as a potential customer and ask questions about a company’s pricing structure, how fast they ship, turnaround time, number of employees, and so forth. Then I ask for references. I call those people as well.” My interpretation is that this is a wholly unethical practice and very possibly violates some of the specific prohibitions against misrepresentation in the Espionage Act. If any practicing CI professional were exposed engaging in any such behavior I can only hope they would rightly be raked over the coals. Likewise for any executives or managers on whose behalf such a practice were employed.

Dumpster Diving

The series does touch on some examples of the damage to a reputation that can come from having been caught dumpster diving, Toledo-based importer Gary Marck is alleged to have been caught pilfering secrets from his competitor’s trash. The competitor used these stories to besmirch Marck’s reputation. Despite this cautionary tale the article hints that under certain conditions dumpster diving can actually be legal. Perhaps that is true, but my interpretation of SCIP’s ethical standards lead me to question this practice. The thought of rummaging through someone’s trash is absolutely disgusting, but now you know why I have a cross-cutting shredder.

Elicitation

I actually enjoyed some of the basic overview of interview and elicitation. The article illustrates some of the basics of appealing to a target’s self interest and summarizes five types of elicitation targets. Quality elicitation requires a lot of up-front research and is very structured. I was really impressed when we had Catherine Foley of CM2 Limited speak about elicitation at the Washington SCIP chapter in 2009.

Encouraging Staff to Participate in Collection

I agree that the task of collection is shared by everyone in the company, and I believe this works best when each role receives guidance that is specific to their standard activities. This training should also address some of the specific ethical and legal concerns for their collection activities.

Trade Show Eavesdropping

The recommendations to engage in eavesdropping at trade shows is one of the more problematic recommendations of this article series. At least as troubling as the ethics are my concerns I have for the efficacy of eavesdropping as opposed to systematic trade show intelligence. Two very useful sources on trade show intelligence are Conference and Trade Show Intelligence edited by Jonathan Calof and Bonnie Hohhof and The WarRoom Guide to Competitive Intelligence by Steve Shaker and Mark Gembicki.

Get Your Twitter Client Fired Up for the Inaugural Competitive Intelligence Twitter Chat

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy using Twitter at conferences for the back-channel discussion. On April 21st at 5 PM EDT / 2 PM PDT we’ll all have our chance to immerse ourselves in the back-channel discussion without a conference. Along with Sean Campbell and Scott Swigart of Cascade Insights I’ll be hosting the first Competitive Intelligence Twitter chat.

A Twitter chat is a scheduled, semi-structured discussion around a given topic or subject using Twitter. Tweets related to each chat are united by the designated hash tag. For our chat that tag is #cichat. At the designated time run a Twitter search for that hashtag to follow along in the discussion. You can find out more about Twitter chats by reading this article. If you like the concept you can see a schedule of other Twitter chats here.

My Tweetdeck column devoted to #cichat

Our first discussion is going to be about how to move requests for CI support from information-oriented requests to decision support. This is a topic near to my heart because I believe this is a key to maintaining the value that CI can deliver for stakeholders. I’ve written about it here. I interviewed Merrill Brenner on his methods for decision-focused CI on the competitive Intelligence Podcast. After our first Twitter chat our tentative plan is to address another CI topic at that same time every week.

My hope is that #cichat will gain momentum and take on a life of it’s own. Seam, Scott and I will move from being like the expert speakers to being more like producers or facilitators. If there is a topic you would like to see addressed, especially a topic on which you would like to take the lead please feel free to let us know.

Economist’s Briefing on “The Leaky Corporation”

This week’s Economist has an authoritative briefing “The Leaky Corporation” that reflects some of the same trends I illustrated in my recent blog post “Why Wikileaks Doesn’t Matter.” The article reflects the opinion of several experts and studies that provide more detail and authority to the same issues I raised. It is well worth a read.