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.


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.

Inspiring! David Christian’s TED Talk on the Big History Project

This is a TED talk that I found so inspiring and interesting that I have to share, David Christian describes the 13.7 billion years of history and puts entropy and complexity into such a beautiful context.

There are many things that I want to say about this talk. I’m not sure I can say them without ruining it for you. So I’ll shut up now and just ask you to please do yourself the favor of watching this.

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.

Noreena Hertz’ TED Talk on How to Use Experts

This is a great new TED talk from Noreena Hertz on how we can use experts in our modern world. She discusses how fMRIs show that listeners’ critical thinking regions of the brain shut down when they hear experts speak. She makes a compelling case about how we all (including experts) must maintain our skepticism and engage in managed dissent. I especially appreciate her points towards the end about the import of nuance, uncertainty and doubt. Think of all of the messes we as individuals and as a society would not find ourselves in if we followed this advice.

Why Wikileaks Doesn’t Matter

Wikileaks doesn’t matter in the manner that many of our leaders in government and the corporate world seem to believe. Since the release of several hundred thousand classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there have been a number of efforts to shut the site down or punish those involved:

Activities have come to light recently about “Team Themis” proposing a set of activities to discredit Wikileaks and its supporters to executives at Bank of America. It is believed that Julian Assange has a cache of secret documents and e-mails from a major US bank, generally believed to be Bank of America, that he may release in the event of his arrest or extradition. Team Themis was led by HBGary Federal, an information security firm and also included Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies. This incident has been covered well by other bloggers, and I will not re-hash the incidents here. If you want more information you can read this excellent summary from CI Law blogger Anne Lee Gibson. Kirby Pleassas of Plessas Expert Networks wrote a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the specific legal and ethical issues related to the Team Themis proposal. Kirby’s post is what got me off the couch to finally write this post.

All of this activity suggests that our corporate and government leaders believe that silencing Wikileaks will bring about an end to the problems and challenges that the organization generates. Quite the contrary, Wikileaks is only relevant of an example of broader trends. The first trend is increasing transparency with which we must all become accustomed. The second is the continuing disintermediation of traditional media as a source of authoritative information and means to disseminate information widely.

Mister Universe

You can't stop the signal.

Radical Transparency: We’re All Naked Now

One would need to be truly oblivious to not have noticed that since the advent of the Internet we are all sharing more about ourselves, whether or not we deliberately choose to do so. We’re all likely aware of how much more we’re sharing with a wider circle on platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Sometimes we share more than we know or would consciously choose, and there are consequences both positive and negative that come from this sharing.

Companies and government agencies are more transparent today as well:

  • Individual employees are sharing information about their work experience via social networks. In some rare instances this information will be very sensitive. Sometimes this information, placed in the appropriate analytical context, can be far more revealing than anyone would expect. For example, a high-level employee with a lot of Foursquare check-ins at a Starbucks in the distant headquarters city of an industry rival might suggest a possible merger or acquisition.
  • Search engines are making ever-improving search functionality available that reveals information hidden on servers inadvertently connected to the public Internet. We use the “site:” operator on Google to find all kinds of Excel, Powerpoint and PDF documents companies often don’t know they’ve effectively made public.
  • Companies and government agencies continue to increase their reliance on partners, supplies, consultants and contractors. Each one of these interactions moves some corporate information to a more vulnerable environment. Traditionally CI professionals have known to watch the activities of partners and suppliers to predict corporate actions. For example, you might use information from an employee of a strategic parts supplier to estimate the unit production potential of a competitor.
  • It is becoming easier for people without Ph.Ds to perform in-depth analysis of large data sets using readily available tools. Analysis of these data sets reveals activities that might otherwise be considered extremely sensitive. Groups like the Sunlight Foundation are applying this sort of analysis to government data to reveal specific details about government activities.

Everybody Has A Printing Press, Too

It’s self-evident that blogs, Twitter, social networks and the web give each of us a platform to publish information we might not have had otherwise. If you’re not yet convinced of this you can take a look back at my summary of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Better yet, read this fantastic book right now.

There have been a number of corporate and government efforts to shut down Wikileaks and prevent individuals from accessing the information revealed on the site. This has resulted in something of a cat and mouse game of the content being mirrored to multiple sites available from different countries and unique domain name addresses. In this case the mouse has beaten the cat. Wikileaks illustrates just how difficult it can be for government and corporate entities to silence a determined group of technically-savvy users on the global network.

Government and corporate leaders have relied on the ethics and self-interest of traditional journalists to keep some information from seeing an audience. Even the muckiest muckraker might be bribed or threatened with a loss of access presented to the journalist, her editor or publisher.

  • Non-journalists may not be aware of nor feel confined by traditional journalistic standards or ethics. These standards are nebulous enough in professional journalism as it is.
  • Individuals and groups may prioritize resolution of grievances over on-going access. They’re not here to be journalists– they just want the damn potholes fixed.
  • Parties may disseminate information anonymously. While it may be harder than most people think to remain truly anonymous on the Internet it can be done with a little care and application of minimal technical skill.
  • Some groups have outright malicious and destructive intent.
  • Criminal organization could begin to use the publishing of sensitive or classified information for their own ends.

Implications and What To Do

We cannot silence Wikileaks, that much is certain. There are too many mirrors and multiple technical workarounds to keep the information available. Even if we could silence Wikileaks it would not matter in the long run. Already alternative organizations are standing up to continue the mission of increasing transparency. These organizations and sites are only the tip of the spear of the broader trends towards transparency.

So what are we to do? These trends require some fundamental changes in how several corporate functions operate. Here are some specifics I’ve considered. If you have additional examples please feel free to share in the comments.

Human Resources should recognize the need to give employees reasons not to leak. HR along with corporate counsel should strengthen policies to protect and support internal whistleblowers. The bureaucratic imperative has too often been to silence and punish the person who brings problems to senior management’s attention. These are the people who are trying to make positive change inside of the organization– the “good guys” in any sober analysis. If whistleblowers are protected, listened to and their grievances addressed they will be less likely to leak information externally. The first step is to provide the technical means for anonymous reporting of issues and wrong-doings. Managers should be taught how to appropriately handle this kind of information from their direct reports.

Information Security needs to develop a true hierarchy of information protection and increasingly protective means to store and distribute sensitive information. Governments and corporations have erred too far towards trying to protect absolutely everything for the sake of simplicity. The problem with this approach is that operationally critical yet non-sensitive information is treated as top secret. Even low-level employees have to be allowed into the inner sanctum just to do their jobs. Once they’re in there they have access to all kinds of information. Extremely sensitive information needs to have distribution very controlled and be protected through strong measures.

Public Relations may need to move closer to senior management to offer advice on the consequences of the disclosure of certain corporate strategies, policies or plans. PR can be the voice of public perception and skepticism. Organizations will do well to understand that they are judged not by their intentions but by public perception. Many senior officials clearly forget their fallibility in the public eyes. Dennis Kozlowski, anyone?

Greater Transparency and the Competitive Intelligence Professional

Competitive Intelligence professionals are once again faced with a set of trends that will give everyone broader access to the corporate secrets the uncovering of which was once our bread and butter. There was a time when getting your competitor’s annual report made you some kind of CI ninja. This sort of information is now less than a commodity. The secrets and details that once might have only been able to be estimated from considerable primary research and analysis are likely to become more freely available. Once again we will need to move in the direction of excellent analysis and interpretation on the galaxy of information available about our competitors, our industries and the business environment.

Ethics will remain a key concern of the profession, and we must have a conversation about the ethics of using leaked information. We’ve seen examples such as the case of Coke employees trying to sell sensitive documents to Pepsi, where the ethics are very clear. We would all like to believe that in those circumstances we would make the same ethical choice. What are the ethical considerations when a competitor’s information is leaked publicly on a social network or a site such as Wikileaks?

Finally, competitive intelligence can play an educational role in the firm. We should describe our methods and practices to information security to let them know how we can use information that is published and leaked from our competitors to develop our insights. This will help them develop methods and policies to protect the firm’s information. They will not be able to prevent all leaks, so it will be important to minimize the least damaging ones. Some CI groups are already doing something similar to this. As these trends towards transparency progress this may become an important value add of the CI function.