Just Google It?

July 31, 2012

I had an interesting discussion today with a colleague at a private firm.  We were discussing some research issues and reflected on the still common (and dangerous) belief by many in business that “everything we need is on the Internet, so you just have to Google it”.

There are so many things wrong with that statement that I almost don’t know where to begin.

First, with all deference to Google, and I have the greatest respect for the company and its products, a Google search cannot find “everything” on the Internet.  Many pages have content, the so-called hidden web that cannot be indexed by search engines.  That includes everything from magazines whose archives are password restricted to subscribers to the records of local governments, where an individual has to sign in to access its records.

As for “on the Internet”, the continuing explosive growth of the Internet has actually made some kinds of research more difficult, not easier.  It used to be that one could feel relatively comfortable doing a fairly simple, broad search under a target’s name on one of the many search engines and come up with what was available on the target.  Now that is just impossible.  Before you even begin your research, you have to narrow it down, or otherwise you will be faced with the daunting prospect of going through all 546,317 “hits”.  Frankly, a half-million hits is often worse than none at all.  Searching the Internet is more like fishing: you first have to make at least an initial determination of where you going to start based on what you want to find – you cannot just go out and start fishing.

As for “everything” actually being on the Internet, nothing could be further from the truth.  For those of us in competitive intelligence, the most important things missing on the Internet are what has not yet happened, what people are thinking (but have not said), what they are planning, and where they’re going tomorrow.  The best the Internet can provide is access to hints of these things and possibly leads to be exploited by interviews or even elicitation.

So don’t let others get fooled (and don’t fool yourself) about the Internet.  It is incredibly valuable.  But like the latest pharmaceutical or surgical procedure, it merely represents an advance, but not a solution to all intelligence problems.

Sorry to be so cynical, but in competitive intelligence, you learn that being honest is the first step towards being a skilled intelligence analyst and a good intelligence consumer.

Intelligence is What – Exactly?

July 26, 2012

Alan Breakspear, a fellow member of the International Association For Intelligence Education (IAFIE) from British Columbia, is proposing “A New Definition of Intelligence”, as follows:

“Intelligence is a corporate capability to forecast change in time to do something about it. The capability involves foresight and insight, and is intended to identify impending change which may be positive, representing opportunity, or negative, representing threat.”

It is OK, I guess. But I think, at least in the private sector, it is missing one key element – that is completing your knowledge of your competition so that you can decide what, if anything, you can/should do (or avoid doing). Without that, the real value-added benefits of any kind of intelligence, including CI cannot be available.

I mean, if you do not know what your competitor is charging for its products/services, how can you identify how, when, and in what direction they may change? For many businesses, just filling a part of this information void is a valid and valuable goal for CI, especially if their competitors lack similar intelligence.

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” (Erasmus, 1500; Tom Waits, 1985).

Am I Done Yet?

July 23, 2012

I’ve posted a couple of notes on how to get started, but the question that often arises is when should I finish?

Well, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, when you come to the due date or the decision date, you are done.  Hopefully, you were better than that in planning your research and can schedule your analysis rather than trying to beat the shot clock.

Plan to allow as much as one-third of your available time for analysis.  I know that sounds like a lot, but it is not.  Now, admittedly you’re doing some analysis as you go along, but just don’t finish your research, open up Word, and start typing.

A more disciplined approach is to evaluate where you are and where you are going.  As Carolyn & I have said elsewhere (shameless plug – Proactive Intelligence: the Successful Executive’s Guide to Competitive Intelligence), the best way to go is to get your secondary research out of the way first.  Once you get this out of the way, you get oriented, and most importantly, you pick up ideas of people and organizations to contact.  Whether this list is in your mind or in hard copy notes is not really important. But as you get to the end of your primary research, always remembering to ask everyone you spoken to with if they can suggest someone else you can get information from, consider slowing down and then stopping if your last contacts are merely sending you back to people or places you have contacted, or at least considered contacting.

This is called “closing the loop”, or less elegantly “chasing your tail”.  Basically, when existing research simply turns you around and sends you back to research you’ve already done (or rejected), it’s time to quit.  Now sit down, think it through, that is, analyze, and start using, proactively, your new competitive intelligence.

Follow Things to the End

July 19, 2012

According to a story in Bloomberg, Apple Computer recently got a mixed result in a lawsuit against Samsung. Apple did not get the declaration from a British judge that it sought – that Samsung copied the design of the iPad for a new product. However, the judge did throw Apple a (little) bone by declaring that one reason for his decision was that Samsung’s new tablets were unlikely to be confused with Apple’s iPad because they are “not as cool.”

Now, if you were tracking this case, you would think that you could stop until the (almost inevitable) appeal was filed and disposed of. Wrong.

Bloomberg reporter Kit Chellel reports that Apple made comments

after that ruling [which] unfairly implied that Samsung had copied [Apple’s] designs….

Following a hearing, the British judge then ordered Apple to

publish a notice on its U.K. website and in British newspapers alerting people to a ruling that Samsung Electronics Co. didn’t copy designs for the iPad.”


Lesson: When doing your own competitive intelligence research, do not assume that anything you found in the past, even recent past, has not changed. If any time has passed and the event is important to your analysis, check it, and recheck it.

Ready, Fire, Aim?

July 16, 2012

In my last post, “Start Right or Don’t Start At All”, I strongly suggested that, before you start researching your own CI projects, you stop and develop a plan first.  A recent article, “Contemplation and conversation: Subtle influences on moral decision making”, and a new book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, both discussed by The Economist and one by  Smithsonian.com, support that advice for additional, compelling reasons.

“Contemplation” concludes that experiments show that slowing down will make us act more ethically.  OK. So, assuming that is correct, what does that mean for CI? It means that thinking through your needs and your best approach before you start will minimize the chances that you will cross (or be forced to cross) ethical lines. Not a bad payback for doing it right in the first place.

Wait deals with the benefits of active (that is good) procrastination. The author, Professor Partnoy, offers the supported view is that snap decisions are inherently poor. He advocates determining the “longest amount of time” you can take before doing something (like drawing a conclusion from your research) and then to “delay the response or decision until the very last possible moment. If it is a year, wait 364 days. If it’s an hour, wait 59 minutes.”

For a CI project, this translates into (a) beginning your research after you have finished all of the planning for it, and (b) then, drawing a conclusion only when you absolutely have to.

So instead of “I want it all, and I want it now” (Queen, 1989), think “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” ( Johnny Mercer, 1940 and Alexander Pope, 1709).



Start Right or Don’t Start at All

When you’re faced with starting your first DIY CI project, your instinct probably tells you to dive into it.  That is totally wrong.  You have to step back and consider what it is you are going after before you go after it.

Start by writing or typing what it is you want to know.  Let’s say you found out that the competitor has launched a new product.  Your question may be “What does that mean to us?”

That is too broad.  Try narrowing the question down by asking couple of sub questions like, “What do they expect to gain by offering this product?”, or “Is it aimed at eventually replacing a product already in their inventory?” or “Is it the first in a line of future products?”

Then look at these questions, and eliminate those that really are not important.  The goal is to leave you with a targeted question that you can focus on.

If this sounds too bookish, try another approach.  Ask yourself,

“If I had the answer, the competitive intelligence, that I think I need, what decision could I make or what action could I take that I can’t do now without it?”

If your answer is unclear or uncertain, then why are you doing this? Your goal is unclear.

What I’m trying to show you is that you should use CI for “need to know“, not “nice to know” problems.  Nice to know is – well – nice.  Need to know is actionable and in your hands the CI you develop can be proactive.

Politics versus Analysis

July 9, 2012

A current article in Vanity Fair deals harshly with Republican Candidate Mitt Romney. At the very beginning, it notes:

A person who worked for Mitt Romney at the consulting firm Bain and Co. in 1977 remembers him with mixed feelings. “Mitt was … a really wonderful boss,” the former employee says. “He was nice, he was fair, he was logical, he said what he wanted … he was really encouraging.” But Bain and Co., the person recalls, pushed employees to find out secret revenue and sales data on its clients’ competitors. Romney, the person says, suggested “falsifying” who they were to get such information, by pretending to be a graduate student working on a project at Harvard. (The person, in fact, was a Harvard student, at Bain for the summer, but not working on any such projects.) “Mitt said to me something like ‘We won’t ask you to lie. I am not going to tell you to do this, but [it is] a really good way to get the information.’ … I would not have had anything in my analysis if I had not pretended.”

Pretty damning, no? No. Now, read it again, this time like an analyst – slowly and closely, and in context.

The person who worked for Romney was still in school. Romney graduated Harvard Law & Business Schools in 1975, so Romney was just 2 years out. That means he was not a senior manager.  Note it was Bain (that actually that means someone higher up at Bain, right?), not Romney, that pushed a student to find out “secret” sales and revenue data.

Of course, sales and revenue data from a private company are not always secret. Hum…but no one said that the competitors were even all private companies, did they? A lot of people may know these figures, including subscription services like D&B, as well as trade associations, local chambers of commerce (shameless plug – for more ideas, buy our new book Proactive Intelligence: The Successful Executive’s Guide to Intelligence ). And, if a company employee gives them out over the phone to someone who calls and asks for them, then they are not really trade secrets, are they?

The request to the student was, well actually, well, was there actually a request? Let’s move on.

And what exactly did the student then do: “pretended” to be a student.  And is that illegal? No. As Attorney Richard Horowitz’s insightful recent interview on CI law and ethics notes

If you tell me things that you would have told anyone, the fact that I misrepresented my name or who I am [such as being a student] alone doesn’t make it an illegal act.

Well, this was unethical anyway, right? This happened in 1977, and the only ethical standards barring this, from SCIP (Strategic & Competitive Intelligence Professionals), would not even exist for more than 10 years. So it is a bit of a stretch to call it unethical, too.