Don’t just keep your eyes on the road

August 31, 2012

If you have been following this blog or have been reading about competitive intelligence in articles or books written by Carolyn Vella and me, you’ll notice that we continually stress the importance of defining what CI is you need and linking that to what it is you expect to do with that competitive intelligence before beginning your research.

Why?  Because you just can’t go out there and “look around for something” and expect to actually find something of value.  It would be sheer luck if what you found actually took care of the underlying problem or decision you had to make.

Having said that (a phrase which is probably too often used already), when you are out there in the tangled jungle of raw data, you have to keep your eyes open for bits of raw data that are not connected to your ultimate goal, but may otherwise prove incredibly valuable.

Let me give you a brief look at a recent situation we had.  A client was interested in finding out if companies in a particular market niche had any idea exactly how big the market niche was, and if so, how big it was.  The nature of the niche is unimportant.  The reason, in part, was to allow the client to determine if further CI and market research was even worth it.  Its belief was that it had to have some hard numbers before being willing to commit additional resources to possibly developing this market niche. I will let pass whether or not that is the best approach.

Our research quickly disclosed that companies in this market niche had no idea of its size, and that there was no reliable source of data or even estimates.  However, we did come across other data about this market niche which we analyzed and transmitted to the client.  To keep it short, that intelligence indicated that one part of the market niche, the low-end, being targeted by the client had absolutely no interest in this kind of product the client was considering bringing in. We also found that a startup company, heavily funded by venture capitalists, had taken a major strategic position in the high-end of the market niche.  This is particularly important, since our preliminary research indicated that individuals between the low-end and high-end faced significant economic barriers in converting from products that they used to the kinds of products that the client was prepared to bring into the market space.

In other words we did not find the data sought, but we found the market was not at all as perceived by the client, and that, potentially worse, someone else was there first. The lesson?  While focusing your research on your target, do not just dispense with raw data that does not initially fit your needs.  Review it at the end and see whether or not it may provide valuable insights.

“You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes well you might find

You get what you need.”

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1969

Just how likely?

August 27, 2012.

Competitive intelligence is filled with uncertainties.  There are a wide variety of them.  But the most common are these:

 The first is the certainty (or uncertainty) that you be able to get the intelligence that you need.  This is something you should talk about when you’re dealing with an outside contractor: how likely is it you’ll get the answers to the question that you posed?

The second is the uncertainty that the information you develop is accurate.  Here’s where reports using phrases like “it is highly likely that,” are subjected to criticism from those who live in the world of “hard facts” [Don’t get me started on that.  Amongst many subjects I have studied are mathematics and statistics where “facts” are just what would make them].

The third is the certainty that a competitor will, based on your analysis, take a future action or make a future decision. (And of course, contributing to this is the question whether or not a competitor will respond to your actions taken in anticipation of their probable action).

In each case you are exercising your best efforts to come to a solid conclusion.  But it is, after all, an uncertain world out there.  And if you have not found it already, you will soon find that you’re constantly pushed and prodded by others to come up with more specifics, more hard data, or more certainty.

Why?  Because management inevitably thinks “How can we act, or not act, on this if we are less than certain about what is going on or what will go on?”  The answer should be “What makes you so different from the rest of the world that you demand absolute certainty?”

Right now the news is filled with reports of the development of hurricane Isaac.  Turn on your TV, power up your iPhone, log on to the Weather channel and you will be told what is the projected near-term path of Isaac, be offered a variety of computer model projections for the long-range path, and be shown a wonderful color chart starting with a narrow focus and broadening out to a gentle curved tip showing the current and future path of Isaac.

And based on that path, the governors of several states along the Gulf of Mexico are asking for voluntary or even mandatory evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people.  In addition, they have mobilized tens of thousands of public safety officers and other first responders, and the federal government has put its emergency management on alert to respond to any damage from this hurricane, which has yet not made landfall.

And what are all those paths that we look at?  Do you know what the real name is? They are cones of uncertainty.  To put it too simply, they are a visual representation of the statistical likelihood that the hurricane, based on present conditions, will follow a certain path at certain wind speeds, within a certain likelihood.

Based on that, the lives of perhaps perhaps 1 million people are affected.  They are affected not only by the hurricane, but by the decisions that they, as well as public and private authorities, make after studying these zones of uncertainty.

If they can make and act on decisions based on uncertainties, why should your firm be different?

Near is good (Part 1)

August 24, 2012.

Where do you start getting data on a competitor? How about right around you?  If you are in an industry where people move back and forth from firm to firm to advance their career, get better pay, nicer working conditions and the like, you may have some people that work for you that formerly worked for competitors.  They can be a fantastic source of information with several caveats.

First caveat: not everything they tell you will be accurate. Unfortunately, although they may sound like they are right up to date on what is going on at an individual competitor, Delta, it is rarely current.  The problem is when people talk about a former employer,  they tend to talk about it in the present tense, making it seem as if they know what is going on today.  Just keep that in mind.

Second caveat, you just don’t walk up to someone who used to work at Delta and ask them “so what kind of new secret products are they planning to launch next year?”  Never, never, never.

You must never put a fellow employee in a situation where they feel any pressure.  Why?  Well, they may have signed a nondisclosure confidentiality agreement when they worked at Delta.  Now, they may feel that you are putting their job and your firm in jeopardy if they don’t “cooperate fully” with you.

Okay, but they could still be a great source of information.  How do I handle this?  Answer: with care.

We suggest that you use an intermediary, someone from outside your company.  When we tell you how we proceed.  I think you’ll understand why. Before we approach former Delta employees at your company, we would tell you the following:

When we interview your employees, you will not be there.  We will identify ourselves is working for you and speaking to them with your permission.  We will also tell them that they are free to contact you to confirm that we have your permission to talk with them.  We will tell them that we wish to interview them about their work at Delta.  However, we do not want to have them disclose any confidential information to us.  In fact, if they feel uncomfortable about discussing something, we do not want them to discuss it at all.

We then tell them that, at the end of the project you, our client, will be told that this employee (in fact every employee) was cooperative.  We will not tell you, our client, what any employee said, or even any employee declined to talk because he/she felt it was not lawful or even if she/he felt it was tacky.  In any report, we will not identify them individually as a source for a particular fact.  At best, we might note that, “several former Delta employees confirmed that….”.

This way, using what I call a Miranda warning  [thus betraying my previous life as a lawyer], both you and the employee are protected.  There is no pressure on the employee, and the employee is warned not to give you any confidential information.

Does this mean you will get nothing?  On the contrary, most employees are more than happy to talk about their former place of employment.  Those that were unhappy there are often even happier to talk about their experiences.  Or, as Peter Finch in Network might have put it, “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.”

Go or no go?

August 22, 2012.

Originally, I was going to write about how to make a decision on how much to spend on a competitive intelligence project, whether hiring an outsider or just spending your own resources.  Given some of the mathematical complexities of this, and there actually is math involved, I decided to step back and consider when, if ever, you should not consider conducting a competitive intelligence project.

I have identified five types of such situations for you:

  1.  You do not have enough time to do it right.  By that I mean you do not have enough time to conduct research properly, and/or, you do not have enough time to properly define the problem.  This is best identified by the ever dreaded voice mail message to the effect that “I’m calling an emergency meeting at 1:30 this afternoon and I need to get a decision on this project at that time.”
  2. You do not have resources available.  I resources I mean both money to hire someone or to spend on an assignment, as well as your own time to put into it.  If you cannot participate in defining the project, even when you cannot actually carry out the research, then merely throwing money at it is a poor solution, at best.
  3. There are major issues with the targets.  What do I mean by that?  Well, for example, conducting competitive intelligence against Chinese targets in China is not only costly and lengthy, but very, very difficult.  Conducting competitive intelligence against several privately held companies that you also partner with may put those relationships, commercially important ones, at risk.  Think carefully about this before moving.
  4. You lack a clear target.  By this I mean one of  two things.  First, you’re not sure against what company or companies you are trying to collect what sort of intelligence.  This means you need to do some more thinking and some more work before you even get going.  Second, you lack a clear decision to be made or action to be taken.  Again, here, I’m returning to the “need to know” vs. “nice to know” dichotomy.  The solution is to determine what you will do with the intelligence, before setting out to, or setting someone else to, collect it.
  5. The cost of doing the work is disproportionate to the benefit to be received.  What do I mean here?  Let’s assume that the research will cost $15,000 in cash and your time.  What are you gaining from this?  If you are not gaining a quantifiable improvement in the decision-making process, then this may not be worthwhile.  What I mean by quantifiable?  Let’s assume that the project has at this point a 60% chance of success.  Will obtaining the actionable intelligence raise that probability of success to 75%?  If so, it may be well spent, depending on the size of the project.  Or will spending the money reduce the overall costs?  If so, by how much?  While the numbers here are not firm, the decisions must be made honestly.

If you pass these five steps, then CI, done properly, should be very valuable to you.  Happy hunting!

CI and the Battle of Balaclava

August 17, 2012

Today’s blog topic was suggested to me by my partner.  Carolyn Vella, also known as my (significantly) better half.

She pointed out that one of the problems those of us in competitive intelligence face, that is sort of invisible, is the problem of the client who thinks he or she knows what they need because he or she thinks they know what they are looking for.

Let me give you an example: let’s say your client is General Motors, the car company, more specifically, an engineer at General Motors, has decided that the technology General Motors uses to build cars can just as easily be used to build, say, swimming pools, or cat carriers, or baby carriages.  So the client commissions a competitive intelligence firm to give it the lay of the land in the competitive world of swimming pools, cat carriers, or baby carriages.  For simplicity, let’s just say baby carriages.  Now, the client has done no preliminary work whatsoever to determine whether or not there is any demand for baby carriages made with the same technology as the Chevy Volt.  Rather, its engineers has assumed that, since their technology would allow them to build the product, necessarily there must be a demand for that product, so the only issue left is to determine what the competitive structure of the potential market looks like and then enter it.

What’s missing here?  The realization, recognition, and finally admission, that the client does not have any idea about the assignment which it is commissioning.  Now the most unfortunate part of all this is when that “lack” is very often not communicated to the CI professional.  When it is, it can easily be handled, as I note below. Rather, those commissioning the work come across as if they have already taken care of all the preliminaries, including at least some market research, and all that is needed is a good portrait of the competitive landscape, before launching the brand-new Chevy Volt baby carriages.

What they’ve done is they’ve assumed that there is a market and that all they have to do is to position themselves in that market with their product.  Now does that sound unlikely?  It should, but it is not.  This is why when you are doing any kind of competitive intelligence work whether it is for client, or for an associate and an internal team, you have to learn pushback.

What is pushback?  It is just what it sounds like.  Instead of taking the assignment and running with it, like the 600[1] who rode into the Valley of Death, you owe it to yourself, your client and/or your team, to ask a few simple questions.  The first is “What research, not just personal “knowledge”, or hunch, or speculation, or technical expertise, do they already have on this market space?  When the answer is little or none, pause.  Then ask them “What are you going to do once you have this report, that is, once you have the intelligence in your hands?”  If the answer is unclear, then you have to ask yourself, and them,”What is the point of going forward?”

Clarity at the beginning can help to produce actionable intelligence at the end.  A lack of clarity at the beginning almost certainly condemns the project to the graveyard of “nice to know” as opposed to “vital to the success of the next step”.

[1] “Was there a man dismay’d ?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”

Tennyson, 1854

Just a few letters either way

August 13, 2012

As followers of and practitioners of competitive intelligence (CI), we are all very familiar with the term “analyst”. An analyst is one who is charged with deciphering the raw data, and making sense of it.

One dictionary indicates that analyst’s linguistic source is the French word, “analyste” which means –  are you ready – an analyst. So, just what is the CI analyst’s job? He or she must make sense of raw data and deliver intelligence (hopefully actionable) to the end user, the client.

And what is the reward for this invaluable service? The client takes the credit if the analysis produces a great decision, and may, but usually does not, share in the glory. And, what if there is a poor decision or an unwelcome analysis? Well, the analyst is the messenger, so they he or she (metaphorically) gets shot (or at least ignored).

So why am I dwelling on this? The reason is that I have just run across the word “annalist”. Now, this word, pronounced the same, has its origins in the Latin word for year, “annus”, as in year books. The annalist is thus one who, according to another dictionary, chronicles events, usually annually.

Now why am I still interested? Well, it seems that in Ireland, the annalist was not merely a recorder of events, but also interpreted them. I mean, is a mere recorder of an event likely to note that an attack was the first “treacherous turning” of one monarch against another? (Seumas MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race, rev. ed., 1996, p. 277). Sounds like, what, analysis, at least to me!

Now, to be fair, the Irish annalists were also poets (and aren’t all Irish?). According to MacManus, these annalists, also called scribes, underwent a “long arduous and specialized” course of study (not unlike today’s analysts). Are there more parallels? Yes

“Truth and accuracy were regarded as of paramount importance. ’To conceal the Truth of History’, ran one saying, ‘is the blackest of infamies’. The scribes [annalists] traveled throughout the whole country to verify their references and their facts.”

Very close, isn’t it? And how was their skilled labor regarded?

“The Annalists were held in the highest esteem, ranking next to the head of the clan; they fed at his table, and were supported by his bounty. No important public business was conducted without their presence and their directing influence.” (Ibid, p. 352)

Ok, so no parallel is` perfect.

But, maybe, just maybe, we are better being considered as annalists than as analysts.

Being helpful can hurt

A friend of mine, Robert Bugai, directed my attention to a fascinating article dealing with the recent Defcon conference in Las Vegas. Thanks, Robert.

So what is Defcon? It is a self-styled computer hacker convention.

The CNN article details an event at the conference, a contest, where an individual targets a specific company and tries to develop information that would help hackers, covering a whole series of questions in 20 minutes.  The lesson for the attendees is that hackers “can pry secrets loose from America’s biggest and most guarded corporations” by making a phone call and using “a really good story”.

Some of the attendees at Defcon are in the business of protecting companies against computer hackers and what they describe as “social engineering” hackers.  So what are social engineering hackers? They exploit human weaknesses to enhance their hacking efforts (that’s my take on it).

Anyway, they use the contest to illustrate the point that companies are as likely to lose important information over the telephone to strangers as they are to lose it to computer a hacker working from some anonymous location – again, that is my take.

What is interesting is that the competitors, for this is actually a contest, are given two weeks to gather background information on the target and even one supposes the individuals they may call.  And where do they get this critical background information?  From corporate websites and social networking sites, like LinkedIn.

From there, the competitors develop a “patter” and call an individual at the target company.  While they are not seeking  personal information like Social Security numbers, they are seeking information that could be critical to a computer hacker, such as information on the computer operating system, the type of computer, and even what company cleans the offices.

The lesson is that companies do not pay nearly as much attention to protecting competitively sensitive information from outsiders as they think.  While they may have sophisticated systems protecting their computers from hackers, they are not protecting themselves by alerting their employees that the employees can be the target of efforts to collect competitively sensitive, or potentially destructive, information.

While the Defcon contest was aimed at entertaining those involved with computer security, its lesson is a broader one.  The same willingness of employees to talk, to help, even if the outsiders are not trying to “con” them, as at the Defcon meeting, makes them vulnerable to legal and ethical elicitation efforts by competitive intelligence professionals.

To put it bluntly, you do not have to con someone or lie to them to get competitively sensitive information.  What effective elicitation does is to act like judo, exploiting the strengths of a target.  For example, if the target company’s strength lies in customer service, a competitive intelligence professional may simply make a call to customer service.

In one case, our firm was working with a client that was trying to find out when a new food product was going to be introduced on a national basis, a so-called “rollout”.  After some research, we had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen and how likely it was that the rollout would be completed by year-end, but we wanted to make sure.  So I called the toll-free customer service number for the food company, and just asked when the new product would be available in Pennsylvania, where I live.  The customer assistance contact stopped, did some quick checking, and helpfully came back, telling me that the product would be available by the fall because “that’s when the national rollout starts

No con, no games, but legal and ethical.  Competitively sensitive information helpfully disclosed.

Learn the lesson.