Do things move in cycles?

November 30, 2012

By now you should realize that I’m a big advocate of continued learning.  As a matter fact, I think that studying things outside of your area of expertise and industry of choice is not only useful, but vital to continued professional and personal growth. That is one reason why I love competitive intelligence – you are always learning something new.

A piece in the new Economist’s The World in 2013 review, “The Cycle of History”, brought this to mind.  There, Max Rodenbeck, the Economist’s middle east correspondent, looks at the works of a Arab writer, Ibn Khaldoun (or Khaldun) , for insight about the current cycles of political development of countries throughout the Arab world.

Sometime ago I came across in a very provocative book, War and Peace – the Rise and Fall of Empires, by Peter Turchin.  In it, he lays out and develops his theory of cliodynamics, which he calls a new science of historical dynamics.  His term cliodynamics comes from Clio, the Muse of history, and dynamics, obviously from dynamics.

In the book, he takes the reader on a fascinating run through the rise and fall of great empires, looking for internal patterns in what, at first, look like almost random events.  He makes a terrific case that there are similarities in the way great empires, develop, mature and eventually collapse.  Now he does not attempt, as some in the past have, to develop iron laws for this.  Rather, he offers a series of explanations based on identifying particular cycles within the growth, development, and decline, and explaining how these cycles may overlap or even conflict with each other.

Now why do I mention all of this?  Because one of the sources for his theory, Ibn Khaldoun, was mentioned in the Economist article I just noted.

If there are underlying cycles there, that is in the Middle East, and cycles to be extracted from the rise and fall of great empires, as Prof. Turchin posits, then we have to wonder whether or not there may be similar cycles underlying the development of units smaller than empires, or even countries, such as industrial sectors or even businesses.

I do not pretend to have an answer to that, but I suggest that trying to answer the question is a good mental exercise.  Just as we need physical exercise, we need mental exercise. This book, as entertaining as it is, is certainly an enjoyable workout.

Play well with others? (Part 1)

November 28, 2012

As you get more involved in doing your own competitive intelligence research, you will eventually find that you’re not able to do it all yourself.  This inability may be due to time limitations or may be due to geographic limitations, such as the fact that the new plant you are trying to get information on is six states away.

Whatever the situation, you will eventually have to learn how to work with others, whether inside or outside of your own company.  In this blog, I am talking about with dealing with outsiders.

If you’re dealing with a situation such as the one I mentioned, that is trying to develop information on a new facility being built by or recently completed by a competitor, sometimes it is necessary to actually see what is going on.  If you’re lucky, your secondary research may turn up photographs of the project.  But if you’re not so lucky, you’ll have to get your own photos – and more.

One option is to use a local private investigator.  Why?  You want someone who will be professional and careful and not violate any local laws or engage in unethical conduct in getting, for example, photographs of a new plant.  In addition, you want to make sure that their activity does not disclose your identity.

Before you go out and hire a private investigator, check into them.  What can you learn from their website?  Can you check references?  Most importantly, are they licensed?  These are all critical starting points. After you have cleared that, carefully inquire if there is a conflict of interest before you go into the details of your needs.

In addition, you should have a clear letter of engagement with them, covering the way in which your particular project will be approached.  To put it bluntly, you have to put down that you want them to follow the law and to be ethical.  This is nothing wrong with this – you are protecting yourself, your employer, and the investigator that you hire.

Preparing to work with a private investigator requires that you have some idea of what it is you’re asking this person to do.  Do you want photographs of the new facility?  If so, looking for what kind of features?  Realize of course that the private investigator will not be able to go onto the land on which the facilities built, so you will have to settle for long-distance photographs.  However, in this digital age those photographs can be quite good.

If you have done some secondary research, and by this time, you understand that I always insist that you do secondary research before you reach out to do primary research, which this is, share some of that with the private investigator.  You want that person to be as efficient as he or she can be.  Inefficiency, wastes their time and your money.  The more focused you can help this individual be the better your results.

I’ll cover more on this aspect and also dealing with other individuals in later blogs.

The traditional Thanksgiving dinner

November 20, 2012.

Thanksgiving dinner?

Yes. Remember how when you were growing up, your family would get together for Thanksgiving.  Where and with whom they got together was not important.  But they always had a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner.  Then, as you got older and talked with friends, perhaps went to visit other families over Thanksgiving, you found out that what your family considered to be traditional was certainly not traditional to someone else.

For example, where you had turkey, they may have had a ham.  Where you had mashed potatoes, they had yams.  Where you enjoyed a pumpkin pie, they shared an apple pie.  But their Thanksgiving dinner was just as “traditional” to them as your was to you.

The point is that for all of the tips, suggestions, and even, yes, directives, that I’ve given you on how to do competitive intelligence research, presentations, reports, etc., there is no one perfect way to proceed.

What I’m sharing with you is the result of my experience and the experience of others, including my partner in all things, Carolyn Vella.  That makes it tested, but it is not some delivered wisdom, coming down from a mountain in the voice of God.  If it doesn’t work for you, try another approach until you find something that works.  That will then become your “traditional” approach to CI research, analysis, and presentations.

In other words, as you are learning, do not be afraid to experiment.  You may find a way that works better for you.  In fact, if you do, please let me know and share it with those who follow this blog.  Learning is a collective as well as an individual activity.  And learning about CI is like any other kind of learning: you have to get into it and do it.  As an instructor that I’m dealing with now, puts it, “you don’t learn to swim by sitting on the side of the pool and watching”.  So, if what I’ve suggested doesn’t seem to work for you, try something else.  Perhaps that will work for you.  If it works, try and figure out why.

Oh and by the way, have a great traditional Thanksgiving.

The next blog will be next week.

How to write up your analysis (Part 2)

November 16, 2012

Continuing on writing up your analysis, remember that even if you will be the ultimate beneficiary, or the only beneficiary, of your intelligence research and analysis, write it up at some point – the sooner the later.

Why?  Because you may have to refer back to it one day and your memory, anyone’s memory, is imperfect.  What you clearly remember as being the result of your research and analysis may not be exactly complete and correct.  In fact, over time, it is almost a guarantee that your recollection will vary widely from reality.

So when you write up what you just found, write it up either (A) as if you were writing it up for a third person, or (B) write it up for your own consumption. In either case, make sure that you indicate the sources of each key finding, at least in shorthand basis.  Just listing a set of resources, ranging from a homepage, a LinkedIn profile, and Facebook page to telephone interviews and product samples is not enough.  For you to make sense of your own analysis if there were a question, you would have to redo the research.  Your purpose here is to avoid doing that; it is to make your research useful to you in the future, and if necessary, defensible to those who might directly or indirectly challenge it.

If you are a note taker, save your work notes, at least for short period of time.  Save them electronically, save them in a folder, but save the critical elements.  Also put a delete or destroy date on these to want to avoid being a mere data collector.  No matter how much space you have in your computer, putting more files there merely makes it run searches slower.  In addition, there is no reason to keep these notes after a reasonable time, say 90 days, has passed.  At that point, even if your research and analysis was complete and correct at the time, it is likely you would have to redo at least a part of it now to bring it up-to-date.  So do not encumber yourself with unnecessary files and notes.

Can you learn to analyze?

November 13, 2012

One of the most perplexing problems facing those in CI is analyzing raw data.  It is certainly not for lack of tools.  In the bibliography of our book Proactive Intelligence: The Successful Executive’s Guide to Intelligence (brief commercial there), we have listed a couple of very fine works detailing the tools that are most commonly used in analyzing competitive intelligence problems. You should review them when you can.

In addition, there are several excellent books dealing with how to approach analysis itself: Improving Intelligence Analysis – Bridging the gap between scholarship and practice[1], Intelligence Analysis – a Target-centric Approach[2], An Introduction to Intelligence Research and Analysis[3], Intelligence Analysis – Behavioral and Social Scientific Foundations[4], and Analyzing Intelligence – Origins, Obstacles and Innovations[5].  Each of these books is written primarily for the intelligence community, generally governmental. They are very important (as I have said in my reviews), but not for novices. I suggest that sometime in your career you would do well to read one or more of them.

What I’m suggesting is that the experience of many in intelligence, as well as in education, is that analytical ability is not something which can be taught very easily.  There are some who argue you cannot teach analytical ability at all. In fact, in the mid-1990s, a group of competitive intelligence professionals and academics, working on a project at the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP), as Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals was then known, worked out a very thorough outline of “curriculum modules for educational programs in competitive intelligence for use by academics and professional trainers”.  Of interest us in this discussion is the  fact that, in identifying specific skills necessary to operate within the CI process, they included “analytical ability”, in contrast to what they identified as teachable skills, something developed from professional experience, or something which could be learned through mentoring.

Whether or not that is true, if you have any analytical ability whatsoever, you can improve and enhance it. If you intend to do any significant competitive intelligence, you owe it to yourself to do so. To do that, in addition to knowing what tools are available to you, what you want to develop is a combination of a questioning attitude with the ability to draw insights from other sources beyond those that you are looking at.

I was once asked to suggest a reading list for people who wanted to become involved in CI.  My response is that you should be reading all the time.  And what is most important, you should be reading things outside of your business, your market space, and even CI.  The more widely read you are and the more you challenge your mind, the more you will learn to analyze (or improve existing skills – your choice).

In Proactive Intelligence: The Successful Executive’s Guide to Intelligence, Carolyn Vella and I  have some suggestions about getting rid of your blinders by changing what it is you read and what you listen to.  In terms of developing analytical abilities, I strongly suggest reading – are you ready for this – mysteries.  Not books about spies, but real mysteries.  Now I can argue that you would do better to read Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, whom I like, than you would James Patterson and Jonathan Kellerman, whom I also like.  The point is, as you’re reading, you are following the detective in the story. That entails following the efforts of the hero/heroine to make sense of what appears to be senseless.  That does not mean you would even have to agree with how the authors approach the problems or the conclusions that they draw.  That’s not the issue.  Rather, it is to get yourself in an intellectual frame of mind to analyze something as it unfolds.

Now to see how you’re doing on this learning effort, the next time you hear an unusual story, such as the one with former General Petraeus which is at the moment occupying headlines, ask yourself what five questions does this raise?  I’m not asking you to challenge the facts being reported in this case.  I’m rather pointing out that you should consider what additional facts might continue to come out.  And the reason the facts will continue to come out is that someone somewhere looked at the first set of facts and then asked the next question.  That is what you’re training yourself to do. Those questions will eventually lead you to conclusions.

In addition to helping you learn to analyze, reading a good mystery is a great way to relax. And, if you have not learned it yet, mental and physical relaxation can be critical to beginning and then completing a difficult assignment.

[1] Stephen Marrin, Routledge, 2011.

[2] Robert M. Clark, 2nd Edition, CQ Press, 2007.

[3] Jerome Clauser revised and edited by Jan Goldman, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2008.

[4] Baruch Fischoff and Cherie Chouvin, eds. (National Research Council of the National Academies), The National Academies Press, 2011.

[5] Roger Z. George and James B. Bruce, eds., Georgetown University Press, 2008.

Where did competitive intelligence come from? (Part 3)

October 30, 2012

Earlier, I said that the Internet did not create competitive intelligence.  Rather, I suspect competitive intelligence has been able to grow due to the Internet, although in some ways, the existence of the Internet may be poisonous to competitive intelligence.

At its early stages, when CI specialists were digging into the backgrounds of publicly traded corporations, they became expert at the relatively arcane subject of US Securities and Exchange Commission filings.  They also learned where such filings were housed as well is how to order them quickly.  That meant that the turnaround time for analysis based on these filings could be a matter of weeks.

With the advent of what were then called online databases, people in competitive intelligence had faster access to these documents; the major delay was waiting for them to be put online.  Initially, most of these documents were not quickly obtainable in that form, as the original text transmissions were at the order of 300 baud.  To understand that speed, imagine you are reading the annual report of a corporation in the form of a crawl under your favorite news program.  It was painfully slow.

As the Internet made access to historical, particular public documents easier, CI specialists hit their stride.  Having spent time learning how to exploit the information, the increase in the speed of obtaining that information enabled them to produce refined analyses in a very short time. However, too often end users just accept the contents of the SEC filings without waiting for insightful analysis.

Unfortunately, the myth of the Internet has not helped the continuing development of CI.  Too many people believe that “everything is on the Internet”, which is patent nonsense. The most important thing that CI can provide is a window on the future, not just a look back at the (recent) past.  In the words of an old Microsoft commercial, they want to know “where do you want to go tomorrow?” Looking backwards does not answer that question.

As the Internet provides more real-time linkage to real people, its impact on CI is beginning to change, in directions as yet unknown.  The willingness of people to talk about themselves and their jobs on social and business networking sites can be a terrific assist to CI specialists, particularly those seeking interview targets.  However, as businesses and other enterprises realize the importance of social media, they will probably begin to exercise control over what their employees, and later their suppliers and vendors, say and where they say it.

Near is good (Part 3)

November 5, 2012

Another take on the concept that starting close at hand is best is that starting close at hand is also fast.  In particular, I’m talking about using your network to develop quick leads to people and data resources that you need.

Your network?  No I do not mean your Facebook page, or even your LinkedIn network, although as a business person, you should at least have the latter.  I’m talking about a network that is built carefully over time consisting of people in your business or enterprise and, as time passes, people who formerly were there, but have moved on.  The purpose of a network like this is to allow you to access the vast amount of information that is unnecessarily hidden throughout your organization.

We’ve all heard about information silos and the like.  The real issue from the point of view of competitive intelligence is that many people within your company or enterprise know things that would be useful to you, but they do not know that you’re interested in them.  What you have to do to overcome this is to affirmatively develop a network of contacts within your organization.

This takes time and work.  It means introducing yourself to everyone that you attend a meeting with and getting their contact information.  It means then entering that contact information on whatever contact manager you use.  But it does not stop there.

You should already be cultivating people throughout your organization, at least if you intend to stay there for any period of time.  Knowing people enables you to know important things about your business.  That may be which areas are hot for growth and which are not. A network enables you to see opportunities as well as threats before they are apparent to others, and give you a chance to exploit (or avoid) them.  From a CI point of view, it means you have a chance to cut across organizational and geographic lines and get directly to people who can help you quickly and simply.

For you to have an internal CI network that is effective, you must work at.  That means contacting these people if and when you have something that might be of interest to them.  Why? Frankly, it is easier to ask people to help you in the future if you’ve made a point of reaching out and helping them beforehand.

You have to work at developing a network, but you have to make sure you do not abuse it.  You are not sending out newsletters to everyone.  Each week, you’re not calling everyone on your network just to keep touch.  Find more natural, effective and time efficient ways to do it.  Make yourself useful to people in your network so that they come to you.  Then when you need someone, say, in research and development or strategic marketing to give you a suggestion of where you can start some of your CI research,  you can reach out to someone that you know, and more importantly, someone who knows you.