Do look back

January 29, 2013


I’ve indicated in a variety of blogs about understanding the context when you begin doing your own CI research, and as well as understanding who the people that are behind the operations of your target are targets. There is another angle, one that is even harder to deal with, because it requires a sensitivity not to individuals or current events, but toward looking back at a broad sweep of time.

The subject really is the impact of an historical trend or trends on your target. Your target operates in the real world. That means your target has control over its own destiny – but only to a point. What it cannot control are the changes that are forced upon it directly or indirectly by events greater than itself – historical forces. I alluded to this earlier raising the question of business cycles but this is a little more specific.

The reason for this was a discussion I was having with Carolyn Vella, who you should by now know to be my substantially better half, both at The Helicon Group and otherwise. We were listening to a news broadcast discussing something about unions in the United States. The gist of the story was that membership in unions in the United States of private-sector workers, as opposed to those in the public sector, had been declining for many years.

Carolyn pointed out that one of the reasons for this was probably the fact that, over time, some of the reasons that brought unions into being and then into prominence had disappeared. As an example, she said that one of the driving forces behind unions in the early days was improving safety in the workplace and working conditions. To put it in a shorthand for history students, think the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

Her thinking was that once the unions had secured a outside constant positive process ]to secure and improve workplace health and safety, then the reasons for their continued growth would have to be limited to issues covering wages and hours, fringe benefits and the like.

She pointed specifically to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA. It was her hypothesis that once the government replace the unions is the prime driver for assuring workplace safety, one of the selling points for unions had been taken from them. To test that thesis, I quickly looked up information on the trend line of private-sector unions and the history of OSHA.

What I found was actually startling: OSHA was created in 1971. What did that date mean to the union movement? Let me quote here

“The years between 1970 and 1979 mark the beginning of the decline of the total number of labor union member in the U.S.”

Now this does not mean that the decline in unions since 1971 is solely attributable to the creation of OSHA or other federal or even state government programs. But it does raise the question that, when we are talking about the future of unions today, are we ignoring the long trend of history that seems to indicate that the more successful the unions are in transferring their traditional responsibilities to the federal government, the less likely they are to be able to recruit new members in the private sector?


How to write up your analysis? (Part 3)

January 25, 2013


Continuing on this thread, the next step is to decide what to do with what you have written. Well, first, find out what your company’s records retention requirements are. Particularly, how long do you have to keep the report – and, more importantly, your work notes and materials? Where do you keep them? Why? Then adhere to them.

Why even keep them handy? Having old research and reports on hand can be very useful. If you are going to revisit the subject, it can give you a quick refresher on the subject, and highlight what you found out and what you did not. But, CI is not like a fine wine – it does not get better with age. Rather, it has a short half-life (the time after which it loses half of its accuracy/value).

 But, if it may still be good, do not automatically rely on what you found when you revisit the subject.


Time has passed since you did the report. And the target has moved on. What you saw that they did may now be seen as a part of a larger or different pattern. They may have done what you anticipated. If so, wonderful. But now what does that new position mean? If they did not do what you expected, why? Did something change their expected direction? If so, what and why?

In other words, do not be caught up in this blind spot. Just because you saw things one way in the past is never a reason to see them that same way today.

Where did competitive intelligence come from? (Part 4)

January 22, 2013


Continuing on my discussion of where CI came from, I want to call attention to a new book, Competitive Intelligence, Analysis and Strategy: Creating Organisational Agility. In it, Dr. SheilaWright has provided something of a long view of the historical context of the origins of competitive intelligence, tracing it back over 5000 years – all in the space of less than one page. (p.2) She also provides a substantial list of references.

 Among her references, she mentions a piece that I have not previously read: “Tracing the Origins of Competitive Intelligence throughout History”[1]. If you have not read this either, click and do so. It is very interesting, blending military and civilian intelligence. For an entertaining, interactive timeline associated with this article, please visit Loughborough University’s “Timeline of Historical Incidences Related to Competitive Intelligence”. In it you can see more on the contributions of the Crusades, court eunuchs, and Nathan Rothschild to CI. I’ll bet you did not think the history of CI was so sexy!

[1]A.S. Juhari and D. P. Stephens, Journal of Competitive Intelligence and Management, 2006, 3(4), 390-400.

Watch the (Wo)man Behind the Curtain (Part 2)

Watch the (Wo)man Behind the Curtain (Part 2)

January 18, 2013

Looking at the people who make the organization you are targeting, particularly recent changes, can be extremely telling as I noted in a previous blog.  The governing principle even is that new hires are hired for reason. And the reason is not just replacing a departing officer or employee, although that is usually an initiating factor.

An individual is hired because of what he or she is expected to do, and that expectation is based on that individual’s previous track record within the organization or other organizations. For example, an individual with a strong background in finance who comes in as chief operating officer can be expected to play to his or her strength, finance, regardless of the other demands of the position.

In fact at the higher levels of the organization, new hires can be expected to try to replicate the successes that brought them the current job, their successes at a former employer or another place in the organization. In addition, and perhaps even more significantly, they can be expected to try to try to handle subjects or issues that gave them difficulties in the past. To some people, this transferred into an affirmative act – taking on a new challenge that, to them, resembles a past failure, with the clear intent that this time “it will be different”. For others, it means avoiding taking any course of action that was a “failure” for them in the past.

If so this sounds somewhat psychological that is because it is. If you’re going to look at people in an organization, you should have some working knowledge of psychology. Now whether your particular flavor is Jung or Freud or someone else is up to you. But I strongly suggest you develop some knowledge of the basics of psychology. When I started in competitive intelligence, I did not have that in my background. But my partner and significantly better half, Carolyn Vella, suggested it would be useful. She was dead right.

Also, out of that suggestion, there is a larger lesson: you cannot and should not stop learning. If you expect to do well in your career, whether or not it is CI, keep your mind open and working. Read new and different things. Subscribe to – and READ — magazines that are a little off your beaten track. Ever read Smithsonian, The Economist, or National Geographic? Try one for a year. Then move to another. If you cannot think outside of the box, then try to make the box you think inside of larger.

Play well with others? (Part 3)

January 14, 2013

 Part of dealing with others means creating and maintaining your own network. I’ve discussed this in the context of working within your enterprise, but your network, or more properly networks, should extend well beyond your own business. Now there are of course limits to the size of a network that you can actually maintain. One of those is the so-called Dunbar number, 150 to be precise, based on the research work of a scholar, Dr. Robin Dunbar, and actually underlying the operation of some social network sites[1].

Let’s assume that this number is correct, that is an effective network is 150 people, well, what is that mean for you?

It means you not should think of your network not as one unitary whole, because it isn’t. Let’s assume for example you have a network on LinkedIn. That network probably started with your contacts in the business community or nonprofit community, or whatever community in which you work. LinkedIn conveniently let you search your email addresses and ask people to join your network. Then, over time you have added occasional names of individuals you met, perhaps at a conference or trade show, at a corporate meeting, or with a new client.

Over time, you been approached by other people asking you to join their networks. Now of course you are selective, making sure that you’re not being duped into joining some network which is nothing more than a sales pitch. Then you probably started to look when you signed on LinkedIn where you are asked if “do you know these people” and suggesting you might ask them to join your network.

Now you do not have just one network — you have a series of networks, some overlapping, some not. Some may be strictly related to your hobby, whatever that is. Some may be related to your Township or political activities in your area or the like.

But you still have to nurture and pay attention to these networks. Don’t add names just for the sake of adding names. This is not a contest to see how many names you can collect. Rather attempt to make yourself available to others who might be of use to you, of interest to you, or have come in contact with you. Certainly use your network to communicate with these people. If you are giving a presentation at an industry Association meeting, send some of the members of your network an announcement.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I can think of very few things that you would want to announce to everyone in your network. Think of it this way — at Christmas you’ll get a card from that roommate in college whom you have not seen for (fill in the blank) years detailing the arrival of new children, their education and growth, and ultimately the arrival of grandchildren. Is this person really concerned about the fact that you won a prize at the local orchid show or that you had an article accepted for publication in a trade industry magazine? No.

Nurturing your network(s) is a skill, perhaps even an art. When you build a network, make sure that you then feed it from time to time. Different parts of your network, or more properly separate networks, need different care and different feeding. Treated with care, they will reward you over time.

[1] Drake Bennett, “The Dunbar Number”, Bloomberg Businessweek, January 14-January 20, 2013, p52-56.

Play well with others? (Part 2)


January 11, 2013

I have already talked about dealing with private investigators and the likeWhat about dealing with others, such as information brokers or document retrieval services?

Many of the same rules apply here. Keep in mind you do not want to waste your time and money, nor do you want to waste their time and money. Before you call on one of these individuals to help you, do as much of the work as you can, given your time and money and other constraints.

Once you come to the point where you need assistance, it is time to contact them. Before you start discussing any potential assignment, make sure that there is no conflict of interest present. If necessary, make sure that these individuals have signed a nondisclosure or confidentiality agreement to protect you and your company.

How do you tell them what you want? The best help you can give is to provide an example of what it is you are looking for. For example if you found a particular article very useful, or a document that you obtain from the municipality particularly important, share it. Avoid, at all costs, open-ended requests, such as “I need some background information on…”If you need background information, you’re not ready to use a third-party to help you. Develop your background information on your own. These people are there to assist you, not to educate you.

If you have not worked with this individual or his/her firm before, take a few minutes to acquaint yourself with how they work. For example, when you pull the trigger and tell them to start working, how do they know when to stop? Do you (can you) set a dollar or time limit? Are there checkpoints at which they should stop and return and report to you regardless of any time/cost limit?

Being open-ended is as dangerous a problem as being unfocused. Not only do risk the possibility that you do not get what you need, you additionally risk the very real possibility that you will get too much in the way of data or documents that are totally useless to you. However you will not know that until you’ve gone through all of it.

In the case of document retrievals, you may often will be dealing with an employee of a local state or federal government. Explaining the purpose of your research is relatively useless. Rather, you must specify what kind of document you want, when it was produced or filed, if you know or can somehow guess, and exactly what pages or sheets or graphs or plans you want from it.

Done properly, utilizing information brokers and document retrieval services can be a powerful way of extending your reach. Done improperly, they can constitute a tremendous waste of time and money – and your patience.


Watch The (Wo)men Behind the Curtain (Part 1)

January 7, 2013

The recent events surrounding the “fiscal cliff” contain more than enough lessons for everyone. For those of us in competitive intelligence (CI), there is one in particular that stands out: it is the importance of knowing about who is directing the organization you are seeking to analyze and what drives him or her.

Often in CI, we will look at the history of a competitor and then project its future actions based on its past actions. When this analysis fails, often it fails for very simple reason: the people in charge now are not the same as the people were in charge then. And, a different person in charge means different goals, different tactics, and different strategies.

This does not mean that the inertia of an organization does not carry it forward with relatively small deviations over the near term. In fact that is highly likely. But when you look at a competitor, always find out whether or not there had been personnel changes, particularly at or near the top of whatever part of the organization were studying, over or preceding the period that you are looking at.

In the Washington debates, there was some talk about how previous Republican presidents had dealt with the issues in the debates and how Democratic legislators had responded or not responded. That is all very interesting, but that was then and this is now. The issue is who is doing what, not just what is being done.

The same is true of businesses. We recently worked on a project dealing with the long-term intentions of a company as expressed in its investment activities and strategy. One of the key things we found was that there was a change at the appropriate level of management several years ago, which was in turn followed by a change in marketing, which was in turn followed by a change in supporting investments. Knowing about the change in management and about the philosophy, clearly expressed, of the new manager enabled us to make more sense more quickly of a series of rather ambiguous moves. By overlaying people on the process, we found what was being done and, more importantly, why it was being done.