Under the Lamp-Post

June 18, 2013

Let me start with three items:

  1. There is an old joke about a woman who happens upon a man who is on his hands and knees under a lamp-post outside a tunnel. What is he doing? He says he is looking for his keys. She asks if that is where he lost his keys. No, he says he lost them inside the tunnel. Why isn’t he looking there, she asks? His answer: ”It’s dark in there; it’s light under the lamp-post.”
  2. Schumpeter’s column in a recent Economist[1] discussed studies indicating that people become comfortable practicing the skills that have gotten them to rise within an organization, but fail to ask how useful these skills are when working at yet higher levels.
  3. Nate Hentoff, a syndicated columnist, recently observed[2] that the U.S. National Security Agency was increasingly relying on the controversial PRISM program as its “leading source of raw material”, reportedly accounting for nearly one in seven intelligence reports.

What do these three items have to do with each other?

I think, from the point of view competitive intelligence, they are all elements of a syndrome that all of us fall into it one time or another. That is to look at what we are familiar with, or what is easy to access, or what is close at hand, or what worked the last time to satisfy our need for data for our competitive intelligence analysis. When we do that, we are all the man looking around the lamp-post because that is where the light is.

That lamp-post for marketers may be familiar trade journals, for lawyers, recent lawsuits, for financial managers, securities analysts’ reports, etc. I think that one of the problems with the current debate about the NSA is that there is a danger that it is justifying its vast data collection activities because that is what they do for living, and are indicating that these archives are valuable because that is where they looked for help, because what they do for a living. That is the NSA lamp-post.

We all have to avoid that syndrome. Now, whenever you are seeking data for competitive intelligence, make a quick list of the sources that you plan to be using. Did you include interviews with former employees of the target that you identified LinkedIn? What about environmental permits and applications? Are you relying only on media reports? Now, stop and look at your list. Have you included any source that you haven’t looked at in the last five or six searches? The odds are you have not.

So try this little trick: take this list of three categories of data sources:

  • Government & Non-profits
  • Private sector (This includes people and organizations whose business directly involves producing or selling the kinds of data you may be seeking, as well as employees of your competitors, your suppliers, and even your own firm)
  • Media

As you can see they are very broad. Now look at your preliminary list of where you are planning to look. Are you looking for something in all three categories? Probably not. Is there one category you tend to rely on almost all the time? That is probably your lamp-post. Look elsewhere.



One Comment on “Under the Lamp-Post”

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