Use it or just don’t collect it

September 11, 2013

Recent news reports about Syria have contained more than a few troubling bits of information. One report indicates that the US government actually had intercepts about what was then a pending, and now a past, gas attack in Damascus. It also appears that personnel at NSA did not have time to get to it because they were spread too thin.

Let’s assume that this is in fact true. So what we have is the collection of raw data, but a parallel inability to process it in a timely manner.  In this case, that meant that the US government may have had an early warning about the deadly mass gas attack in Syria, but failed to figure that out. In fairness, it did not fail to figure that out – that would imply it worked on it and was wrong; it never worked on it.

For those of us involved with competitive intelligence, there is an important lesson in this: do not collect data for the sheer sake of collecting data. If you’re going to collect it, then use it in a timely manner. Why? There are at least 4 good reasons:

  1. Analyzing raw data well after collecting it is often a waste of not only of your time, but of your financial resources. You know it is dated, so you (hopefully) will first update it, before using it. The effort spent collecting it and then later updating it is probably not much different from the effort you would expend just starting from scratch.
  2. What is even worse is collecting data when you “have the time”, then reviewing it at a significantly later date without updating it. Why? Intelligence has a half-life, just like radioactive compounds. In CI, that means there is a period of time after which the data you’ve collected and the CI you generated from it will lose some and eventually all of its value. Take, for example, collecting information on interest rates paid by competitor banks. Collecting it today and not analyzing until next week means that you have no actionable useful CI. Why? Because banks usually change interest rates weekly. So the CI developed from your week and a half old data will automatically be out of date.
  3. If you collect competitor data regularly, you or others in your firm may erroneously assume that somehow you are therefore “on top of it”. Why? Because focusing on the target is “ongoing”.  But unless the analysis is also ongoing, you have a very serious problem.
  4. Having raw data produces a false sense of security, supporting the misconception that you have everything you need at your fingertips, so it is “just a matter of time until you get the answer”. That brings to mind a story told by a friend of mine about a project many years ago. He was called in to help a CI unit improve. He came to headquarters, and was brought to the CI manager. In this pre-Internet era, the manager proudly told him that they just needed some help straightening out the way they ran the unit’s analysis and reporting. He then pointed to several file cases (remember those?) which he indicated were filled with reports, catalogs, SEC filings, news clippings, and all sorts of other raw data on the competitors. My friend turned to the CI manager and claims he said “My God man, I’m too late.” The manager was crippled by having old data that he felt was valuable, when it merely served to consume too much time in reviewing it.

The lesson: collect the data when you need and it and use it when you collect it.


2 Comments on “Use it or just don’t collect it”

  1. […] sometimes good enough is all you can achieve in a limited time frame. One point made in a recent Proactive Intelligence blog post was that if you are going to collect the information, use it, otherwise don’t collect […]

  2. […] sometimes good enough is all you can achieve in a limited time frame. One point made in a recent Proactive Intelligence blog post was that if you are going to collect the information, use it, otherwise don’t collect […]


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