Oil and water

April 28, 2015

Research indicates that CI professionals spend excessive effort (both time and money) on data collection[1]. Experience indicates that the optimal distribution of effort (whether measured in terms of time, dollars, or a combination) among the 4 stages of CI activity is approximately as follows:

  • Establish Needs – 20%
  • Collect Data – 30%
  • Analyze Data- 40%
  • Disseminate CI – 10%
Lesson for those involved in DIY’ng CI: Focus your time on analysis more than on data collection. That is probably not what you are doing now.

What about dividing up the work of CI? Based on our experience, we have found that the skills most useful in Establishing Needs tend to be those most useful in Analysis of Data as well. Conversely, the skills most useful in Data Collection tend to be similar to those needed for Dissemination.

All of this leads to a potential guideline for building a CI team. Look at the 4 stages, and see how they might be allocated between, for example, 2 people (since making one person responsible for both Needs and Analysis would give him/her 60% of the total work load):


CI Stage %of Total Team Effort First Person’s Share Second Person’s Share Comments
Establish Needs 20% 7% 13% approx. 1:2 ratio
Collect Data 30% 27% 3% approx. 9:1 ratio
Analyze Data 40% 7% 33% approx. 1:5 ratio
Disseminate CI 10% 9% 1% approx. 9:1 ratio
Totals 100% 50% 50%  


This division allocates the work fairly (50-50) while playing to each person’s strengths.

Lesson for those involved in DIY’ng CI: Identify your weaknesses among the 4 stages (identifying strengths is too easy) by ranking them from weakest to strongest. Then plan your work and/or seek assistance/training to handle the weakest first.

One quick way to visualize this is think of the First Person as Archie and the second as Nero. Who are they?  They are Rex Stout’s memorable crime fiction characters, Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. Archie was primarily tasked with collecting evidence (data). On rare occasion, he did solve a mystery (analysis) as well. Wolfe, on the other hand, rarely left his New York Brownstone, but rather told Archie what to look for (establish needs), and then spent days mulling over what Archie reported back to him, solving the mystery (analysis). It was a very, very rare event when Wolfe left home to seek out evidence (data).

There is now ample evidence that purposeful staffing to acquire people with a radical divergence in skills, attitudes, and perspectives can provide important contributions, not otherwise possible from more traditional models of staffing[2]. In doing CI, that means creating a team that combines at least one Archie with at least one Nero, that is, purposefully joining skill (and almost certainly personality) mismatches, not best matches.

[1] See Chapter 3 in John J. McGonagle and Carolyn M. Vella, The Internet Age of Competitive Intelligence, Praeger, 1999, for details on the supporting data.

[2] See Rich Karlgaard, “Diversity’s Central Paradox”, Forbes, May 4, 2015.

A meltdown or creative destruction?

April 22, 2015

Discussion, on and off line, surrounding a previous blog included references to a “meltdown” in competitive intelligence activities in the 2008-10 period. I am not sure that there was a meltdown.

Many businesses, during the period from 2007 through 2010, downsized or even closed CI units. But they took similar draconian, short-sighted, steps with respect to market research, human resources, strategic planning, business development and [here fill in the name of any other division where you know that heads rolled for cost-cutting reasons].

I do not think this represents limitations or even failures of CI as a process. It is more likely an indication of limitations or even failures within US economy, global economies, and governments’ involvement in economic matters, as well as the ongoing creative destruction, a hallmark of capitalism.

This is not the first time that an emerging business discipline has been characterized as being in a “meltdown”. In its earliest stages, strategic planning took off with an almost ballistic trajectory, leading to the creation of large, freestanding corporate teams across the board. There then followed the usual over promises and, the inevitable corollary, under deliveries. Strategy units were downsized/eliminated, and the professional society supporting and supported by strategic planning closed[1].

But strategic planning as a discipline did not vanish. Strategic planning made a comeback, but not at the scale and with the resources that it once possessed; rather it became, more integrated into general management. That is, a good manager, at whatever level, was expected understand the basic concepts of strategic planning and to be able to contribute to and be guided by the plan in his/her enterprise. And there is now another association, ASP (the Association for Strategic Planning), supporting strategy.

I think CI is going through that right now. There are many people, many more than a decade ago, who are line managers, whether it is in marketing, sales, product development, planning, finance, or whatever, who have CI responsibilities and/or tools available to them. And that is due to the development of CI as a separate discipline. That does not mean competitive intelligence has vanished – rather that it is morphing. If anything, it may not be as visible as it was in, say 2000, but it appears to be more widespread with deeper roots.

The challenge now is to make sure that you and others understand what CI is, how to do it properly, and how to utilize it. Also, as with strategic planning, you have to learn when to go outside for help and what kind of help to seek. In other words, what not to do.

[1] In the interest of full disclosure, Carolyn M. Vella, my significantly better half, predicted much of this for CI in her keynote address,  “The Rapid Development of Competitor Intelligence: Putting it into Perspective”, Society of Competitor Intelligence Professionals, Keynote Speaker, First Annual Meeting, Washington, DC., 1987.

More on freedom of information

April 15, 2015

More on the concept of freedom of information.

I read an interesting article dealing with the Freedom of Information (FOI) law in the United Kingdom[1]. Interestingly, this law only came into force 10 years ago[2] but, unsurprisingly, took nine years to get that point. It deals with accessing information held by “public authorities”, the equivalent of our state, local, and federal government.

Listen to a familiar observation:

“[T]he Freedom of Information law has been met with resistance. Local governments in particular complain that they lack the resources to process a growing volume of requests.”

Just what are those costs? The article does acknowledge it is “impossible to calculate precisely” the cost of compliance with the law, but reports that one estimate, at the local authority level, indicates that the cost to these local authorities is about $46 million per year. Rough estimates at the national level were at over $20 million per year (neither of the surveys appear to have netted out the fees paid by those requesting FOI research and copies). But, just looking at the national level, the author discloses that this represented only 0.0019% of the entire UK budget, or less than taxpayer payments for the annual travels of Prince Andrew.

In the US, we also hear about the costs to governments to reply to these requests, some of which certainly are a silly as this one received in the UK – “How many residents in Sutton own an ostrich?”. But there is more to government opposition, here and in the UK, than costs and silliness.

In the UK, the existence of FOI has had results that, to say the least, make elected and appointed officials uncomfortable:

In one case a local council that was spending thousands of dollars every year sending a delegation to Japan for a flower festival stopped doing it when it realized that a FOI disclose meant they “couldn’t justify doing” this.

One FOI request led to a parliamentary expense scandal in 2009. This scandal resulted in the imprisonment of five members of Parliament and two members of the House of Lords.

A more recent FOI request disclosed that one national minister was spending over $100,000 year on tea and biscuits.

Any wonder why governments, including my own here in the United States, are not keen on expanding these laws or, frankly, even seeing that they are properly adhered to?

[1] Bryony Clarke, “From A to Z (Asteroids to Zombies), the British Just Want the Facts, International New York Times, April 11, 2015.

[2] The US FOIA’s history dates back to the 1970s.

The Power of Real Words

April 8, 2015

We all know that we have to be clear, concise, even entertaining, when we communicate in business. One common problem, particularly when making a presentation beyond a small, closely knit group, is to (over)use slang, shorthand, acronyms, industry terminology, and the like. Used improperly or excessively, this will make a report or presentation unintelligible to a few when presented, but also into something that will be less and less able to be understood in even the near future. In addition, when we replace perfectly good words with “terms of art”, from our business or our industry, we also change the way we communicate – and not for the better.

One perfectly good, or perhaps dreadful, example of this is the US government. We are all too busy to refer to the “Department of Health and Human Services”, so we refer to it as “HHS”. We omit the “D” because there is a “Department of Homeland Security” which is now called “DHS”, and presumably people cannot distinguish between “DHS” and “DHHS” (but they can instantly tell the difference between “Human Services” and “Homeland Security”). Already we begin to see the problems with acronyms – they are not words that describe anything.

Think of then what happens when we change perfectly a good Anglo-Saxon description like “killing people and blowing up things” into “kinetic warfare”. We lose the (bloody) impact – perhaps on purpose.

This is not a new issue. Years ago, George Orwell warned us about this in his classic 1984. In the Appendix, “The principles of Newspeak”, Orwell wrote about why the society of Big Brother, and other societies, purposefully change the existing full names of things into new “words”:

“The name of every organization, or body of people, or doctrine, or country, or institution, or public building, was invariably cut down into… a single easily pronounce word with the smallest number of syllables that would preserve the original derivation. In the Ministry of Truth, for example, the Records Department… was called Recdep…[I]n thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it… ComIntern is a word that can be uttered almost without taking thought, while Communist International is a phrase over which one is obliged to linger at least momentarily.[1]

Cut back on acronyms and industry slag and enhance your communications.

[1] George Orwell, 1984, Signet Books, 1950, pp. 306–07.