Less Competition? Less CI?

September 27, 2016

In a previous blog, I questioned whether what some are calling a notable decline in competition in many US industries has impacted competitive intelligence. I think it may have. Recently, The Economist magazine presented some additional indications that this decline in competition is widespread, has numerous causes, and a variety of impacts:

  • In one column, the author looks at several papers dealing with concentrated ownership of US public companies. The author indicates that these papers reach some curious (my word) conclusions:
    • “From [the perspective of big asset managers that take large stakes in nearly all of the dominant firms in an industry], the best way to generate portfolio returns might be for rivals to treat each other with kid gloves.”
    • “[Institutional] fund-appointed board members could simply refrain from urging conservative CEOs to compete aggressively, or CEOs might anyway conclude that their big shareholders would prefer peace and profits.”[1]
  • In a special report in the same issue, Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal is quoted as saying “Competition is for losers”, evidently referring to the giant firms in Silicon Valley.[2]
  • In the same piece, a side bar notes, sadly, that, “American business history has been defined by periods of intense competition followed by long periods of consolidation. This digital revolution is likely to repeat that pattern, but on a global scale”, riffing on a quote that after the Civil War, American business was “‘ten years of competition and 90 years of oligopoly”. [3]

Does all of this now, or will all of this soon, impact CI? I think so. Do you?

[1]Free Exchange: Stealth socialism”, The Economist, September 17, 2016, p. 73.

[2]Special Report: The Rise of the Superstars”, The Economist, September 17, 2016, pp. 1,3.

[3]What goes around” in “Special Report: The rise of the Superstars”, The Economist, September 17, 2016, p. 2.

Lessons from the Corn Maze

September 23, 2016

It is Fall! Here in Pennsylvania, the corn maze is a seasonal custom. You know about corn mazes. A farmer plants a field of corn and then cuts down everything that is not a pathway, a dead end, an entrance, an exit, or a couple of surprises. When you are in the maze, you cannot see through or over the corn rows – you just have to make your way through – or call the owners for help.

For those of us in CI, there are lessons to be learned from the corn mazes – otherwise I would not be talking about them. Here they are:

  • When you start, you may think you know where you are heading, but soon you learn that is almost never the case.
  • After a short time, you begin to wonder if the journey will ever end. If you don’t get it right, it will not!
  • The proven way to get it done is usually the least efficient way to proceed (hint: for a corn maze it usually is to keep your right hand on an outside wall and following it around, and around, and around).
  • Getting confused can mean you are doing it right – you are watching and listening and not just meandering.
  • It will always take longer to solve it than you expect. Maybe more time than you have.
  • If there is help offered, like a map you can carry, always take it.
  • Think outside of the box, oops, maze. You have a map on your cell phone – use it. And if you are stuck, use it call for help. Use all available tools, not just the ones someone else gave you.
  • Remember, some barriers are artificial – if you are really lost, you probably can go through the corn rows, if you know in what direction to go.
  • Avoid going along the same path more than once.
  • Remember any dead ends you ran into so you avoid them the next time. Otherwise you will dead end again and again.
  • If you have a map, plan your moves in advance – do not “wing it”, or “go with your gut”.

Now, for maze, substitute any analytical problem. Enjoy.

10 Commandments for DIYers

September 13, 2016

In 2007, the CIA released a paper to the public title “Fifteen Axioms for Intelligence Analysts”[1]. Taking this as an inspiration, I would like to propose my own 10 Commandments, ok, Suggestions, for DIYers. The reason I did not just repost this is that (a) I put a link to it in the footnote, and (b) it dealt with governmental analysts, not DIYers, who are in a very different environment, with very different skills, and needs.

Here goes:

  1. Always know what you are seeking — and why. In other words, what can you do, or decide, with the CI that you cannot do or decide on now? If it is not actionable, it is not CI.
  2. Aggressively seek out the data that you need if you think you need it to complete your analysis. Who is to say that you are wrong about that? If you got that data, and found it did not help, next time you will do even better and be more efficient.
  3. Network, network, network. 80% or more of what you need is probably in the hands or minds of your associates in your own firm. The next 10% may be found in your own network. You DO have a network, don’t you? Nurture it.
  4. Have confidence in your own analysis and develop confidence in your judgments based on that analysis. If you do not have confidence, who else will? If you have confidence, others will see that and respond positively.
  5. Do not be afraid of being wrong in your analyses. Everyone is wrong sometimes. If you are wrong, acknowledge it, figure out why, and move on. That is called growth and maturity.
  6. Don’t be afraid of being right. If you are, why are you still working there?
  7. They are not you, and never will be. Avoid mirror imaging your targets at any cost. That is one of the greatest traps in intelligence analysis.
  8. Don’t keep your findings to yourself. CI is more valuable when it reaches – and helps – more people.
  9. If everyone agrees with your findings, then there could be something wrong. Have all of you looked at the situation with the same institutional blinders? Perhaps.
  10. Don’t take your CI work too seriously, or let your CI work take you over. Yes, it is useful, and even interesting, but you also have a life. Enjoy that. Unlike our friends in government, your work will not prevent (or hasten) the end of times.

[1] Frank Watanabe, How To succeed in the DI: Fifteen Axioms for Intelligence Analysts, first posted May 8, 2007. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/97unclass/axioms.html.

Your Prejudices and Their Prejudices

September 8, 2018

I am reading an excellent book[1] about intelligence assessment which highlights one of the major problems that all intelligence, including CI, has. That problem is the fact that it is created by human beings and then provided to other human beings for their use.

For example, the CI analyst must strive to provide intelligence, not just data. Why? Because “[i]nformation by itself is useless; it acquires value only through arrangement and interpretation.”[2] OK, that makes sense.

Well it is a human being that provides that arrangement and interpretation. But “interpretation is conditioned in many instances by the prejudices and attitudes of the analyst.” [3] So, the first problem in producing actionable CI is getting past the analyst’s, that is your, prejudices. If you are offended by the word prejudice, maybe you might prefer, blinders, blind spots, preconceptions, world view, etc. Anyway, you get the point.

Now, once you, as an analyst, have developed what you think is actionable CI, you have to get it to someone who will take that action. Often, we worry about the fundamental disconnect in CI, that is, the fact that the customer to whom the CI is provided does not have to act on it. But there is another, deeper, problem. of which that disconnect is only a small part.

The customer, or end-user, faces a similar problem as the analyst does. Consider this:

“Intelligence appraisal…involves not only the collection and analysis of information but also the processes which put findings at the disposal of policy-makers…. The capacity of human beings to deal with situations of vast complexity is very limited. The human mind needs a highly simplified ‘map’ of a situation if it is going to be capable of taking any action or making a decision. The Maps are highly subjective, generally being based on and springing from deeply held values.”[4]

In other words, your intelligence customer has his or her own prejudices (having “maps” sounds a lot nicer) which can prevent them from acting correctly, or even at all, on even the best, and least biased, intelligence.

And the situation can be worse for the DIYer. Why? Because the DIYer does not have the opportunity of running up against another’s prejudices, which might challenge the DIYer’s own.

Just being human can be a major problem in producing and using CI, can’t it?


[1] Ernest R. May (ed.), Knowing One’s Enemies: Intelligence Assessment before the Two World Wars, Princeton University Press, 1984.

[2] William C. Fuller, Jr., “The Russian Empire”, in Knowing One’s Enemies, p. 168.

[3] William C. Fuller, Jr., “The Russian Empire”, in Knowing One’s Enemies, p. 168.

[4] Quoting Robert R. Bowie, “Introduction”, in Knowing One’s Enemies, p. 4.