Listen to what they did (not) say (Part 1)

March 31, 2017

In business as well as in life, person-to-person communication is vital. When doing competitive intelligence, listening skills are critical. But you need to do more than just listen and assimilate. You must pay attention to and listen to what they may really be saying – at least to themselves. This is true whether you are doing an interview, getting or giving a briefing, or reading a report or email.

What is the difference?

Let me give you a couple of examples:

When a senior executive says that “We know that our competitor is doing …”, unless his firm just finished doing some legitimate CI work, and he read it, what he means is that “I think (or hope or fear) that our competitor is doing …”

When an interviewee says “I have been in this business for 20 (or some other large number) years, and I know that…”, take it with a very big grain of salt. The longer she has been in that business, the larger her blinders will be.

When an expert tells you that “The very long-term trend in this is …”, what he often means is (a) “The long-term trend I am predicting is one best positioned to make companies hire me”, (b) “That long-term trend is one that you probably cannot effectively challenge right now”, or (c) “The possibility of that trend actually occurring makes me very pleased (or frightened).” In some cases, it can be all 3.

When a supervisor says “I do not see the need for doing that (CI) research at this point”, what she often means is “My mind is already made up and I do not want any new facts getting in the way.”

When someone asks for “some intelligence on…”, but declines to describe how he will use it, it sometimes means “I have no idea what you are doing, or what you can provide, so give me something and I will figure out if and how I can use it after I see it.”

Depressing? No. Confusing? Yes.


Forced Transparency

March 23, 2017

Time magazine recently published an interesting piece titled “The real costs of ‘forced transparency’”[1]. The focus of that was on the impact of WikiLeaks’ “disclosures” of US intelligence agencies’ ability to access data in private and government hands, the impact on national governments, and their possible reactions and responses.

I would add to that good analysis two more potential impacts:

  1. These same revelations, on the ease of generating “forced transparency”, may feed the slowly growing trend of the US Government to resist providing online access (and offline access as well) to Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) documents and data. The rationale offered, valid or not, would probably be along the lines that such access can only assist hacking efforts by opening ‘back doors’.
  2. These same revelations will, I suspect, also cause businesses providing many of the filings that those of us in competitive intelligence are interested in to (a) resist making certain filings citing a fear that their confidential data and documents can no longer be protected, and (b) press for changes to the FOIA (and other laws and regulations) to reduce such sensitive filings.

Of course, if the federal government moves in that direction, I expect that the states will follow – not necessarily quickly but inevitably.

[1] By Ian Bremmer, (accessed March 23, 2017).


March 17, 2017

One thing that those of us producing competitive intelligence strive for is accuracy. Well, to be more precise, our end users want accuracy – and can be very demanding of that. However, accuracy is a chimera.

Why? For several reasons, some independent, some inter-related:

  • When we are assessing hard, current facts, such as the size of a new plant, we have a fixed target to focus on. Or do we? Do we want the square footage of the plant, its capacity, or its current production? The first is precise, the others less so. Capacity is, at best, an estimate. Change the equipment, move some around, and you change capacity. As for current production, as soon as you estimate (that word again) it, it may change. You know what I mean – the target starts or reduces a second shift the week after you finish your research and analysis.
  • But not all current data is fixed. It is only fixed as of a moment in time. Take, for example, market share. What do we mean by that? What market? At what point in time or over what period? Do we also mean noting (past) trends (increases/decreases)? Does a market share that has steadily been increasing/decreasing mean that it will continue to increase/decrease? If so, why, how fast? Does it have a limit (other than 100%)?
  • When we are focusing on a competitor’s short-term and long-term plans, what we are really assessing, at least in part, is the target’s intention. What does the target plan to do? Why? What will make it change its plans? How quickly can and will the target change its plans – and based on what future events?
  • When we are assessing intention of a target, unless the target is an individual, we are assessing not only the intention of the CEO, but the intentions of the senior management team. Then, we must consider the ability – and willingness – of management and staff to carry out the direction of senior management. If you think that a firm moves in unison and accurately to the direction of its CEO, remember one word – bureaucracy.
  • When assessing the success or failure of a target’s past actions, we must be very clear in our mind what we mean by success or failure. Is that from the target’s perspective, from my perspective, both, or neither? And what does the past have to do with the present and the future? Are the same decision-makers still in the same positions? Is the target facing the same competitive forces now as then?
  • When assessing the likelihood of success or failure of a target’s current actions, we are dangerously close to the realm of conjecture. When assessing the likelihood of success or failure of a target’s intended actions, we have crossed over.

These are meant to show that the issues facing CI are squishier than your end users may understand. I am not saying that CI cannot contribute to a better understanding of what you and your firm face. It can and does. But it does that by reducing uncertainty. Any effort to force CI to deliver certainty will doom it to failure.

Ex Libris

March 9, 2017

The other day, I was talking with Lora Bray, a friend who is a member of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), about CI and special librarians. The reason for the conversation is a new book Carolyn Vella and I have coming out. But more on that at a later date.

The issue we talked about is that while some special librarians are interested in competitive intelligence, there is not yet a lot of movement of them from that career to into one in CI. And that is too bad for them – and bad for business as well. Why? Let me explain.

In developing CI, several skills, including research experience and discipline, analytical skills, and industry experience, are very useful. Trained librarians possess a good measure of them:

They are trained in secondary research, probably far better than those of us whose “training” consisted in researching a couple of college papers years ago. And secondary research is not only a key element in providing CI, it is an important predicate to doing effective primary, particularly elicitation, interviews.

They have developed analytical skills. Effective secondary research requires analytical skills in defining the research scope, including “push backs”. It then requires analysis to separate useful and critical data from a mass of trivia and repetitive data.

What they usually lack are two other key elements: primary research training and industry specific experience.

By training in primary research, I mean in managing and conducting interviews, particularly elicitation interviews. But that training can be acquired relatively quickly.

By Industry specific experience, I mean line experience and/or formal education on the technology underlying an industry or product. But, that requirement is overly preferred in hiring. You don’t believe me? Look, for example, at the giant consulting firms that senior management often hires – how many of the associates, managers, and partners ever designed, made, serviced, or sold your specific product (or service)? Hint: not very many. Especially with respect to CI, industry specific experience is way over-valued. In my experience, an internal CI staffer should, ideally, have both CI experience and industry experience. But, the balance, when that is not available, and it usually is not, should lean heavily towards more CI experience rather than more industry specific experience. Why? You can usually learn about the basics of an industry or product faster than you can master doing effective, ethical CI. And, almost every industry is today facing technological and cultural changes, and even upheavals, which will put a greater value on being able to learn than having learned.

So, if you are adding to your CI team – formal or informal – look at the librarians. And librarians – look at CI.