Getting Help

April 27, 2017

Let’s face it, when you are a DIYer in competitive intelligence (doing it yourself, for the newbies out there), you can’t do it all. Sometimes you will have to go outside for help. I am not going to cover all the issues involved here, because they are many and I have covered them elsewhere.[1]

I want to deal here with a couple, from the perspective of the company you will be dealing with. Here are a few of the most common issues you may face when doing this for the first time:

  • First, always protect yourself and your firm. Before you get into sharing any details, get all potential contractors to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Also, make sure that they do not have a conflict of interest.
  • Do you know exactly what you want? If so, write it down, including the deliverables, timing, and your intended use. If it is clear and complete, you can ask for a RFQ, request for a quote. What you will get back is a dollar amount and, only if you asked for it, a statement of the firm’s relevant qualifications and experience.
  • If you cannot do that, you need a RFP, a request for a proposal. Here you provide as much basic information as you can, and then let the firms explain the how, what, and when. If you need it by a specific date, say so at the beginning. If you are dealing with multiple firms, and a firm asks a question which you answer, to be fair, share that exchange with all the other firms.
  • Decide what criteria you will use when selecting a winner in any RFP competition. In fact, write that down before you start. It is just lowest price? What about speed? How about prior experience? Anything else?
  • When you get the proposals, decide quickly. If you ask for a response to your RFP in 10 days, be prepared to decide in 10 days. Play nice. The firms  competing for your business put a lot of time and money into doing these RFPs.
  • Are you prepared to explain your decision? Some firms may ask you for a debriefing if they lose out. Having your criteria written down in advance will make that a lot easier.

[1] John J. McGonagle and Carolyn M. Vella, The Manager’s Guide to Competitive Intelligence, Praeger, 2003, Chapter 15.

Listen to what they did (not) say (Part 2)

April 21, 2017

Three weeks ago, I wrote about listening to people who are talking about CI.[1] The point was to pay attention to and listen to what they may really be saying. Here are some examples of statements that do not communicate information, but rather often reveal ignorance:

  • When talking about CI, someone says “We can get most of what we need online”, what they are saying is – well – they do not know what they are talking about, because they probably have not “gone online” looking for competitively sensitive data. When on in Internet, not everything can be located by a search through Google. There exists what some call the “hidden Internet”, vast amounts of data which search engines cannot locate and index. For example, some publications make their archives accessible only to subscribers. A Google search cannot penetrate these.

In addition, let’s not forget about “Fake News”. Just because it is on the Internet does not mean it is true.

  • A more sophisticated, but also often erroneous, assertion goes something like this – “There are commercial sites which can tell us what we want to know, you know, like credit reports”. First, ignore the point that developing actionable CI is not the same as running a credit check. Now, for private companies, did you ever wonder where the services get their data? From the firm? Will, what if the firm did not give the credit service a balance sheet? And, if there are facts there, how old are they? Can you tell? To ask these is to answer them.

In general, using commercial sites are better than aimless searches, but, as with finances, “garbage in garbage out”.

  • One of my favorite statements comes from the manager who declares “We do not need outside help. We can get whatever we need. I mean, at the trade shows, we always check out the competition’s booth”. Where to start? Does this mean you or your staff can just call up a competitor and chat them up about new products and prices? Before asking that, check your firm’s rules and maybe discuss with your attorneys talking prices with a competitor.

Will ex-employees of your competitor cheerfully talk with you, once they figure out they are not being recruited for a job? If they do cooperate, is it because they are disgruntled former employees? Does anyone really think that what they will say is likely to be true and complete?

As for working a trade show, good move. But, again, how much will the competition show you and tell you once they look down and see your badge with your firm’s name? What would you do in that position? And please, do not tell me you just remove your badge. Not having a badge is like saying “I am trying to hide my identity”. Please.

And, when you call an industry reporter, a trade association, a supplier to your competitor, or one of their good customers, are you (mistakenly) assuming that your competitor will not soon hear about your firm’s sudden interest? Think about it.

[1]Listen to what they did (not) say (Part 1)”, March 31, 2017.


Answers and Questions

Sometimes a CI project does not go well is the eyes of the end-user (the only eyes that matter). Why is that? Let’s look at three common negative feedback comments. Each may mean more (or less) than what it seems to say.

“We did not learn anything that we did not already know.”

  • The assignment, as given by the end-user, may not have been focused as it should and could be. If it included phrases like “Tell me about…”, “Is anything new…”, focus is certainly lacking. It should have included a description of what decision/action depends on the results to give focus.
  • If the focus is there, then the end-user should consider that a confirmation that he/she is correct is valuable. It means that his/her decisions will be based on current, not dated, information, which is too often the case. It also serves to reduce risk – just how certain was the end-user of the “facts” before the assignment was given?

“We did not get value from the assignment.”

  • Was the cost (in terms of time and/or disbursements) excessive? Why? Was everyone aware of the range of likely costs that at the beginning? If not, why not?
  • Did both the end-user and researcher agree on what was needed, when, and how it was to be actionable?
  • What was the end-user expecting? Was that expectation reasonable? Was it clearly communicated to the researcher at the start?
  • Did the researcher evaluate the likelihood of success on each element  and share that estimate before starting?

“We still have questions.”

  • Were those questions a part of the original brief? If not, why not? This can indicate a failure in tasking the initial assignment. That is quite often a problem when the assignment comes from A through B to C, where C does not have the opportunity to “push back” directly with A. Intermediaries rarely add clarity to the process.
  • If these questions were a part of the brief, why did the researcher not answer them? Common reasons are that they cannot be answered by CI (i.e., they are trade secrets), or that the target has not yet made an expected decision or taken any action. The researcher should never gloss over missing elements. If a question could not be answered, just say so and explain why.

Is Early Warning for You?

April 7, 2017


You have probably heard, and even thought about, having an early warning system. Why? Well, early warning is an area where CI skills are quite valuable. However, there are some major issues that you should consider before going further.

In case you are not familiar with it, an early warning system provides – wait for it – early warning of major economic, environmental, market, and political changes impacting the organization’s businesses. In practice, it can often one of the most effective way of communicating strategic intelligence to senior management.

Let’s look at a few issues that are not readily evident:

  • Commitment – By commitment, I am referring to both time and money, and most importantly, participation by management. Without active management participation, an early warning system is just a set of musing given to management. Participation includes the commitment to act on it.
  • Bottom line – It usually takes a long time to see the results of an effective early warning system. And, they are often impossible to quantify. What is the bottom line impact of avoiding the future entry of a new firm into part of your market? How much would you have lost if you did not launch a new product defensively?
  • Verify results – This is related to the bottom line problem. Avoiding problems (or crises), beginning reacting months earlier than you might, and the like often serves to lower risks and potential costs. But, again, you may not be able to see that. Take for example, the parallel of a watchman on a merchant ship in World War II. He is scanning the horizon, looking for anything that could pose a threat to the ship, its crew, passengers, and/or cargo. He spots what he thinks might be the periscope of a submarine. On being told, the captain begins evasive maneuvers, which costs time and fuel, moves the crew to combat quarters, which reduces their ability to do ordinary work, and calls for naval and air assistance to hunt down the sub, which ties them up. The result – the ship is not attacked by a sub. But, was a successful attack going to happen? The captain will never know.
  • Changing the future – Well-done early warning systems can make it impossible to measure, or even to verify, results. Why? Because, first, they are talking about trends (probabilities), not hard facts. And second, by responding to a warning, they may have changed the predicted future. Think about it.

I am not saying that an early warning system is not valuable. Shell’s experience seems to show that it can be extraordinarily valuable. What I am saying is that if you do this, do it right, control expectations, get by-in early and often. Then, effective early warning will product its real benefits: doing many things better, faster, and smarter while reducing risk and the exposure to risk and avoiding the many traps of short-term thinking and actions.