April 11, 2018
We all know, or should know, that the purpose of CI is to develop actionable intelligence. That means solid research, sound conclusions, supporting a specific action or decision.
One thing that we also all know is that the research that we do is rarely 100% perfect/confirmed/verified. We deal with estimates, approximations, and probabilities, whether it is “70% likelihood of happening”, “more likely than not”, or just “almost certainly”. But conclusions based on estimates are just that, based on estimates. Make sure that you, and other with whom you share your intelligence, never forget this.
“No probability, however seductive, can protect us from error; even if all parts of a problem seem to fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, one has to remember that the probable need not necessarily be the truth, and the truth is not always probable.”
Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, Vintage Books, 1967 , p. 17.
April 3, 3018
What headlines in the health insurance industry! It is an industry which has traditionally looked at itself as relatively protected from outsiders. (Remember the concept of “barriers to entry”?) First, Obama Care turned the individual market upside down and may have threatened its very existence. Then, there is massive change is coming or pending due non-insurance firms including CVS, Walmart, JPMorgan Chase, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway.
Question – did the competitive intelligence teams at the major health insurance companies foresee this sea change and warn their management? I do not know for certain, but having spent time there, I am guessing not. Why?
I think that the health insurance industry, like too many others, erroneously favors experience in the industry over CI experience/training in its CI providers, both inside and out. And that preference for industry specialist over generalist is widespread.
Let me give an example. Some time ago, a head hunter contacted me looking for a candidate to fill a slot in another “health” industry. The client’s detailed specifications required x years of direct CI experience in that industry – only. The client was willing to drop back on time in CI, but not in time in the industry. It was non-negotiable. I told the recruiter that there were not just very few people that met that standard, but in fact there was only one. And that person I knew was soon retiring. I pressed, and soon learned that the headhunter’s client was the very firm where that person worked.
I told the recruiter that I knew of many excellent candidates with extensive CI experience, but their industry experience was in related industries. The recruiter replied that the client was adamant. So, the client ultimately found no one, by ignoring more general experience in favor of specialized industry experience. Over time, the CI unit basically dissolved.
Sometimes generalists have it over specialists. Listen to the late Joseph Campbell, world-renowned expert on myths (and regarded by some as inspiring the Star Wars sagas):
“Specialization tends to limit the field of problems that the specialist is concerned with. Now, the person who isn’t a specialist…sees something over here that he has learned from one specialist, something over there that he has learned from another specialist – and neither of them has considered the problem of what this occurs here and also there. So the generalist…gets into a range of other problems….” 
 Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, NY, 1988, p. 9
March 27, 2018
I have presented very frequently and continue to enjoy doing so. I would like to share with you a few tips. Some of these are my own; some come from my significantly better half, Carolyn Vella, who critiqued my early training presentations for the better; some are based on co-presenting with skilled presenters like Dr. Ben Gilad; and some are based on what I have seen and heard, liked and disliked. Here they are:
- Check out the stage and the room 10 minutes or so before you start. Is everything plugged in? Does the mike work? How loud is it? Where can you move around? Are the floor mikes for questions working? Is your presentation really preloaded? (Hint: always bring a copy of the presentation on a jump drive in case there is a screw-up. It happens every so often.)
- Help the audience. Tell them quickly what they will be hearing, and, at the end, remind them, in a sentence or two.
- Continually reach out to the audience. If you are in a room, look at different individuals in the room from time to time. If it is remote, try to get responses, questions, and comments. Suggest that people “make a note of this”, or “raise your hand if this is not new to you”. If the venue’s technology permits, take polls, streaming the results live. Use short exercises that attendees can self-score and comment on. All of this keeps their attention and makes for a better learning experience.
- You are a presenter, not a statue. If you can, move, at least a little. Step away from a podium, point to the overhead, or walk over to a table of attendees. Positive motion attracts attention. But never turn your back on the audience.
- Make it clear. Avoid acronyms if possible. If that is not possible, at least define them on a slide when they first appear, and then repeat that definition to the audience again later.
- Keep it short. PowerPoint slides have bullet points, not bullet essays. Keep the points around 6-7 words long. Don’t go down more than two additional levels. That is really getting in the weeds. It is also hard to read in hand outs or on a mobile device.
- The overheads are just reminders – to you and to the audience. Write them that way and use them for that. If appropriate, use graphics and other attention-getting devices – but sparingly. They should remind you and them of your point, not just be cute.
- Be careful of your slide contrast, pattern, and color selections. Avoid gaudy patterns, and stay away from flat, low context selections like black letters on a dove gray background. They can be hard to read in anything less than perfect light.
- Moving transitions are nice – but only infrequently. Do it for ever slide and you are telling the audience to watch, but not to listen.
- Modulate your voice. Not every word and every phrase is equally important. Using different tones and inflections communicates that. Besides, it keeps the audience awake.
- Keep track of the time. Have a way to check the time while presenting and regularly refer to a sheet of paper in front of you telling you where you should be every 5 or 10 minutes, that is, “10:20 AM – Slide 26”. Always allow time for questions and comments at the very end. Note it on the overheads. End on time, no matter what.
- Tell people that they can contact you after the presentation for any questions (and give contact details). Before you offer to give out a digital copy of the presentation, make sure that is ok with the event sponsor. Also, purge it of anything you do not want redistributed, such as exercises you developed and may want to use again.
March 23, 2018
Writing style is much overlooked (note the unfortunate, but common, use of the passive voice here) when we talk about business communication. However, what we write survives longer than our oral presentations do. A written document can always be referred to after the fact, while a presentation, unless recorded, relies on (imperfect) memory. So, your style of writing is important.
And, trust me, there are different styles of business writing. Here are a couple:
- The entertaining – conversational, relaxed, and short, but tends to be lighter on content. It is an opening shot for discussion.
- The direct – short sentences, clear language with no passive statements. It offers an issue and a conclusion. It reads like people (should) sound.
- The professional – longer sentences, with more technical terms, presumably included for precision. No one, or almost no one, speaks like this – unless of course they are just reading it aloud, which is whole different issue. Then it becomes merely boring and unintelligible.
- The overbearing – involves complex sentences, heavy use of acronyms. It is aimed at convincing the audience that the author is a real (and perhaps the only) expert on the topic. It is designed to persuade by being overwhelming, including the excessive use of footnotes and/or quotations.
- The political/bureaucratic – filled with refences to rules, regulations, “context”, and past actions/decisions. Operates to conceal and deflect, by using the passive voice, rhetorical questions, and deep dives into often irrelevant sidebars. Rarely includes any acceptance of the possibility of (a) personal error, (b) institutional failure, or (c) cogent opposition to its conclusions.
Which are you (and which is this)?
March 5, 2018
“Got a revolution, got to revolution.” Jefferson Airplane, Revolution (1969)
in our new book, Competitive Intelligence Rescue: Getting It Right (Praeger 2017), Carolyn Vella and I relate a case dealing with DIY CI (chapter 8). . Let me give you a couple of my thoughts on DIY CI.
Remember that the CI universe today has three basic research and analysis epicenters:
- CI professionals within an enterprise (including adjuncts such as researchers sited in libraries/information centers)
- Independent CI professionals who consult for/research for that and other enterprises
- Internal DIYers.
My own perception is that the first group is static or growing slowly, the second is stable or slightly declining, and that the third is growing steadily. Compared with 10 or 20 years ago, the existence of DIY CI marks an important evolution, if not revolution, in CI. Those growth trends, if they continue, may fundamentally change the CI “business”.
One plus from this is that it shows an increasing use of CI in enterprises, coupled with better access to end-users, particularly since the end-user in DIY CI is the person who generates the CI. It should also mean that the time between a perceiving a need for CI and its creation could fall.
However, there are also some minuses:
- Those producing the CI will necessarily have narrower experiences in producing it, since they deal only with one client. That could result in a loss of professional perspective or even the failure to develop it.
- The use of elicitation interviews will necessarily fall, thus diminishing use of a proven, valuable primary research resource.
What does this mean? One consequence could be that CI degenerate into several subspecialties where experience and developments are not easily transferable, such as IT CI, pharma CI, B2C CI, etc. Another consequence could be that CI could morph into a discipline that will not be able to look forward as easily as is it can look back and look at the present. Why? Because data on future actions and intentions lies with people to a significantly greater degree than in published sources. A third could be the separation of early warning processes from everyday CI, in part due to the lack of necessary broad perspectives among internal personnel.
What to do to keep these trends from “damaging” CI? (Sorry, I know that is a loaded question, but that is how I see it):
- Institute regular awareness sessions and focused training both on producing CI and on using it. To avoid inbreeding, vary the sources for that training. That is use insiders, then external resources, and vary the outside providers over time.
Establish a stable of outside CI professionals pre-approved for future assignments. Rotation among them avoids having them buying into your firm’s blinders. Also, use one or more of them to regularly review your CI processes and work products to enrich your program with their broader perspectives. Interestingly, this is a flip on the CI audit that was used in the early days of CI before initiating a new CI program. Now the audit would be of the system as it operates and not of the potential need for CI and existing internal resources
February 21, 2018
Fortune magazine recently did a piece on Shell, one of the pioneers in developing and using early warning systems. At Shell, the outputs are called “scenarios”.
The article indicated that the Shell early warning team “concluded that global demand for oil might peak in as little as a decade – essentially tomorrow in an industry that plans in quarter-century increments.” The piece goes on to detail what Shell is doing: “making some big strategic bets.”
What is of interest is that the rest of the oil industry now knows what She’ll is and will be doing. That raises an interesting issue: by acting and revealing what actions Shell, a dominant force in the oil industry, will take, Shell is giving its competitors, suppliers, and customers insights into its own contributions to making the oil industry look different from today. And that is also changing the future Shell has projected. That means that, if Shell is right about its scenario, by acting and broadcasting those actions, it may, nay will, cause the future to be different from what it would be absent it’s actions.
Of course, this means that, in a decade, when Shell measures it’s accuracy in predicting the future, it may find it was wrong. But, this is because it did\could not factor in the direct and indirect consequences of its response to what was then still in the future as well as the responses of others in this business ecosystem to its responses, etc. Yet, the scenario could still be extremely invaluable, even if they cannot prove it.
Is your brain still on straight? Welcome to a brave new world.