Stages of Development

September 14, 2018

I have updated and attached a short presentation I made several years ago about how a world-class competitive intelligence program develops. Click here to download it.

Down Time

August 6, 2018

This blog will not publish again until the week of September 4, 2018. Our office was flooded out in the heavy rains of August 3-5. We will reopen on September 4.


Data Spotting

August 3, 2018

The basics of CI call for effective collection of relevant data. In the past, I have been involved in the typical “counting cars” data collection, including studying aerial photos of huge chemical plants, and hiring people to count trucks coming and going at a construction site.

Now that kind of data collection, at least some of that data collection, is becoming easier. Consider the following reports in Bloomberg Businessweek[1]:

  • One company now offers data from around 200 satellites, public and private, that allows for the identification and tracking of many things by geographic area. The article pitches the ability to monitor all the parking lots for Six Flags, the amusement park operator. Full lots = profits; empty lots = losses.
  • Another firm’s satellites focus on the heights of the lids on oil tanks throughout the world. The goal? Provide data on oil supplies and sales where “official statistics are incomplete or untrustworthy”.

Of course, the data from these satellite services is not free and it still must be processed and analyzed, but it sure beats sitting in a car at Six Flags Over Texas, counting cars for three days, doesn’t it?

[1] Eric Roston, “The View From Way Up”, Bloomberg Businessweek, July 30, 2018, pp. 46-9.

Not All Interviews are Alike

July 24, 2018

“[A co-founder of Zoox, a self-driving car “hopeful”] reached out to some of the biggest names in the field and told them he was making a documentary on the rise of self-driving cars. The plan was to mine these people for information and feel out potential partners…. [He says] ’In my defense I might have been making a documentary.’”[1]

Legal? Yes. Ethical? No! Why? Let’s look at ethical standards in CI:

  • SCIP’s Code of Ethics requires its members “[t]o accurately disclose all relevant information, including one’s identity and organization, prior to all interviews.”[2] Never happened. Unless he said he “might” be making a documentary, instead of that he was.
  • The Helicon Group “[n]ever employs questionable data collection activities. These are techniques, otherwise legal, which, if made public, might tend to embarrass Helicon’s reputation or that of a client.”[3] What sort of reputation does this person and his firm have now?

Now, what should these “big names” have done to protect themselves from this individual as well as CI professionals seeking competitively sensitive data? Here are a couple of suggestions for them (and for others):

  • Check out anyone seeking an interview. Is this person really who/what they say they are? In this case, he was a video producer. Maybe close enough to a documentary maker to skate by.
  • Do the conditions look and sound right? In this case, the interviewer showed up with a “Canon and a bullshit microphone”. Does that look professional? Probably not.
  • What is the interviewers approach? This one relied on flattery. Warning! No one is really that interested in what you are doing – except your competition.
  • What kind of interview is being conducted? This one was two hours long – another warning! After a while, your defenses fall and you speak more freely.
  • Also, it was conducted in a “grassy field”. Maybe it was sold as a good background for the video. But, it could have been a way to keep this person from his computer or other interruptions that might force him to reconsider “why am I still talking to this person and exactly what am I saying?”

[1] Ashlee Vance, “Hype Machine”, Bloomberg Businessweek, July 23, 2018, p. 53.



A Suggestion


I have finished rereading very well-done book which carefully indicates to the reader the differences among hard facts, highly likely facts, and conclusions based on an analysis of incomplete evidence.

Warning – the book deals with the Holocaust.

The book is Richard Breitman’s, The Architect of Genocide – Himmler and the Final Solution[1]. Specifically, I am referring to Chapter 8 (“Cleansing the New Empire”), and Chapter 9 (“Heydrich’s Plan”)[2].

In those chapters, Professor Breitman analyzes everything from meeting notes to travel schedules, and from the parallel use of language to the way in which orders were communicated and followed by the Nazis in organizing and conducting the brutal murders of millions. In so doing, he clearly delineates “incontestable facts” from his own “deductions”[3] in a style that those of us in intelligence would do well to emulate.

I recommend reading this, if only for that careful style.

If you prefer another topic with a similar style, I can suggest any of Ron Chernow’s wonderful biographies, including Washington and Hamilton. He also clearly separates hard facts (“it happened”) from his interpretation or analyses (“probably”, “likely”).

[1] Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

[2] Pp. 167-206.

[3] As he puts it, “Not everyone will agree with all my deductions – which are identified are deductions, not incontestable facts.” Op. cit., p. 32.

Everything Old is New Again

July 10, 2018

In the past, I have written about the benefits of making sure that your secondary CI research includes digging into local newspapers, including “Locally Sourced and Organic” and “Be Careful What You Wish For”.

But, I should note that this idea is not new. In fact, it at least 150 years old!

During the Civil War, General U.S. Grant was not always in direct communication with all his generals. In the case of General Sherman’s march through the South, he relied on reports in – yes – local newspapers in Richmond, VA, which was about 125 miles from his headquarters in Washington, DC. These Confederate papers evidently included stories about fighting which enabled Grant to figure out where Sherman was and how well he was doing.

But all good things must come to an end:

“…Richmond newspapers [eventually] awoke to the realization the [General] Grant traced [General] Sherman’s mysterious movements [fighting in the South after the fall of Atlanta] through their own columns.”[1]

[1] Ron Chernow, Grant, Penguin Press, NY, 2017, p. 473..

Freedom (?) of Information

June 21, 2018

Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek published an interesting piece on US immigration policy[1]. In it were the details of a dispute between ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a “small research group at Syracuse University”.

That dispute involves ICE records dealing with deportations and detainers. After providing this data to TRAC under the FOIA (US Freedom Of Information Act), ICE stopped last year.

Its reason? The “records TRAC has asked for don’t exist in the form requested and [ICE] says producing responses would require searching its database, a process [ICE] claims amounts to creating new records”. And ICE says that under FOIA, it is not required to create new records. So more data for TRAC.

In response, a  lawyer for TRAC asserts “That just can’t be right, because that’s basically true of all [US] government records right now.” Depending on how the litigation comes out, the FOIA may become increasingly useless to researchers, including those of us in CI.

Maybe this is just one agency out of sync, a one-off situation? No, rather it is just the gradual continuation of a long-term trend that access to government records under Federal and State law is being narrowed for any number of reasons, some good, some not so good. For example, in 2007, Carolyn Vella and I wrote “As the war on terrorism continues, we can expect that access to more and more data currently held by the government will be impacted. Most likely, it will be subject to the typical back and forth of politics.” [2]

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or,”The more that changes, the more it’s the same thing.“

[1] “ICE’s Disappearing Data”, Bloomberg Businessweek, June 18, 2018, pp. 42-44.

[2] “Competitive Intelligence, Corporate Security and the War on Terrorism” – Business Technology Leadership (October 30, 2007).