Staging CI Development – From the Now to the Future

December 6, 2017

So, you want to grow your personal competitive intelligence expertise, or maybe grow what your CI team can do for your company? Doing that often takes you and your team through several stages of development, each of which requires additional skills and work, but which also provides increasing benefit to the ultimate end users of the CI.

Stage One

This is where you produce and use of CI to understand what and who is going on – here and now. You would be surprised (then, maybe not surprised) how little some companies know about their competition, or even who their major competitors are. Don’t believe me? Let relate a real experience with a client.

A business development manager at the client, a new hire, wanted us to help identify the firm’s top competitors in each of its 4 key markets. What she wanted to see was what strategic moves they had made in the past few years, and how well those efforts turned out. The goal was to learn from their successes and failures.

She told us that, when she went to senior managers, what she got was confusing and conflicted. (Everyone who is surprised, raise your hand) The executives did not agree among themselves who they were competing with and in which market niche.

So, we did our research and gave her a list of the top ten current competitors, by gross sales, for each niche. The results were interesting.

Of the 10 competitors, the senior managers, as a group, identified 6 or 7 in each niche. So far so good.

In each niche, they had identified 1 or 2 firms as competitors who were not currently competitors and had not been in that niche for a minimum of 2 years. Bad. Obviously, they were not paying close attention to what was happening in niche by niche.

What about the others, the missing 1 or 2 in each niche? They were firms that were current competitors that no senior manager, let me repeat that, no one, identified as in the top 10. Even worse, in 3 of the 4 niches there was one of these “stealth” competitors among the top 5! Talk about blind spots.

Stage Two

Now you begin to understand the history of the key competitors, which can lead to at least a partial understanding of its culture and its view of the world. Businesses and their executives and managers are molded by what they have succeeded (and failed) at. This stage should include a look at key executives, particularly those who have joined the firm in the past 2-3 years. They were hired for a reason. What was it?

Don’t think culture is important (or even real)? Consider the attempt by Kraft Heinz to acquire Unilever. According to a report in Fortune, one of the several reasons that the Unilever board rejected the offer was the radical difference in corporate cultures. [1]

Stage Three

This stage involves identifying the capabilities or potentialities of your competitors. What can they do that they are not doing how? How skilled is the workforce? How good/efficient is its supply chain? What strategic alliances do they have or might they logically create?

Stage Four

The final stage involves ascertaining your key competitors’ intentions. That is, now that you know where they came from, what they are really doing, and what they can do that they are not yet doing, you start analyzing available evidence to determine where they are going to go tomorrow. Now you are at the top of the CI food chain. Congratulations! From here, lies the world of early warning systems – another important topic.

[1] “Change World”, Fortune, Sept. 15, 2017, p. 82. “Unilever’s board rallied behind [the vision of ‘making sustainable living commonplace’] to help stymie an unsolicited takeover bid from Kraft Heinz.”

Toxic Environments for CI

November 7, 2017

In the past I have commented[1] on the fact that competitive intelligence cannot thrive in contexts where there is imperfect competition or an outright monopoly situation.

Now consider this observation from a recent issue of Time:

“[T]he leaders of other emerging powers – not just Russia but also democracies like India and Turkey – are following China’s lead in building systems where government embraces commerce while tightening control over domestic politics, economic competition, and control of information.”[2]

So, to the above environments where CI cannot thrive (or perhaps even function), add those situations where government is not only involved in controlling commerce, even without the presence of oligopolies and monopolies, but where it is also controlling much of the data, the raw material from which CI is developed.

“Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship.” author Bruce Coville.

[1] See It Is What It Is and  Why No CI?

[2] “Advantage China”, Time, November 13, 2017, p 42.

Down is not the only way to drill

November 1, 2017

In analyzing data for competitive intelligence, we have all heard the call to “drill down”, “go deeper”, “find more detail”. And that is the right thing to do – most of the time.

Sometimes, just do what the late Isaac Asimov suggests:

“I have always found in my work…that zeroing in tightly on a particular problem is self-defeating. Why not relax and talk about something else, and your unconscious mind – not laboring under the weight of concentrated thought – may solve the problem for you.[1]

Can that work in CI analysis? Oh yes.

Let me draw your attention to a provocative piece in a recent Business Week. There the author looked at Apple’s research labs around the world. It seems the author was sitting back, (not up close), and noted that

“many of [Apple’s Inc.’s research labs] are near companies with specialties the device giant wants to develop. Curiously, a number have lost employees to Apple since it came to town.[2]

Read it, and see how looking away from the small details created the bigger picture.

[1] Isaac Asimov, Foundation’s Edge, Doubleday, New York, 1980, p. 90.

[2]  Alex Webb, Apple’s Global Web”, Business Week, October 9, 2017, p. 23. Also listen to author Alex Webb discussing this.

Maybe Someone is Paying Attention

Bloomberg Businessweek recently ran an article on Adidas’ new factory. [1] It is described as a “super factory” aimed at letting Adidas make its footwear in high-cost, developed economies, instead of contacting work out to suppliers and assemblers in China, Vietnam and other lower labor cost countries. The article, in an aside, noted that Adidas could gain an additional benefit if this project works out:

“Adidas gains the added benefit of keeping the latest trends and ideas in-house rather than sharing them with suppliers.”

Axiomatic: In competitive intelligence, the fewer people that have access to competitively sensitive data, the harder it is for competitors to gather it.

[1] “Adidas Automates to Make Shoes Faster, Bloomberg Businesssweek, October 8, 2017, p. 17-18.

Law Firms and CI

October 10, 2017

A local legal publication noted[1] the release of a study on competitive intelligence and large law firms. Among its findings was that “[l]aw firms are thirsty for data that could make them more competitive, but few are using it for proactive, strategic planning….”

First. I commend the full text of the report to you – it is thoughtful and enlightening. You can follow the links from the story to get it.

Second, I was taken by some of its observations:

  • 2/3rds of the firms in the study staffed the CI function with people whose background was “library or research”, while only 1/3 hired “professionals with CI background.”
  • Interestingly, about 1/3 of the firms reported that their CI teams’ ability to “connect the dots” was something in which they excelled. Hum.
  • And how about this: almost 2/3rds of the firms said that the CI teams’ work was more tactical than strategic. See anything now?

I would like to add to this some observations.

My qualifications? My background, in addition to decades in CI includes working in 3 law firms and in 2 corporate legal departments. (highest positions being Resident Counsel in the former and VP/General Counsel and in the latter). In fact, I have even written a couple of articles on CI for law firms, before it was a popular subject for discussion.[2]

One unidentified source of a drag on some CI programs is the client himself, herself, themselves:  the lawyers in the law firm themselves.

Let me explain (by generalizing overly broadly):

  • Some partners tend to possessiveness of information on “their” clients, because information is seen by them as power or at least a route to success.
  • Most associates at law firms are not heavily (or even at all) involved in business development, so CI is almost irrelevant to them. That also means that associates becoming partners will not usually understand anything about their firm’s CI process and what to expect from it.
  • Withholding some client information or access from other lawyers in the same firm is frequent, particularly when there is partner hunting/poaching by that firm and/or competing firms going on.
  • Lawyers live in world of confidentiality – they tend instinctively to give little information out (which impedes developing proper KITs and KIQs by the CI team), and, in turn, they often expect to receive little. Then, these diminished expectations mean they have less interest in becoming involved with CI.
  • Lawyers usually believe that only lawyers, or at best paralegals, can understand the law, and therefore the legal business – despite the apparent high correlation between success and the use of experienced CI people by large law firms noted above.
  • Legal research is different, very different, from CI research. Put another way, elicitation is not likely to be seen as a way to gather competitively sensitive data by those familiar only with using depositions to gather information. Also, the bulk of legal research is now done using commercial online services (LexisNexis, Bloomberg Law Westlaw), so some lawyers may have a perception that secondary research is the only way to go rather than being, well, secondary.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141).

[1] Lizzy McLellan, “Report Finds Law Firms Playing Catch-Up on Competitive Intelligence”, The Legal Intelligencer, October 3, 2017.

[2] “Knowing Your Competition: Can Competitive Intelligence make your firm extraordinary?”, Legal Management, Nov.-Dec. 2011, 35-39; “Competitive Intelligence: A New Tool For Lawyers”, Legal Times, May 19, 1986.

Freedom FROM Information Access Acts

September 18, 2017

The AP has reported on yet more efforts to restrict the scope of state open record/FOIA laws and limiting the public’s access to them. [1]

As you can see from the text and from many of my previous blogs on this (just search “FOIA”), the pressures come from several directions, as they have in the past, including:

  • From police, prosecutors and their supporters, usually aimed at limiting or barring access to body-cam recordings of police-involved activities, or of access to related information, such as emergency/911 call recordings and records.
  • From regulated businesses, seeking to keep their information, always called “sensitive”, “confidential”, or “proprietary” (without any supporting evidence), from competitors and from the public (AKA their own customers). I guess that they finally figured out that sound CI research procedures call for checking these records. Ah, the price of success!
  • From governmental units themselves, seeking to remove from the public view more and more of their records, reports, and even proceedings. This is done by changing rules, just flatly declining to provide requested records, and by hindering access through fees and lawsuits. Oddly, the same entities often pat themselves on the back for their transparency. Go figure.

So, keep on using state and federal laws to access records in your CI efforts, but do not expect the same success as you have had in the past. Also, from now on, when reading about open records, and the like, keep in mind the new terms you should use:

  • For “transparent”, now think “opaque”.
  • For “open records”, use “inaccessible records”.
  • For “freedom of information acts”, say “freedom from information access acts”

Happy (more and more limited) hunting.

[1] GOVERNMENTS TURN TABLES BY SUING PUBLIC RECORDS REQUESTERS, Sept, 17, 2017; Request denied: States try to block access to public records, Sept. 17, 2017.

No One is Right All of the Time

September 9, 2017

The hurricane activity of the past weeks in the US is still sinking in for all of us, in particular the many residents of the damaged areas. They are in our prayers.

But for those of us in CI, there is a lesson.

The forecasters, private and governmental, were unable to predict the track of either Irma or Harvey more than 48 hours out. Yet they were working with dozen, perhaps hundreds of programs, vast amounts of computer power, decades of records, and real time data from space, hurricane penetrating aircraft, and ocean buoys.


Because real life is never 100% predicable. Keep that in mind when you find that you cannot totally predict a competitor’s reactions to your new product launch – or whatever.

Close enough is as much as humans (and computers) can come in the real world.