July 11, 2017
This week, a local paperreported that applicants for Pennsylvania medical marijuana licenses were permitted to submit two versions of their applications: one for evaluation by the state’s licensing authority and a second, self-redacted version, for public release.
What was released to the public was a bewildering mass of blacked-out text. In addition to blacking out notes on proximity to health care facilities, maybe, maybe, a competitive or confidential issue, they variously redacted page numbers (?), the business’ name and address (!), and the business’ expected impact on the local community, which seems to be exactly what should be released. One applicant is described as redacting “nearly its entire 186-page grower application, including [the official] instructions” (?!)
The article quoted a Marijuana trade association official who said that these companies were “looking at what their competitors are going to see” and redacted that. Page numbers? And, Pennsylvania officials say that they cannot un-redact what has been blacked out. Then, consider the questions of why a filer can ever exercise absolute control over what is disclosed from public records, and why Pennsylvania ever created this public/private record system.
Ever wonder why Open Record laws don’t work?
 Nicole C. Brambila, “Marijuana firms redacted many parts of applications”. Reading Eagle, July 10, 2017, A1, A3.
June 21, 2017
Just because you are big, and still getting bigger, does not mean that you can skip competitive intelligence activities. And that is true even when your competitors are much, much smaller. Fortunately some firms realize that.
Take the case of the ubiquitous Starbucks. A recent profile noted that many of its “newer and cooler” competitors are small – “not big enough to take market share”. But, still Starbucks “keeps a keen eye on the newbies”. One of the newbies told the author that employees of Starbuck involved in R&D activities have ordered “cases” of one of the newbie’s innovative products.
 Beth Kowitt, “Howard Schultz Has Something Left to Prove, Fortune, June 8, 2017.
June 16, 2017
A recent article observes that “Microsoft is learning from Amazon.com…[basing] more of its decision-making on data-driven experiments and what it thinks customers want rather than what competitors might be doing.” Woof. Does this mean that Microsoft has NOT been basing some decisions on what customers want? Or does it mean that Amazon.com doesn’t use competitive intelligence (CI) in its decision-making? I doubt either is true, but this observation reflects a tribal attitude towards actionable information in many corporations.
Exactly what is the problem with basing corporate decisions on holistic intelligence dealing with the totality of the competitive and marketing environments? The default choice, alas, in some firms is evidently market research (MR), without any CI. Maybe the MR people do a little (what they call) CI, but usually they do not. If there is any CI process, it is likely reporting to the planning function, but not supporting sales and marketing as well. These silos hinder effective operation. That is like driving your car with clear side and rear windows, but with a shattered, opaque front windshield.
For example, say that MR including the “voice of the customers” research, discloses a need/desire of customers that they are also willing to pay for (an oft-ignored issue). Would it not help to know if CI disclosed that (a) one major competitor has previously rejected this opportunity (and why), (b) a second major competitor is ready to roll-out a new product/service to meet this need in the next 30 days, (c) a third competitor has done similar research and saw no such opportunity, and/or (d) another smaller competitor has the technology to enter this niche, but currently lacks the funding to do so? I think so.
Maybe Microsoft is right here. Why buy Safeway just because Amazon.com is buying Whole Foods?
 Matt Day, “Microsoft borrows from Amazon’s philosophy as its cloud grows”, The Seattle Times, June 7, 2017, http://www.seattletimes.com/business/microsoft/microsoft-borrows-from-amazons-philosophy-as-its-cloud-grows/
March 23, 2017
Time magazine recently published an interesting piece titled “The real costs of ‘forced transparency’”. 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:
- 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’.
- 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.
 By Ian Bremmer, http://time.com/4703326/wikileaks-vault-7-forced-transparency/ (accessed March 23, 2017).
February 27, 2017
Last week, I posted my take on the future of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests on the US government. What I neglected to do was to discuss the possible impact of relatively recent changes made in the US law by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 offered as improving transparency and access. From here, it gets a little technical.
Two of the relevant 2016 changes, as summarized by the US Department of Justice, are as follows:
- “Agencies ‘shall withhold information’ under the FOIA ‘only if the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption’ or ‘disclosure is prohibited by law.’
- “Agencies shall ‘consider whether partial disclosure of information is possible whenever the agency determines that a full disclosure of a requested record is not possible.’”
Now, to be fair, these changes would appear to undercut my negative view of the future use of the US FOIA in CI. However, they do not.
As for #1, this does not change the current underlying interpretation of the FOIA that its Exemption 4 of the FOIA still covers
“two distinct categories of information in federal agency records, (1) trade secrets, and (2) information that is (a) commercial or financial, and (b) obtained from a person, and (c) privileged or confidential.”
In other words, anything falling into either category of Exemption 4 cannot be released.
The current interpretations of the scope of Exemption 4 are very broad. With a few exceptions, the federal courts have held that “trade secrets” here have a meaning broader than the usual meaning. That is, it covers “virtually any information that provides a competitive advantage” . That means more is kept from release than is covered by what most of us understand a trade secret to be.
As #2’s “privileged or confidential”, the current standard is not merely whether the “information would customarily [not] be disclosed to the public by the person from whom it was obtained” , but rather
“commercial or financial matter is ‘confidential’ for purposes of the exemption if disclosure of the information is likely to have either of the following effects: (1) to impair the Government’s ability to obtain necessary information in the future; or (2) to cause substantial harm to the competitive position of the person from whom the information was obtained” .
In other words, what the FOIA protects from disclosure in the context of CI is, in practice, even broader than the plain language of Exemption 4. So, adding language which directs an agency to “foresee” this or “consider” that will not change the overly protective standards now in place.
 https://www.justice.gov/oip/oip-summary-foia-improvement-act-2016, numbers added.