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.

[2] https://www.scip.org/page/CodeofEthics.

[3] https://helicongroup.com/ethical-standards.


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” CIO.com – Business Technology Leadership (October 30, 2007).


Emerging Problems for Elicitation Interviewers

May 30, 2018

A recent newspaper article[1] discussed the ongoing “death of voicemail”, particularly in the case of millennials. Now, I have previously pontificated on some the difficulties of communicating with millennials, Millennials and Competitive Intelligence (2 parts)[2], but this takes it to a new level.

If the trend this fascinating article describes holds, the death of voice mail will have a significant impact on competitive intelligence research’s elicitation interviews. One key element of that is that you, the researcher, are able to get access to someone you have never met, whose business email and/or personal email accounts you do not know, to talk with them.

Consider these quotes from this interesting article:

“When people leave me voice messages, I just delete them without even checking. If they want to get hold of me, they can text me.”

“This is a large generalization, but they [millennials] don’t feel that comfortable in face-to-face spoken interaction or its derivative over the phone.”

“In the last three to five years the majority of phone calls in my world are booked ahead of time, just like a meeting.”

“Fewer and fewer people are going to have that skill [talking on the phone].”

As an aside, the people and patterns described in this article do not bode well for those very millennials described therein. Why? Ok, how do you get to know new people in your own business or neighborhood or graduating class when you only respond, by email or text, to a message on your voice mail (but never listening to the voice mail), only so long as you already know that person’s phone numbers and email addresses. A very static circle, isn’t it?

I wonder what would happen if the EVP called one of these people to ask questions about a report he/she did, and never received a reply because the employee did not recognize the EVP’s cell number, so he/she just deleted the message without listening to it. Think about it.

[1] ETHAN BARON, “How the death of voicemail is changing the way we connect”, The [San Jose] Mercury News, May 13, 2018.

[2] https://diy-ci.com/2015/09/10/millennials-and-competitive-intelligence-part-1-of-2/ and https://diy-ci.com/2015/09/15/millennials-and-competitive-intelligence-part-2-of-2/.


Trend Spotting for Early Warning Systems

May 16, 2018

Question: How do you spot trends that could impact your business BEFORE you read about them in your trade publications – or worse, run head first into them.

Answer: Keep your eyes open for trends in other industries, like the rise of automation in the restaurant industry as pressures develop to increase hourly employee wages.

Let me give you four examples looking at emerging trends taken from publications I read in the same week:

  • Artificial intelligence (in the business travel industry): “Will AI Redefine Buyer-Supplier Dynamics”, Business Travel News, April 23, 2018, 22-4.
  • Commoditization in the (independent meeting planning industry): ” J.T. Long, “Preparing for a Leaner Commission World”, Smart meetings.com, May 2018, 40-42.
  • Unbundling businesses (in technology and chemicals) “World’s Greatest Leaders”, Fortune, May 3, 2018
  • Increases in lobbying costs to protect prices (in pharmaceuticals) Jay Hancock and Elizabeth Lucas:, “Drug Prices Are Increasing. So Is Big Pharma Lobbying”, Fortune, May 3, 2018, 16.

One lesson, or perhaps an underlying truth: change affects everyone, just at different times and in different ways. If you can identify what kind of wave may be coming by seeing what is happening to others, you improve your chances of spotting it earlier.


What isn’t there

May 3, 2018

Recently, I read about a new factory in a trade publication. I will not name the magazine or company because it is not relevant.

The article touted the new technology and safety of the plant, indicating that it was to replace a factory owned by the same firm that had been in the area for about 50 years. The company’s representative quoted in the article praised the firm’s long ties to the area.

At the very end, the piece noted approximately as follows:

“The company plans to fill all of the positions at the plant with employees from the closed facility.”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? The workers from the old plant will migrate to the new one, right? Think of reading this very closely. How? Try moving the modifier, “all of the”. It now reads:

“The company plans to fill the positions at the plant with all of the employees from the closed facility.”

But the actual quote does not mean this. Now you understand that the sentence actually means some employees at the closed plant will NOT be working in the new one. What was not said was telling you more about what is actually going on.

“Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.” Hugo Mearns


Generalist versus Specialist

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….” [1]

[1] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, NY, 1988, p. 9