Just connect the dots?

May 10, 2017

I just finished re-reading a mystery written just before the horrible events of 9/11. It made me reflect on the difficultly of satisfying the oft-repeated (but rarely fully appreciated) mantra to “connect the dots” and how difficult that can be, particularly in the context of any early warning process[1].

Let me give you a taste of a few things that leapt out at me from this story:

  • The tale revolves about  Islamic terrorism impacting the US.
  • The mission involves hijacking a passenger jet.
  • One individual notes these jets pose an explosive danger “within a hundred-yard radius” of the plane.
  • The author, commenting on the then lax security at airports, has a character note that “America wasn’t ready for any of this.”
  • The terrorist mission is religiously justified.
  • In one chilling scene, the terrorist is driven over the Verrazano Bridge, and sees the two World Trade center towers. His associate, not a terrorist, says, referring to the towers, “Maybe next time”, to which he replies, “God willing.”

Amazing, isn’t it? This is an author who was talking about, or at least predicting, the then-forthcoming attack on the World Trade Center towers, right?


These elements connect with 9/11 only in the way I put it. These “dots” are a very few among the hundreds of others in the fine 1,000 page novel by Nelson DeMille, The Lion (2000).

In this case, these specific dots did not predict or foreshadow 9/11. Take them in turn:

  • The Islamic terrorist who comes to the US comes from Libya, not Saudi Arabia, and is associated with the Libyan government. His mission involves killing former US Air Force personnel while he is in the US. There is no team.
  • The passenger jet hijacking gets the single terrorist into the US, where it is landed via autopilot. It is not flown into a target.
  • The person noting the explosive power associated with jets is the hero, in law enforcement, not the terrorist.
  • The comment “America wasn’t ready for any of this” refers to the hijacking, which resulted in the deaths of all passengers and crew due to poison gas.
  • While the terrorist sees his mission as religiously justified, it is also very personal and political.
  • The reference to the two World Trade center towers and “next time” recalls the failed 1993 attempt to blow up the south tower, and not to the terrorist planning to assault the towers again. In fact, the terrorist thinks the 1993 attack was cowardly.

The lesson? it is very easy to connect the dots in retrospect. Way too easy. Conversely, it can be almost impossible to figure out which dots to connect in advance, much less how they do connect. And the selection of which dots to connect is can too often be an exercise in proving what the analyst already believes is likely.

[1] Just a brief commercial message. Early warning systems are dealt with in a forthcoming book which I co-authored with my significantly better half: Carolyn M. Vella and John J. McGonagle, Competitive Intelligence Rescue: Getting It Right, Praeger, August 2017.

Listen to what they did (not) say (Part 2)

April 21, 2017

Three weeks ago, I wrote about listening to people who are talking about CI.[1] The point was to pay attention to and listen to what they may really be saying. Here are some examples of statements that do not communicate information, but rather often reveal ignorance:

  • When talking about CI, someone says “We can get most of what we need online”, what they are saying is – well – they do not know what they are talking about, because they probably have not “gone online” looking for competitively sensitive data. When on in Internet, not everything can be located by a search through Google. There exists what some call the “hidden Internet”, vast amounts of data which search engines cannot locate and index. For example, some publications make their archives accessible only to subscribers. A Google search cannot penetrate these.

In addition, let’s not forget about “Fake News”. Just because it is on the Internet does not mean it is true.

  • A more sophisticated, but also often erroneous, assertion goes something like this – “There are commercial sites which can tell us what we want to know, you know, like credit reports”. First, ignore the point that developing actionable CI is not the same as running a credit check. Now, for private companies, did you ever wonder where the services get their data? From the firm? Will, what if the firm did not give the credit service a balance sheet? And, if there are facts there, how old are they? Can you tell? To ask these is to answer them.

In general, using commercial sites are better than aimless searches, but, as with finances, “garbage in garbage out”.

  • One of my favorite statements comes from the manager who declares “We do not need outside help. We can get whatever we need. I mean, at the trade shows, we always check out the competition’s booth”. Where to start? Does this mean you or your staff can just call up a competitor and chat them up about new products and prices? Before asking that, check your firm’s rules and maybe discuss with your attorneys talking prices with a competitor.

Will ex-employees of your competitor cheerfully talk with you, once they figure out they are not being recruited for a job? If they do cooperate, is it because they are disgruntled former employees? Does anyone really think that what they will say is likely to be true and complete?

As for working a trade show, good move. But, again, how much will the competition show you and tell you once they look down and see your badge with your firm’s name? What would you do in that position? And please, do not tell me you just remove your badge. Not having a badge is like saying “I am trying to hide my identity”. Please.

And, when you call an industry reporter, a trade association, a supplier to your competitor, or one of their good customers, are you (mistakenly) assuming that your competitor will not soon hear about your firm’s sudden interest? Think about it.

[1]Listen to what they did (not) say (Part 1)”, March 31, 2017.


Answers and Questions

Sometimes a CI project does not go well is the eyes of the end-user (the only eyes that matter). Why is that? Let’s look at three common negative feedback comments. Each may mean more (or less) than what it seems to say.

“We did not learn anything that we did not already know.”

  • The assignment, as given by the end-user, may not have been focused as it should and could be. If it included phrases like “Tell me about…”, “Is anything new…”, focus is certainly lacking. It should have included a description of what decision/action depends on the results to give focus.
  • If the focus is there, then the end-user should consider that a confirmation that he/she is correct is valuable. It means that his/her decisions will be based on current, not dated, information, which is too often the case. It also serves to reduce risk – just how certain was the end-user of the “facts” before the assignment was given?

“We did not get value from the assignment.”

  • Was the cost (in terms of time and/or disbursements) excessive? Why? Was everyone aware of the range of likely costs that at the beginning? If not, why not?
  • Did both the end-user and researcher agree on what was needed, when, and how it was to be actionable?
  • What was the end-user expecting? Was that expectation reasonable? Was it clearly communicated to the researcher at the start?
  • Did the researcher evaluate the likelihood of success on each element  and share that estimate before starting?

“We still have questions.”

  • Were those questions a part of the original brief? If not, why not? This can indicate a failure in tasking the initial assignment. That is quite often a problem when the assignment comes from A through B to C, where C does not have the opportunity to “push back” directly with A. Intermediaries rarely add clarity to the process.
  • If these questions were a part of the brief, why did the researcher not answer them? Common reasons are that they cannot be answered by CI (i.e., they are trade secrets), or that the target has not yet made an expected decision or taken any action. The researcher should never gloss over missing elements. If a question could not be answered, just say so and explain why.

Forced Transparency

March 23, 2017

Time magazine recently published an interesting piece titled “The real costs of ‘forced transparency’”[1]. 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:

  1. 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’.
  2. 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.

[1] By Ian Bremmer, http://time.com/4703326/wikileaks-vault-7-forced-transparency/ (accessed March 23, 2017).


March 17, 2017

One thing that those of us producing competitive intelligence strive for is accuracy. Well, to be more precise, our end users want accuracy – and can be very demanding of that. However, accuracy is a chimera.

Why? For several reasons, some independent, some inter-related:

  • When we are assessing hard, current facts, such as the size of a new plant, we have a fixed target to focus on. Or do we? Do we want the square footage of the plant, its capacity, or its current production? The first is precise, the others less so. Capacity is, at best, an estimate. Change the equipment, move some around, and you change capacity. As for current production, as soon as you estimate (that word again) it, it may change. You know what I mean – the target starts or reduces a second shift the week after you finish your research and analysis.
  • But not all current data is fixed. It is only fixed as of a moment in time. Take, for example, market share. What do we mean by that? What market? At what point in time or over what period? Do we also mean noting (past) trends (increases/decreases)? Does a market share that has steadily been increasing/decreasing mean that it will continue to increase/decrease? If so, why, how fast? Does it have a limit (other than 100%)?
  • When we are focusing on a competitor’s short-term and long-term plans, what we are really assessing, at least in part, is the target’s intention. What does the target plan to do? Why? What will make it change its plans? How quickly can and will the target change its plans – and based on what future events?
  • When we are assessing intention of a target, unless the target is an individual, we are assessing not only the intention of the CEO, but the intentions of the senior management team. Then, we must consider the ability – and willingness – of management and staff to carry out the direction of senior management. If you think that a firm moves in unison and accurately to the direction of its CEO, remember one word – bureaucracy.
  • When assessing the success or failure of a target’s past actions, we must be very clear in our mind what we mean by success or failure. Is that from the target’s perspective, from my perspective, both, or neither? And what does the past have to do with the present and the future? Are the same decision-makers still in the same positions? Is the target facing the same competitive forces now as then?
  • When assessing the likelihood of success or failure of a target’s current actions, we are dangerously close to the realm of conjecture. When assessing the likelihood of success or failure of a target’s intended actions, we have crossed over.

These are meant to show that the issues facing CI are squishier than your end users may understand. I am not saying that CI cannot contribute to a better understanding of what you and your firm face. It can and does. But it does that by reducing uncertainty. Any effort to force CI to deliver certainty will doom it to failure.

Ex Libris

March 9, 2017

The other day, I was talking with Lora Bray, a friend who is a member of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), about CI and special librarians. The reason for the conversation is a new book Carolyn Vella and I have coming out. But more on that at a later date.

The issue we talked about is that while some special librarians are interested in competitive intelligence, there is not yet a lot of movement of them from that career to into one in CI. And that is too bad for them – and bad for business as well. Why? Let me explain.

In developing CI, several skills, including research experience and discipline, analytical skills, and industry experience, are very useful. Trained librarians possess a good measure of them:

They are trained in secondary research, probably far better than those of us whose “training” consisted in researching a couple of college papers years ago. And secondary research is not only a key element in providing CI, it is an important predicate to doing effective primary, particularly elicitation, interviews.

They have developed analytical skills. Effective secondary research requires analytical skills in defining the research scope, including “push backs”. It then requires analysis to separate useful and critical data from a mass of trivia and repetitive data.

What they usually lack are two other key elements: primary research training and industry specific experience.

By training in primary research, I mean in managing and conducting interviews, particularly elicitation interviews. But that training can be acquired relatively quickly.

By Industry specific experience, I mean line experience and/or formal education on the technology underlying an industry or product. But, that requirement is overly preferred in hiring. You don’t believe me? Look, for example, at the giant consulting firms that senior management often hires – how many of the associates, managers, and partners ever designed, made, serviced, or sold your specific product (or service)? Hint: not very many. Especially with respect to CI, industry specific experience is way over-valued. In my experience, an internal CI staffer should, ideally, have both CI experience and industry experience. But, the balance, when that is not available, and it usually is not, should lean heavily towards more CI experience rather than more industry specific experience. Why? You can usually learn about the basics of an industry or product faster than you can master doing effective, ethical CI. And, almost every industry is today facing technological and cultural changes, and even upheavals, which will put a greater value on being able to learn than having learned.

So, if you are adding to your CI team – formal or informal – look at the librarians. And librarians – look at CI.






The Shape of Things to Come (Part 2)

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:

  1. “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.’
  2. “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.’”[1]

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.”[2]

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” [3]. 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” [4], 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” [5].

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.

[1] https://www.justice.gov/oip/oip-summary-foia-improvement-act-2016, numbers added.

[2] https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/oip/legacy/2014/07/23/exemption4_0.pdf.

[3] https://www.justice.gov/oip/oip-summary-foia-improvement-act-2016.

[4] https://www.justice.gov/oip/oip-summary-foia-improvement-act-2016.

[5] https://www.justice.gov/oip/oip-summary-foia-improvement-act-2016.