Welcome to the [R]evolution

March 5, 2018

“Got a revolution, got to revolution.” Jefferson Airplane, Revolution (1969)

in our new book, Competitive Intelligence Rescue: Getting It Right (Praeger 2017), Carolyn Vella and I relate a case dealing with DIY CI (chapter 8). . Let me give you a couple of my thoughts on DIY CI.

Remember that the CI universe today has three basic research and analysis epicenters:

  1. CI professionals within an enterprise (including adjuncts such as researchers sited in libraries/information centers)
  2. Independent CI professionals who consult for/research for that and other enterprises
  3. Internal DIYers.

My own perception is that the first group is static or growing slowly, the second is stable or slightly declining, and that the third is growing steadily. Compared with 10 or 20 years ago, the existence of DIY CI marks an important evolution, if not revolution, in CI. Those growth trends, if they continue, may fundamentally change the CI “business”.

One plus from this is that it shows an increasing use of CI in enterprises, coupled with better access to end-users, particularly since the end-user in DIY CI is the person who generates the CI. It should also mean that the time between a perceiving a need for CI and its creation could fall.

However, there are also some minuses:

  • Those producing the CI will necessarily have narrower experiences in producing it, since they deal only with one client. That could result in a loss of professional perspective or even the failure to develop it.
  • The use of elicitation interviews will necessarily fall, thus diminishing use of a proven, valuable primary research resource.

What does this mean? One consequence could be that CI degenerate into several subspecialties where experience and developments are not easily transferable, such as IT CI, pharma CI, B2C CI, etc. Another consequence could be that CI could morph into a discipline that will not be able to look forward as easily as is it can look back and look at the present. Why? Because data on future actions and intentions lies with people to a significantly greater degree than in published sources. A third could be the separation of early warning processes from everyday CI, in part due to the lack of necessary broad perspectives among internal personnel.

What to do to keep these trends from “damaging” CI? (Sorry, I know that is a loaded question, but that is how I see it):

  • Institute regular awareness sessions and focused training both on producing CI and on using it. To avoid inbreeding, vary the sources for that training. That is use insiders, then external resources, and vary the outside providers over time.

Establish a stable of outside CI professionals pre-approved for future assignments. Rotation among them avoids having them buying into your firm’s blinders. Also, use one or more of them to regularly review your CI processes and work products to enrich your program with their broader perspectives. Interestingly, this is a flip on the CI audit that was used in the early days of CI before initiating a new CI program. Now the audit would be of the system as it operates and not of the potential need for CI and existing internal resources

Sage Advice – Strategic Planning and CI

January 17, 2017

How do these observations apply to competitive intelligence?

From General (and former President) Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”[1]

From legendary science fiction author Isaac Asimov: “To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well.”[2]

They mean that planning of any sort must not end with the plan. Being a part of the process means learning to work with all others similarly situate, even after the plan is done, to take necessary action based on accurate intelligence. You and they must be constantly alert to all of the changes that will impact the plan, or even render it useless.

You may be asked to work with strategic planners and provide CI, whatever it is called. Keep in mind that the need for such intelligence never ends at the “completion” of the planning cycle. Whether or not recognized by the planners themselves, CI is even more vital to the entire planning and execution process once the plan is done.

Why? Your competitors and the competitive environment will not give you the luxury of staying static or doing what you expected them to do in response to your firm’s actions, just to accommodate your planned efforts. Stay linked to those throughout the process and focus on keeping them updated rather than waiting for the next cycle or even the next updating meeting.

[1] Quoted by Dean James Stavridis, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in “Trump’s national security strategy leaves too much unsaid”, Time, January 22, 2018, p. 45.

[2] Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy, Ballantine Books, 1983, p. 126.

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.”

Competitive Intelligence and the Circular Economy

August 28, 2017

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog dealing with the “circular economy”. Since then, I have done some digging into this topic and conclude that (a) the circular economy is, not might be, coming, and (b) competitive intelligence as we know for firms that are a part of this will have to undergo major changes as a result.

One consequence is that I have written a longer piece on the subject, which you might enjoy reading. A brief extract may interest you:

“The rise of the CE [Circular Economy] will necessarily have major impacts on competitive and strategic intelligence. They appear to fall into 4 broad categories:

  • A change in the stature of CI.
  • A reduction in [CI] employment opportunities with firms in the CE, while increasing it in firms outside of the CE.
  • Greater opportunities for those trained in defensive intelligence.
  • A need for new skills and education for intelligence personnel working in the CE.”

The full paper is “Ten years gone, holdin’ on, ten years gone ”: The Circular Economy and the Evolutionary Trajectory of the Competitive Intelligence Profession.

The Big Picture (1 of 7)

August 18, 2017

Our new book, Competitive Intelligence Rescue – Getting It Right, is a powerful “how-to-do-it-better” book, the first guidebook on competitive intelligence that uses case studies to provide behind-the-scenes insights into how professionals can improve competitive intelligence processes. This unique approach uses real-world case studies (carefully masked) to expose common CI challenges and presents a simple methodology for spotting problems, understanding how to rectify each problem, educating others to bring about improvements in a process, and testing and validating that the changes are working.

Several cases there show the problems and issues in creating a new competitive intelligence unit. In our experiences, and by our, I mean Carolyn M. Vella, The Helicon Group’s Founding Partner and my significantly better half, there are typically 7 major elements involved in that process: financial and personnelguidelines, training, internal marketing, networkingcustomers and their needs, and CI products and feedback. For those who would like to transition from DIY to full-time status, or for those who are already there, it is important to see the big picture so I will deal quickly with each over the next weeks.

The first element I will comment on is key financial/personnel issues.

From the financial end, a CI unit, even if it is made up of only one person, requires a commitment to proper funding for the unit, including for training, internal marketing, and networking. Ideally, the CI unit should have its own stable funding. That allows management to compare costs with results and for the unit to plan further ahead than one quarter.

From the personnel end, some one must be in charge, even if that is only one of his/her duties. Team responsibility means no accountability. And, the individual in charge must have direct, personal access to all internal customers, particularly the most senior or important. Filtering their needs often means failure to deliver. Also, once this is a full-time position, the individual there must be able to see a career path after CI. No clear path up means looking for a way out.

This is not the first time I have commented on these issues. Check out these past blogs for more on this:

Likelihood of Success

Success is Fleeting

Another look at problems with competitive intelligence (part 1)

Ten Things Outside CI Consultants Do Not Want to Deal With

July 5, 2017

On the relationship


  1. “I’m not the final client for this work.” That makes doing the work harder, since the consultant is going through a filter – you. And that means no opportunity for effective pushback or digging into the end user’s real needs, as opposed to its (different) stated needs.


  1. “We’ll promise you more business if you’ll cut your fee.” Unless you have that authority, and there is more business in the pipeline, do not hold out this faux carrot. And don’t you think this will impact the current work? Remember the saying, “There are three things possible, but you only get two: fast, cheap, or good.”


  1. “Your relationship is limited to the person who signed your contract.” (This involves a sad story in which a client was fired in mid-project, and his successors initially didn’t want to pay a pending invoice.)


On the submitted bid/proposal


  1. “We’ll share your proposal and/or approach with other vendors.” In other words, one consultant is now working for its competitors? Increasingly, proposals are submitted to potential clients with language forbidding sharing the contents. Respect it.


  1. “We’re really just looking for good ideas for our own people.” Why not pay a consultant to work with your team to learn how to develop better skills and approaches?


  1. “You’re column fodder.” That means you need to get three bids, but want only vendor #1. The other two bidders are there to fill out the columns on the evaluation matrix. Don’t do it.


  1. “Your bid is a bargaining tool.” Sometimes bids are solicited on an existing piece of work to keep an incumbent “in its place” cost-wise and otherwise. See number 6 above.


  1. “You’re not bidding on the same scope of work as others.” It is amazing how few companies issue formal RFPs or other engagement specs for CI these days, so they are often getting competing “apples and oranges” proposals.


On fees and payments


  1. “We always bargain harder with small vendors.” High quality small vendors without big time “brand names” are often seen as more likely to cut fees to win work. See number 2 above.


  1. “We only pay on 45 (or 60 or 75) days.” When that comes from a (large) firm which requires its own customers to pay in 10-15 days net, it translates to “We ride our accounts payable to enhance our cash flow.”

Is Early Warning for You?

April 7, 2017


You have probably heard, and even thought about, having an early warning system. Why? Well, early warning is an area where CI skills are quite valuable. However, there are some major issues that you should consider before going further.

In case you are not familiar with it, an early warning system provides – wait for it – early warning of major economic, environmental, market, and political changes impacting the organization’s businesses. In practice, it can often one of the most effective way of communicating strategic intelligence to senior management.

Let’s look at a few issues that are not readily evident:

  • Commitment – By commitment, I am referring to both time and money, and most importantly, participation by management. Without active management participation, an early warning system is just a set of musing given to management. Participation includes the commitment to act on it.
  • Bottom line – It usually takes a long time to see the results of an effective early warning system. And, they are often impossible to quantify. What is the bottom line impact of avoiding the future entry of a new firm into part of your market? How much would you have lost if you did not launch a new product defensively?
  • Verify results – This is related to the bottom line problem. Avoiding problems (or crises), beginning reacting months earlier than you might, and the like often serves to lower risks and potential costs. But, again, you may not be able to see that. Take for example, the parallel of a watchman on a merchant ship in World War II. He is scanning the horizon, looking for anything that could pose a threat to the ship, its crew, passengers, and/or cargo. He spots what he thinks might be the periscope of a submarine. On being told, the captain begins evasive maneuvers, which costs time and fuel, moves the crew to combat quarters, which reduces their ability to do ordinary work, and calls for naval and air assistance to hunt down the sub, which ties them up. The result – the ship is not attacked by a sub. But, was a successful attack going to happen? The captain will never know.
  • Changing the future – Well-done early warning systems can make it impossible to measure, or even to verify, results. Why? Because, first, they are talking about trends (probabilities), not hard facts. And second, by responding to a warning, they may have changed the predicted future. Think about it.

I am not saying that an early warning system is not valuable. Shell’s experience seems to show that it can be extraordinarily valuable. What I am saying is that if you do this, do it right, control expectations, get by-in early and often. Then, effective early warning will product its real benefits: doing many things better, faster, and smarter while reducing risk and the exposure to risk and avoiding the many traps of short-term thinking and actions.