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/.


Long Range Thinking

April 25, 2018

When researching long-range trends, or more accurately spotting long range trends, you should seek out sources that (a) are thinking about the future and (b) have had some reasonable success in identifying such trends.

I recently came across one. Published in 1997, it correctly predicted a surprising number of developments. Here is just a partial list:

  • Development of smart clothes and spam filters.
  • Stagnation in middle income salaries due to the Internet producing more candidates competing for jobs.
  • The use of complex comparisons in advertising to prevent, or at least slow, price competition among providers of virtually identical products\services, such as phone, financial, and insurance service
  • Marketers use of the Internet and your computer to track your interests and activities so that their marketing can be ultra-focused.
  • People giving up privacy for more security to the point that there will be cameras virtually everywhere.
  • The corollary that “everyone will be a news reporter”.

Of course, this sage was also wrong, for example, in predicting that “airline travel will be just as uncomfortable as it is today [1997].” As we all know, it is WAY MORE uncomfortable.

What is the source of such profound insight? Was it a futurist, global consulting group, a recently declassified CIA study, or 1997 translation of Nostradamus? No.

Ready? It was Scott Adams, best-selling cartoonist[1].

You should not be surprised as humorists as rule are a very savvy, observant group. It was said of long-time Tonight Show host Johnny Carson that you knew which politicians were in trouble just by listening to his opening monologue.

So, when you are seeking help in figuring out long term trends, never prematurely narrow your search – err on the side of broadening it.

[1] The Dilbert Future – Thriving on Stupidity in the 21st Century, HarperCollins, New York, 1997, pp. 31, 48, 132, 160, 171, 198, 202, and 221.


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


Got Style?

March 23, 2018

Writing style is much overlooked (note the unfortunate, but common, use of the passive voice here) when we talk about business communication. However, what we write survives longer than our oral presentations do. A written document can always be referred to after the fact, while a presentation, unless recorded, relies on (imperfect) memory. So, your style of writing is important.

And, trust me, there are different styles of business writing. Here are a couple:

  • The entertaining – conversational, relaxed, and short, but tends to be lighter on content. It is an opening shot for discussion.
  • The direct – short sentences, clear language with no passive statements. It offers an issue and a conclusion. It reads like people (should) sound.
  • The professional – longer sentences, with more technical terms, presumably included for precision. No one, or almost no one, speaks like this – unless of course they are just reading it aloud, which is whole different issue. Then it becomes merely boring and unintelligible.
  • The overbearing – involves complex sentences, heavy use of acronyms. It is aimed at convincing the audience that the author is a real (and perhaps the only) expert on the topic. It is designed to persuade by being overwhelming, including the excessive use of footnotes and/or quotations.
  • The political/bureaucratic – filled with refences to rules, regulations, “context”, and past actions/decisions. Operates to conceal and deflect, by using the passive voice, rhetorical questions, and deep dives into often irrelevant sidebars. Rarely includes any acceptance of the possibility of (a) personal error, (b) institutional failure, or (c) cogent opposition to its conclusions.

Which are you (and which is this)?


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.”