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.


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.






Tag – You’re It!

February 16, 2017

I was reading the most recent issue of Successful Meetings. Why, you ask? Because if I am going to work – or protect – a meeting, conference or trade show with respect to CI, I should how they are being run and how they are changing.

Anyway, it had an interesting article for people who are being told that they are now doing meeting planning in addition to everything else they do[1]. Taking it as inspiration, here are a couple of tips for DIYers who are (suddenly) told “Well, you know all about competitive intelligence, so why don’t you provide us with some in addition to everything else you are doing”:

  1. Be prepared to get going; While this may not have happened to you yet, the operative word here is “yet”. While it is not always true for CI teams that “If you build it, they will come”, when you are doing your own CI, eventually others will (a) figure out that you are doing this, and (b) some will realize that the CI is adding value. Then, it is but one step to being drafted, so prepare for it. Look at the next 8 tips and see where you stand now with respect to each one.
  2. Take advantage of training and education:: Take a hard look at any groups of which you are a member. Then check on groups that your organization or other employees are members of. Have their newsletters and magazines dealt with CI? If so, start checking the latest issues. Have they offered sessions on CI or related areas (strategic intelligence, war gaming, scenario development, long-range scanning)? If so, see if you can take a webinar of a past session. Also, check the agendas of their forth-coming meetings for sessions on CI that you can attend. There are also a variety of groups that run formal training programs and even annual sessions on CI. Among them are the Institute for Competitive Intelligence[2] and the Fuld-Gilad-Herring Academy of Competitive Intelligence. Check them and others out.
  3. Stay current: There are numerous websites and blogs – such as this one – that you should tap into for current developments and discussions about CI. Staying current on CI is now a part of your job – it should have been at least a small part already.
  4. Identify internal and external partners: Here is where your networking is key. If you already have an internal network, use it. If not, start developing one now. Look around for potential external partners for your future research: think trade associations, affiliates and subsidiaries, academic research centers, suppliers, customers, and government agencies.
  5. Find out the reasons for the assignments: To do your best CI research and analysis, you must know not only what they (whoever they are) want, but, more importantly, what they intend to do with it. Knowing that, you may often be able to suggest an alternative line of research or research target that is faster or cheaper or more reliable.
  6. Show ROI: It helps to try to show the return on your investments (ROI) in CI. For example, if your analysis shows that a planned new venture is very, very risky, casually note that the15 hours of work you did will save the organization $6.2 million it would have spent on going forward with a failing venture.
  7. Be smart about non-ROI statistics: ROI is not all that your CI can provide and not the only thing to point to. How about time? If your CI doubles the time that your organization now has to respond to a competitor’s forthcoming new pricing regime, when compared with the last time this happened, tell people.[3]
  8. Improve your existing skills and add new ones: You already are doing some CI so you have some basic knowledge – I hope. So first, work on improving your existing third-party skills, such as working with others, managing meetings, and communication, both written and oral. Good CI that is not properly communicated is not useful or likely to be used. Then work on adding new skills such as interviewing third parties, team management, improved technical expertise on what your firm does, and working meetings and conventions.
  9. Promote your value and CI’s value: Do not be shy about what you are doing and what value the (new) CI is bringing to your team/organization. Diplomatically use phrases such as “Our blind spots were…”, “Filling in the following gaps…”, “Providing us with an opportunity we were not fully aware of…”, and “Avoiding a previously unexpected threat…”.

[1] Andrea Doyle, “Planning for Double Duty”, Successful Meetings, February 2017, pp. 12-15.

[2] In the interest of full disclosure, I am on the faculty of ICI.

[3] For more on this, see John J. McGonagle and Carolyn M. Vella, Bottom Line Competitive Intelligence, Praeger 2002.

Circular Economy?

There is a lot of talk in business and educational circles about the concept of the “circular economy”. As befits such a description, there are a variety of overlapping definitions. Here is one:

“A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.”[1]

Why am I mentioning this in a blog on CI? Because there is a key lesson to be found in the debate about a process which tries to more fully integrate corporate operations and to enable management to see what is going on, both in the supply chain and in the distribution chain, while incorporating the management of critical environmental issues. And all of this is to be seamless.

What is the lesson? The lesson is that none of the debates on this concept (or related concepts) has, at least according to my personal research, ever mentioned competitive (or business or competitor or strategic) intelligence. Think about it. CI is missing from this debate. Why?

Probably because CI is still just bolted onto businesses. In general, it is not incorporated into overall business processes. Look at the classic CI process for evidence of this: someone must affirmatively decide that he/she/they need intelligence and then formally assign the task elsewhere. The recipient then produces an answer or answers on a specific schedule. Of course, if any question is not spot on, then the research and analysis is probably not either. If the research and intelligence is too late, or is rejected or ignored by the internal client for her/his own reasons then the CI is useless – or more accurately not used.

This is not the case with the DIYers of CI or with those few CI programs where the CI person or team has the ability – and incentives – to define the intelligence needs and to generate the necessary research and analysis on their own initiative. In those cases, the end-user/customer and analyst are, at least initially, the same. And, in the case of the DIYer, there is no “fatal disconnect” between the decision-maker and the analyst.

To me, that seems to mean that at least one future of CI lies in that direction, joining in the circular economy process. How do we do that? Your thoughts?

[1] Ellen MacArthur Foundation,, accessed 2/8/17.

The Study of Intelligence

This is a review of AFIO’s Guide to the Study of Intelligence, Peter C. Oleson, Editor. Association of Former Intelligence Officers, Falls Church, VA,, 2016, 740 pages, $95.00.

First, a disclaimer. I am one of the 70 – yes 70 – authors contributing to this massive work.

AFIO’s Guide has been in the works for 6 years, and that kind of work shows. The book is a comprehensive and extremely readable look at the entire subject of intelligence and at teaching about it. It is not restricted to governmental intelligence – it is much broader than that, although many of its contributors are former government intelligence community members.

I said readable, and I really mean that. This book is aimed not only at those teaching about governmental intelligence, but also those teaching where intelligence is one topic of interest. To me that includes history, politics, foreign relations, civil rights, and civics among other subjects. As a history buff, I am enthralled by it.

Peter Oleson and the contributors have joined to provide not only a guide to teachers, but a guide to their students as well. At the end of each chapter, there is a short, well-selected reading list for more on the chapter’s subject. Also, scattered throughout are tips for teachers, such as suggested exercises and sources for additional original documents. The authors’ footnotes also provide leads to innumerable sources found on the internet. And the book closes with over 50 pages of valuable leads to information sources, popular books and more reading on intelligence.

I have taught competitive intelligence, and can say that several of the chapters in AFIO’s Guide would have been very valuable both to me and to my students. From a personal point of view, the book is fascinating. I suggest that we think of this both as a guide to those teaching the study of intelligence as well as a guide to those of us who wish to learn more about intelligence even on our own.

Whether online or hard copy (my choice), this is a first-rate read, and worth getting just for that. It is also an extremely valuable resource for anyone who teaching about intelligence and its impact on politics and government as well for those who would like to learn more about intelligence in general.

10 Rules for Doing Your Own CI Research and Analysis

October 13, 2016

I want to share 10 basic rules with you DIYers which you should keep in mind when doing your own competitive intelligence research and analysis:

  1. Be honest – admit that you have not always been focused on what your competitors are doing: Even if you have been trying to keep up with what the competition is doing, your efforts have almost certainly been sporadic and incomplete. If you are not really keeping up, you are probably just assuming you know what the competition is doing. Never assume you know what your competitor is doing, and, more importantly, never assume you know what it is planning to do!
  2. Know who your real competitors are: They may not be who you think they are. Ask your customers what other firms else they considered before they chose you. Those should be considered competitors, too. And keep an eye on your partners, suppliers and even major customers. They can, and often do, quickly turn into competitors.
  3. Ask lots of questions: If a customer leaves, find out why he/she is leaving and where he/she is going. Keep track of the answers you get. You may find a pattern that warns you of emerging competitors or new initiatives. Then you know what to focus on.
  4. Familiarize yourself with the competition — as they really are – today: Take the time to visit and revisit their stores, study their facilities (if possible), check out their web sites, and find out who owns them. Regularly track data about your competitors in the public domain – press releases, newsletters, new government filings, etc.
  5. When you study your competitors, never assume they see things the way you do: Your competitors have their own vision of the marketplace – and of your firm. Even if you think that vision is dead wrong, always keep in mind that they are guided by it and will operate in accord with it, not on how you think they should behave.
  6. Decide what’s important – and what is not: There are some things you can’t do anything about no matter how much you know about them. Focus on supporting important decision-making, not on merely satisfying your own curiosity.
  7. Don’t assume there is nothing you can do, even if you know what your competitors are up to: Effective CI does not always provide an opportunity to develop a competitive advantage, such as launching a new product. But sometimes it provides a vital early warning of a threat that can help you survive!
  8. Don’t get pressured into trying to measure exactly what CI is doing all of the time: While there are many aspects of CI where you can measure the impact, you cannot attach a number to everything CI can do for you. For example, what is the value of knowing a competitor will beat you to market or knowing that a competitor’s planned initiative will run into problems because the construction of the plant supporting is behind schedule because it still lacks some key permits?
  9. Be realistic: With the increasing focus on security on all fronts, some sources of raw data CI that were available in the past are no longer open to the public. Others may not be in the future. Always keep these changes and possible changes in mind
  10. Do it right – or don’t do it at all: CI is an ethical, legal activity. Never let yourself get pressured into doing anything that is not totally ethical and legal. There is never any good reason to be unethical or illegal.