Where is intelligence going?

June 4, 2013

Two interesting pieces raising this question in my mind again. The first was an essay by Ben Gilad, in a SCIP publication, asking whether or not competitive intelligence had become “Googlized”, that is, evolving into a situation where, because of the access to information through the Internet, the practice of competitive intelligence will be in the hands of line managers and not competitive intelligence specialists within large corporations. One key trend underlying this is that many end-users of the competitive intelligence seem to view it as being basically the collection and organization of raw data, and not the critical analysis of that data.

From another point, the recent issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek featured the article “How the U.S. Government Hacks the World”. There it was reported

“When President Obama receives his daily intelligence briefing, most of the information comes from government cyberspies, says Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush. “It’s at least 75 percent, and going up,” he says.”

Let me dissect why I was taken by the quote. First, it described the president’s intelligence briefing as containing “information”, not intelligence. Second, it indicated that at least 75% of the contents of the daily intelligence briefing came from government cyber spies. In other words, they do not come from open source materials or communications with government employees and diplomats, but rather from hacking into the computers of other nations.

Hacking provides data, sometimes information, and only rarely intelligence. Yet it seems that raw data is now what passes for some intelligence at the governmental level. I doubt that is the universal case, and sincerely hope that is not true. For if it is, then the craft of intelligence, at least at the government’s highest levels is becoming more a matter of repackaging data into information than it is providing truly insightful and actionable analysis.

What do these two pieces have in common? In government we see a possible pattern that is similar to Ben’s observations in business about competitive intelligence managers being replaced by data gatherers, not analysts.

What we need for business to function effectively is not more data, whether from open sources or from government cyber spies, but rather insightful and actionable analysis. That is not provided by overwhelming the end-user with data. In the end, doing that only chokes off decision-making by minimizing or even eliminating analysis. It creates the erroneous impression that one knows what is going on, when all that one has is a mass, or mess, of raw or somewhat digested data.

To draw from another discipline, cooking, there is a huge difference between the meat, vegetables, and other ingredients, the raw data if you will, and the intermediate products as delivered by the prep chef, the trimmed meat, the sliced vegetables, ready for cooking. That is the information. Then the chef converts the intermediate products into Beef Wellington, the meal. Preparing the meal is the equivalent of using analysis to generate intelligence. Right now it seems as if, both in the public and private sector, we are in danger of people confusing raw meat and vegetables, or prepared meat and vegetables, with a gourmet meal. If that is the situation, that is worse than unfortunate.

Who should you be watching? (Part 1)

April 1, 2013

Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently featured a major profile of the Korean electronics giant Samsung. In discussing its strategy for entering new product categories, the article pointed out the step-by-step approach Samsung takes:

     First, start by making a key component for that industry. If possible, select one that requires a substantial investment, since this also creates a barrier to entry for your own direct competitors.

     Second, sell the component to several companies in the market, not just one. Over time, this will provide your firm with insight into how that marketplace operates.

     Third, once you decided to expand your operations and to begin competing with the companies for whom you have been a supplier, make “massive investments in plants and technologies, leveraging [your] foothold into a position that other companies have little chance of matching.”[1]

In other words, your current supplier can become a future competitor.

This strategy is not new. In fact almost 25 years ago, our CI training courses featured a look at this very strategy – from Japan, not Korea, and involving engines, not electronics.

What this means is that you should devote some of your competitive intelligence efforts beyond merely direct and indirect competitors. Now, you only have so much time and other resources available, so you cannot try and study everything and everyone. In the case of suppliers, look for suppliers that have the characteristics of the Samsung strategy, that is occupying a key position as a supplier, but having history of moving from being a supplier to being a competitor. Now admittedly their ability to move will not be as fast as one of your competitors, but the long-term threat may be as severe.

The same holds true dealing with customers, particularly if you are in a business to business marketing niche. Just as you may look at integrating downstream operations to improve your competitive position, be wary of key customers who may be thinking of integrating backwards, that is replacing you. Again you cannot spend the same time and effort on this as you do on direct competitors, but you have to understand that you cannot just look at competitive activity for today and tomorrow. You have to look 1,2,3, even five years ahead.

[1]Sam Grobart, “How Samsung Became the World’s No. 1 Smartphone Maker”, March 28, 2013.


Working trade shows (Part 1)

February 18, 2013

One of the most productive ways to do your own competitive intelligence is to learn how to work the trade show, or expo or conference A recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek praised one entrepreneur as “an old hand at tradeshows” noting that “and as we walked the Expo floor he checked out his competition”.[1]

“Checked out his competition”, a wonderful phrase to hear.

Exactly what should you be doing to check out your competition at a trade show. First let’s touch on what not to do: do not pretend to be something or someone you are not. In most trade shows you have a badge identifying you by name and organization, that is, probably color-coded as well when to indicate whether you are a vendor a potential customer the media and attendee etc. Honesty is the best policy. Be who you are.

Now, once you are there, you should do is take a look at the list of vendors and determine which of your competitors are present and, perhaps as importantly, which ones are not present. Did you expect to see particular firm there? Why are they not there? That may mark the beginning of an inquiry into a potential new opening in the market space.

Now take a quick look at the floor plan. Who spent a lot of money on space and who seems to be spending less money than last year? Those buying more space or more expensive space than last may be more dangerous to you in the near term than they are now. The reverse could be true for those that cut back on marketing expenses at the trade show. Does that mark something significant?

Don’t be afraid to walk around and look at your competitors’ displays. Even take a picture. It is an open session and you are behaving openly. If you are working with a number of people at the trade show, it would be useful to detail one or more of them to actually visit the booths, displays etc. and listen to what your competitors are saying and to see what they are displaying.

What else should you do? I’ll cover that in future blogs.

[1]Matthew Power, Apocalypse 24/7, Bloomberg Businessweek, Feb. 18-24, 2013, 63.


February 5, 2013

 In the most recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, an article on honesty in the workplace[1] states

“Apple has been reported to spread false rumors to throw off the press and has fired employees for leaking even most quotidian of news items.”


Well this short quote, assuming it is correct, actually involves at least two separate concepts for those of us with an interest in competitive intelligence. The first is disinformation, and the second is the impact of a founder or other powerful personality on the direction of an organization.

With respect to disinformation, again if the article is correct, the spreading of these “false rumors” is a form of disinformation. In the case of a public company, disinformation is not the same as the release of non-public information. Why? Because it is not really information. How or even whether the US Securities and Exchange Commission would go after such activity is not clear. If intended to disrupt competitors, it is hard to say that it is principally aimed at manipulating stock prices.

But in any case, as I have explained, disinformation is an exceedingly corrosive activity.

The second concept is the impact that one person can make a large, even gigantic, organization. The stories about Apple founder Steve Jobs and his impact on the culture at Apple are numerous, and I suspect in some cases are even accurate. Among them are stories about his personal domination of the organization, as well as his intensely negative attitude towards competitors. Again, this short quote reflects that.

Certainly it is true that Jobs is no longer at Apple, but the people that he trained, hired, and his allegedly handpicked successor are still there. They would not be expected to stray far from his philosophy, at least not in the short period of time that has passed since his death.

This is not to say that the passing of a strong personality or founder does not eventually lead to changes in the organization. One only has to look at the case of Walmart, which under Sam Walton was proudly declaring that all of its products work made in the USA. Now, Walmart is reportedly the largest single importer of products from China.

So what does this mean? It means that, when you were doing your own CI, you have to understand your target, and its people, and you can’t accept everything out there as the absolute truth.

[1]Christopher Bonanos, “The Lies We Tell at Work”, Bloomberg Busienssweek, Feb. 4-10, 2013.

Play well with others? (Part 3)

January 14, 2013

 Part of dealing with others means creating and maintaining your own network. I’ve discussed this in the context of working within your enterprise, but your network, or more properly networks, should extend well beyond your own business. Now there are of course limits to the size of a network that you can actually maintain. One of those is the so-called Dunbar number, 150 to be precise, based on the research work of a scholar, Dr. Robin Dunbar, and actually underlying the operation of some social network sites[1].

Let’s assume that this number is correct, that is an effective network is 150 people, well, what is that mean for you?

It means you not should think of your network not as one unitary whole, because it isn’t. Let’s assume for example you have a network on LinkedIn. That network probably started with your contacts in the business community or nonprofit community, or whatever community in which you work. LinkedIn conveniently let you search your email addresses and ask people to join your network. Then, over time you have added occasional names of individuals you met, perhaps at a conference or trade show, at a corporate meeting, or with a new client.

Over time, you been approached by other people asking you to join their networks. Now of course you are selective, making sure that you’re not being duped into joining some network which is nothing more than a sales pitch. Then you probably started to look when you signed on LinkedIn where you are asked if “do you know these people” and suggesting you might ask them to join your network.

Now you do not have just one network — you have a series of networks, some overlapping, some not. Some may be strictly related to your hobby, whatever that is. Some may be related to your Township or political activities in your area or the like.

But you still have to nurture and pay attention to these networks. Don’t add names just for the sake of adding names. This is not a contest to see how many names you can collect. Rather attempt to make yourself available to others who might be of use to you, of interest to you, or have come in contact with you. Certainly use your network to communicate with these people. If you are giving a presentation at an industry Association meeting, send some of the members of your network an announcement.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I can think of very few things that you would want to announce to everyone in your network. Think of it this way — at Christmas you’ll get a card from that roommate in college whom you have not seen for (fill in the blank) years detailing the arrival of new children, their education and growth, and ultimately the arrival of grandchildren. Is this person really concerned about the fact that you won a prize at the local orchid show or that you had an article accepted for publication in a trade industry magazine? No.

Nurturing your network(s) is a skill, perhaps even an art. When you build a network, make sure that you then feed it from time to time. Different parts of your network, or more properly separate networks, need different care and different feeding. Treated with care, they will reward you over time.

[1] Drake Bennett, “The Dunbar Number”, Bloomberg Businessweek, January 14-January 20, 2013, p52-56.