Not All Interviews are Alike

July 24, 2018

“[A co-founder of Zoox, a self-driving car “hopeful”] reached out to some of the biggest names in the field and told them he was making a documentary on the rise of self-driving cars. The plan was to mine these people for information and feel out potential partners…. [He says] ’In my defense I might have been making a documentary.’”[1]

Legal? Yes. Ethical? No! Why? Let’s look at ethical standards in CI:

  • SCIP’s Code of Ethics requires its members “[t]o accurately disclose all relevant information, including one’s identity and organization, prior to all interviews.”[2] Never happened. Unless he said he “might” be making a documentary, instead of that he was.
  • The Helicon Group “[n]ever employs questionable data collection activities. These are techniques, otherwise legal, which, if made public, might tend to embarrass Helicon’s reputation or that of a client.”[3] What sort of reputation does this person and his firm have now?

Now, what should these “big names” have done to protect themselves from this individual as well as CI professionals seeking competitively sensitive data? Here are a couple of suggestions for them (and for others):

  • Check out anyone seeking an interview. Is this person really who/what they say they are? In this case, he was a video producer. Maybe close enough to a documentary maker to skate by.
  • Do the conditions look and sound right? In this case, the interviewer showed up with a “Canon and a bullshit microphone”. Does that look professional? Probably not.
  • What is the interviewers approach? This one relied on flattery. Warning! No one is really that interested in what you are doing – except your competition.
  • What kind of interview is being conducted? This one was two hours long – another warning! After a while, your defenses fall and you speak more freely.
  • Also, it was conducted in a “grassy field”. Maybe it was sold as a good background for the video. But, it could have been a way to keep this person from his computer or other interruptions that might force him to reconsider “why am I still talking to this person and exactly what am I saying?”

[1] Ashlee Vance, “Hype Machine”, Bloomberg Businessweek, July 23, 2018, p. 53.



The Big Picture (2 of 7)

September 5, 2017

Our new book (by our, I mean Carolyn M. Vella, The Helicon Group’s Founding Partner and my significantly better half), Competitive Intelligence Rescue – Getting It Right, is a powerful “how-to-do-it-better” book, that 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, and testing and validating that the changes are working.

Several of the cases there show the issues in creating or adding a new competitive intelligence unit. In our experience, there are typically 7 major elements involved in that process: financial and personnel, guidelines, training, internal marketing, networking, customers and their needs, and products and feedback. It is important to see the big picture, so I will deal briefly with each issue over the next weeks.

I have already discussed the financial and personnel issues.

Here, I will comment on key guideline issues. By guidelines, I mean both ethical/legal standards and mission statements/job descriptions.

Very few CI teams, or even individual analysts, are ready to issue a statement setting out the ethical principles that will govern the new process. Too many just default to adopting the Code of Ethics of Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP), either by reference or by just copying the text.

Do this only as a stopgap. The best way to do heave the right ethical and legal standards is to work with your company’s legal counsel, inside or out, to develop this. That way, it will reflect what you will be doing, as well as the environment in which you will be doing it. Doing it this way has the additional benefit of educating your legal counsel about competitive intelligence, so that they understand it better, to serve you and your company better.

The same is true of mission statements and job descriptions. The more specific, the better. These should be developed in cooperation with your internal clients. That will also help advance the likelihood that they will use what you provide.

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

Company Policies on Collecting Competitive Intelligence (part 1)

Company Policies on Collecting Competitive Intelligence (part 2)

Company Policies on Collecting Competitive Intelligence (part 3)

Guest Blog: Conducting Ethical Competitive Intelligence – Fortune 500 Companies

February 16, 2016

In today’s complex and evolving business world, the importance of ensuring the ethical gathering and collecting of competitive intelligence (CI) must adhere to the highest standards in accordance with legal laws and regulatory guidelines, industry standards, and established internal codes of conduct and compliance requirements. This framework serves as a starting point for those having to address ethical CI guidelines and internal business standards.

The following are the major areas that should be addressed in the ethical conduct of both primary and secondary research:

1)  Internal business code of conduct, ethics and compliance align with ethical CI guidelines.

2)  Legal Department review and formal certification of ethical CI guidelines (Annual event).

3)  All internal employees, executives, part-time, staff, and other members of the business complete annual training on ethical CI guidelines (Formal training records are maintained by Human Resources Department).

4)  3rd party firms, vendors, suppliers, consultants, subject matter experts (SMEs), and others that support, conduct or involved with business adhere to internal ethical CI guidelines (Formal records are maintained).

5)  Gathering, assembling, maintaining, and dissemination of all information, data, insights, reports, materials and other documents accomplished in accordance with internal information management processes and internal CI guidelines.

6)  Formal contracts with 3rd party firms, consultants and others involved with primary/ and secondary research have specific guidance and written instructions outlining internal/external CI methodologies for each project.

7)  Assigned single point of contact within the internal business that is responsible for the day-to-day operations and overall supervision of primary and secondary research projects (ie. CI manager, capture manager, project manager, etc.) to ensure the highest ethical code of conduct and in accordance with internal ethical CI guidelines.

8)  Pre-project, ongoing review, and post-review/evaluation on CI projects with 3rd party firms, consultants, SMEs and internal employees.

9)  Awareness training and education of all employees in ethical CI and the growing risk/threats to businesses.

10) Ensure success and enjoy the experience in legally and ethically formulating strategic/tactical insights.


This was presented by Garn Anderson to the SCIP Philadelphia/Delaware Chapter Meeting “Ethics in Competitive Intelligence” January 26, 2016. Garn Anderson is recognized thought leader in strategic competitive intelligence, and a leading expert in business and competitive intelligence with over 18-years of corporate experience in conducting complex global primary research and risk threat mitigation. He has helped a number of Fortune 500 companies establish a formal CI function and in their development of ethical guidelines. He is currently principal and head analyst at i3 Consulting LLC.

Company Policies on Collecting Competitive Intelligence (part 3)

February 2, 2016

In my prior two blogs on this[1], I discussed written policies dealing with competitive intelligence. But, the unwritten rules at your business can be the most important to you.  What underlies most of them is one word – embarrassment.  To summarize the concept, do not do anything that could cause concern to your employer or bring unwanted attention to it.  Whether or not there is a written policy that actually says this, the cold facts are that taking any such action puts your job at immediate risk.  In that regard, let me relate a short story:

  • Several years ago one of the largest consumer goods firms in the US, which had a well-regarded competitive intelligence unit, authorized a research project against a global competitor. The details are not precisely clear, but it appears that the first CI firm with which the company contracted then brought in a second group of firms as subcontractors, and some of these CI subcontractors in turn subcontracted some of their work to other CI firms.  That meant that some individuals working directly on the assignment were three levels away from the client’s supervision (or perhaps even knowledge).  The results were predictably catastrophic:  One of the subcontractors was accused, by the target company, of attempting to steal its garbage in order to go through it later (“dumpster dumping”)
  • Events then moved rather quickly. The CEO of the client firm flew across the world to meet with the CEO of the target firm.  The end result was that
    • the client firm paid the target a substantial settlement, believed to be over US$10 million;
    • the client firm also agreed with the target that it would not enter a certain market niche for a period of years, the very niche that was the focus of the competitive intelligence task;
    • on the client firm’s CEO’s return to headquarters, three or four competitive intelligence personnel at the company were terminated;
    • a senior CI manager at that firm “retired” rather quickly; and
    • the client firm purged its approved contractor list, removing every firm that was involved in this case, even the CI firm that claimed it blew the whistle on the misdeeds of others.

The client firm paid a rather substantial price a failure of its management and a failure by others to exercise common sense. Keep in mind the words of a CI pioneer, Professor Stevan Dedijer:

“Intelligence today is about using the collective knowledge of the organization to reach an advantageous position in industry. Spying is dying – only idiots resort to these kinds of shady activities. Only companies with an inadequate intelligence capability and with inferior knowledge-acquisition strategies seek to obtain information by illegal or unethical means”.

[1] and .

Company Policies on Collecting Competitive Intelligence (part 1)

January 19, 2016

Does your firm have a written policy that applies to competitive intelligence? Good. Read it. Follow it. But that is not all there is to dealing with a written policy.

Good written policies are just that, written policies. To protect your firm, it must have compliance. What does that include?

  • First, compliance requires knowledge. That, in turn, means you and any other DIYers should be trained on appropriate legal and ethical issues, and that training should be renewed on a regular basis.
  • Second, you should discuss specific ethical concerns with a supervisor. DIYers should be allowed, or even encouraged, to contact a designated, trained, and educated member of the legal team with any concerns they may have.
  • Third, you should make sure that contractors, consultants, and other third parties whose services you use have a formal policy dealing with the collection of CI data. That policy should be reviewed before any contract is signed or work begun. Then, the contractor should be made aware of your company’s policies, and agree, in writing, to be bound by them. If your company’s policies and contractor’s policies are in conflict, then the best solution is to have the contractor bound by the stricter of the two policies.
  • Fourth, every contractor should also agree that any work it subcontracts will be subject to the same standards. Requiring that you (or someone from legal) review any such subcontracts is a good way to protect your firm. I will cover more on that in a later blog on this.
  • Fifth, if necessary, contractors should be encouraged, or even required, to participate in company-approved training on legal and ethical CI issues.