Competitive Intelligence

Tactical, Operational & Strategic Analysis of Markets, Competitors & Industries

Are We In a Rut, Or Just Reluctant to Share?

Over the last several months, on separate work projects, I have been looking closely at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and BCG and how they structure their work and serve their clients. All of these are stellar organizations that succeeed by innovating, expanding the sophistication of their processes, and constantly keeping ahead of their clients (and competitors).

I was struck by the contrast with the CI discipline, where I fear that we are stuck in a rut. Go to any conference and you'll see presenters (myself included) dust off the decades-old intelligence cycle, Porter's Five Forces, etc. Is this the best that we can do? Where is the new thinking? Is anyone innovating out there? While I realize that good CI is a lot more than slick models and methodologies, these are indirect indicators of the level of thinking that goes on within a discipline.

In addition, most of these models are about how to "do" CI, and there seems to be little work done on how to elevate the discipline, build it into the DNA of an organization, or make it an integral part of a company's strategic thinking.

Of course, this type of work may indeed be going on, but practitioners are simply unwilling to share their secrets outside of their organizations. My guess, however, is that this represents only part of the issue, and that the problem runs deeper.

Any thoughts? Am I on-target here or off-base?

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Hi All – I think you all have put our issues so eloquently in focus about how we must open up the CI community and its practices if we expect to remain relevant and survive in the long run, let alone thrive as a profession someday.

Craig and I have often commiserated over the years about how CI’s image and identity are so fundamentally misunderstood by so many. Indeed, the nomenclature itself has been so problematic as to have caused many among us to abandon it for greener pastures (“market intelligence” or even just plain “intelligence”… et al). We’ve also talked about a “bridge” to the future – an honest, reality-confronting appraisal of CI’s present and future so we can understand and anticipate how to position the field for future growth.

The other day I was on the phone with Tim Powell discussing this very community in which we’re all so openly collaborating and how rich and open the discussion has been about really gnarly topics that persist and somehow seem to go unaddressed. It reminds me of Ken and Bill’s “Ostrich” metaphor – heads-in-the-sand, we rely on hope more than action to create our collective future.

Tim and I reflected on the frequent observation that there really is no consensus on CI’s scope or methods or how it can all be simplified or even made a part of everyone’s job within organizations (a phenomenon I’ve called the “CI Diaspora”). This is all despite the work of dedicated scholars like Craig and a host of others too long to list here (there’s a character limit to these posts).

In the end, we came up with a bit of a suggestion as to the (so far, non-existent) identity and positioning of this ongoing conversation that I’d like to open up for discussion – feel free to post a new forum entry (anybody) – but let us know what you think:

Competitive Intelligence 2020

Since we all hope to help the world see more clearly what CI is all about today (a 20/20 view of current practices) as well as collectively guide CI to become what it most productively should be down the road (what will CI look like in the year 2020), this struck us both as an appropriate management of the short- and longer-term vision of our field.

I’m very curious what you all think of the idea? Of course, barring that, I’m sure Ning doesn’t mind our continued advertising on their behalf as the “CI Ning community”, as we’ve so far been known ;-)
Arik, I like your nomenclature of “CI 2020” to focus this conversation, although I'm afraid I don’t fully grasp what you’re proposing as a next step, other than to continue the discussion. It would be interesting to hear you elaborate on what you are thinking about as other CI 2020 next steps?

This is the first time I’ve piped up in this CI ning community, partly because I’m a new member, but mainly because I’m awed by others’ thoughtful responses. I’m also junior to most of you in terms of years spent toiling in the CI mines, if not in actual tree-rings, which means I don’t have the CI chops many of you do.

Never one to let lack of knowledge or experience or skills inhibit my participation, below are some concatenated thoughts I’ve had while following this string, although they necessarily form a logical flow:

1. “Does that really qualify as CI?” is a question I hear at least once a week in conversations with clients and colleagues.

2. The fact that CI is not widely taught in mainstream academic business schools, stellar exceptions notwithstanding, proves (for me) the hypothesis that CI is not yet a real discipline. Put another way, if it isn't perceived as a real discipline, it isn't a real discipline.

3. I think Eric Garland is onto something major when he suggests that huge industry and business shifts are coming very fast these days from unexpected quarters, and seldom from market leaders. I hate to use the P word, but it seems to me that many (not all) business paradigms I have long been comfortable with are being discarded, or at least ignored in decision-making.

4. Like others who have commented here on aspects and impacts of Web 2.0 on CI, with concomitant upsides and downsides, the democratizing Web 2.0 is scaring the old gatekeepers in every industry and discipline, including competitive intelligence. Hell, it scares me, too. And it confuses and mystifies and excites me.

5. In some ways, the business, economic, regulatory, cultural, and political events now afoot remind me of the anarchic boomtown of Deadwood, South Dakota. More so than in a long time (perhaps the Sixties), I feel like decision-makers are confused and less able to reduce risk (or at least their anxiety) when trying to forecast what will happen if they do X vs. Y. And I don’t see scenario-planning or war-gaming providing the solace decision-makers want.

This is food for thought – and/or criticism. Mainly, I thank everyone who’s showing up here and sharing their own thoughts.
Hi Sheila - sorry for the delayed reply - I've been camping with the family ;-)

Thanks for the clarifying remarks - I think you're on target there and it describes the need of the CI field (er, profession) to do some of that specialized work to set the kind of standards that, like other professionals, are rare and unique skills that really are specialized. To a certain extent, this describes CI's own diaspora through the rest of the business - these skills aren't terribly specialized anymore but are more general.
Competitive Intelligence often evokes a Cold War mentality that is, as the description would suggest, a couple decades out of touch. It revolves around War Rooms, War Games, and battle plans, the aggressive language of national defense. It works best in a world of a few major players and relatively slow-moving trends - the competitive environment of the West versus the Soviet Union.

In a world that is defined by speed and complexity, that mentality doesn't keep up. Competitive environments are better defined by massive opportunities, often disguised as massive problems. The business opportunities could be served by any number of players. (Apple, a computer company, in the music business? Why not?!) The upside limitless; the downside as well. Etc, etc, etc. This whole state of affairs is being described in a whole slew of book by folks more eloquent than I. Like you, I know one thing: A big stack of info on four major competitors no longer cuts it. Like you, I'm still trying to figure out what will.

I'd like to offer that CI is certainly NOT the only discipline that is stalling these days. I spend equal amounts of time in the futures studies and foresight communities, and there we get the sense that just dumping out technology forecasts and reports on social trends won't inspire new thinking like in the past. There, the tools are good, but nobody has figured out to really integrate the methodologies into modern management.

Also, market research is quite a bit more sophisticated and innovative than the disciplines mentioned, but it can fail too these days. Think about the millions wasted on detailed market studies that arrive at products nobody wants.

Let's not forget modern strategy consulting has some really major faults too these days. I'd say that 98% of market strategy is based around seeking fast-growth markets, followed by bean-counting practices like cost-cutting and process efficiency. It worked great when Western markets expanded like hell. I don't think it works in a world of 0.8% GDP growth and aging populations. In the place of real growth, we're forcing in one speculative bubble after another. And many of the top strategy players are pretty silent about this - because they don't know the answer either.

My point - if I have one - is that we're on the cusp of a new, integrated set of management disciplines. But people have to get integrating. We've got to set up dialogue between CI, market research, strategy, futures, HR, accounting, all of it. Perhaps the failure is that we think of CI as some separate, tribal identity instead of one of many leadership disciplines.

Bill's timely and wise question is our point of departure on this adventure.
Great question, Bill ... and I agree with your premise that the CI discipline is in a rut, or funk, or whatever you want to call it.

This is not a new situation, in my view, but has been on-going for several years, as mirrored in some sense by SCIP's waning relevance.

It feels less like a failure to share innovations or best practices, and more like what Eric posits, ie. a "failure to integrate" across a wide set of management disciplines.

Now I admittedly have a fairly narrow view, having been only a CI practitioner (not consultant or academic) for only one company, but .... my internal clients have demanded for some time that CI be "integrated" with the rest of the organization, partnering with strategic planning, finance, offering management, technology development, sales teams, etc. as needed, on a wide array of projects, across all phases of the CI cycle (apologies, John!). And in addition to what some in this Community might consider "pure" CI, my clients have demanded that we deliver more than just facts (the "What?"), insights (the "So What?"), and recommendations (the "Now What?"), but that we also partner with the executive client's direct reports in building and implementing the action plans, then reporting on the results. Finally, my clients have demanded that we focus on a few potentially game-changing topics, and not try to be a "help desk" of competitive info for the entire organization.

To meet these demands, we've begun integrating established management disciplines / practices within our CI team. For example, we've implemented a consulting-like approach to managing "engagements" for executive clients, whereby we move projects thru explicit scoping, execution, and communication phases. We've implemented project management tracking systems. We've developed several capabilities, eg. around financial forensics, scenario planning, and sales force intelligence-gathering, and apply these to projects as needed. None of these capabilities are unique to CI, but rather have roots in other disciplines. They all largely have well-documented best-practices that we can pick up and apply.

Are there other CI practitioners out there as part of this forum that agree with me, that are also integrating approaches from other management disciplines? I'd like to hear from you.
YES, “mainstream CI” is stale, but YES there is innovation out there, if you look for it.

For example, as regards the Intelligence Cycle, for the past ten years I’ve been working on a new model (the Knowledge Value Chain) that—for me, and my clients— is more useful. For me, the “cycle” model didn’t ever work effectively in business, primary because:

(1) It only marginally addresses the USER and how he/she applies the information in decision-making;
(2) It does not address at all the creation of VALUE, which in business means economic value, and is its primary mission;
(3) By virtue of its CIRCULAR architecture —without beginning, without end, and without consistent direction— it often fails to take account of “game-changing” developments— the very things that would be most useful.

The KVC model addresses these shortcomings—but probably has others if its own. That’s for you all to decide and fix!

People I’ve spoken to in the US government intelligence community agree that their model is broken. Bruce Berkowitz’s fine book BEST TRUTH—which I recommend highly if you have any interest in optimizing intelligence processes—examines some of the reasons.

But models take on lives of their own, independent of the realities they purport to represent. The reason is that for most purposes, the existing model (like the “cycle”) is good enough. It’s all about “paradigm shifts”, the original treatment of which was Kuhn’s STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIIFIC REVOLUTIONS. I recommend this book to anyone interested in orthodoxies, how they are sustained, and how they finally succumb to a new “reality”.

I am, because competitive orthodoxies are what we in the “CI” field are really about – that is, questioning them, challenging them, and finally driving stakes through their dark little hearts! Right? I mean, that’s what I thought when I entered the field. Like Bill, sometimes I wonder!

As you know, for most of recorded history people thought the sun revolved around the earth. For most practical purposes (like farming), the model worked fine. Even a child can see that the sun rises and sets! It was only when finer observations devices like telescopes came into play that it became clear that that model didn’t represent reality very well. So the mainstream model finally changed – but not before people like Galileo paid dearly for pushing the envelope.

Kuhn basically says the way scientific models are replaced is that the people who champion them finally die off—literally. For business models this might be the case too—though let’s face it, at least some of these “business models” started lives as marketing hooks for the firms championing (i.e., selling) them. (I used to try to create these for a living.) So the analogy may not strictly hold.

Regrettably, mainstream CI really doesn’t, after twenty years, have much to call its own. Most of “our” models are recycled business strategy models from the late 20th century, sprinkled in with some government models from the same era. In some cases they still work, but in others they are badly in need of an update. Even more problematic is that some of them are really not used for any serious business decision-making, so the question of whether they work or not never even comes on the radar. The worst fate of a model is not being superceded, it’s being rendered irrelevant.

Other CI models are similar dusty, and need revision or replacement. Probably none of us questions that the economic world has changed—the way we see it needs to, too. It’s hard, though, to see “what is”—it’s easier, and more intellectually comforting, to continue to look through the same frameworks and lenses we’re used to. This is just human nature.

I’m sure I don’t need to say that all of the above are my opinions, nothing more.

Great question!
Bill, I agree, great question. The ability to align CI with strategic planning is imperative and since many of us are beyond the "how to" phase it's time to address how the organization can best meet new expectations. Possibly we can discuss here topics that currently interest us. For example, I've been thinking a lot lately about the best practices for presenting and positioning technology disrupters for management discussion/decision-making or how to tie C.I. more closely to the bottom line.

I also agree with August and Eric on the need to align C.I. and Research. For example, most firms have on-going customer satisfaction/loyalty surveys that can easily incorporate competitor questions. I've had success using an established WW survey, adding several competitor questions and gaining valuable insights on customer/competitor loyalty and business volume. The analysis was later used for future funding justification/strategic planning.

Being a sole practioner, I guess I have the luxury of doing C.I. 100% of the time. I've come to believe that our tactical success depends on the ability to capture, in discussions with the Field, the top existing threats and their potential impact on the firm. This insight shared with the management team can act as a direct intelligence feed to the strategic planning process. I find the work very rewarding.

That said, how do we move forward? Is it better internal marketing? Closer alignment with champions? Possibly a combination of both.
Hi Bill,

You bring up many good points. I think GS, McKinsey & BDG as consulting firms have a motivation to innovate and stay ahead, and that is revenue stream and profitability. I don't see that same motivation to share among CI corporate practitioners, in particular due to the secretive nature of CI and the lack of a profit/revenue motivation. I can see why CI consulting firms and academics would be more willing to share...however, I don't see much innovation or revolutionary ideas about CI in the "public domain." The most interesting relevant CI stuff I have been reading is using social networking to find competitive data and sources for primary intelligence interviews.

I belong to a listserv through AIIP, and there is so much sharing about business ideas, new information tools, social networking and how to, which I don't get at the same level through SCIP, but we seem to be getting to more through this Ning group. Thank you Arik for initiating it.

As far as I know if you're sticking to CI models, those which are described in two books Business & Competitive Analysis (2007) and Strategic and Competitive Analysis (2002) by Babette Bensoussan and Craig Fleisher are a pretty robust and timeless list. Analytical tools are part of the science of CI, which is also an art. If they help you tell your message or organize your CI findings, the right CI tools can be persuasive.

We are in a rut and much of it is really around sharing: sharing with each other is just a small part of it. I started to write about cooperative intelligence in 2006 in CI Magazine, since I found that the primary reason my client's CI operations failed after I left the project is that the CI professional(s) did not have the people skills to keep CI alive in their company. So I developed the pillars of cooperative intelligence which are leadership, connection and communication, all integrated with each other to develop and keep a CI initiative quite alive. I think this is where we need more help to get the DNA of CI into companies. I think we have a great grasp of the skills involved in the CI process or CI one-off projects. Where we have trouble is competing with all the other noise at our companies to engage others in CI.

You and Melissa Croteau led a great dialog session at SCIP 08 on "The Art of Influence: Engaging Senior Leaders As Intelligence Contributors." That got to so much of why CI fails: senior management with the budget and heavy influence is hard to keep engaged in CI. And many of us do not have the people skills, persistence and confidence to deal with our company's management.

I am interested in other people's comments about this. I will be starting a blog early in 4Q08 for anyone who has an interest in this topic.

Bill, this whole topic of getting CI into the DNA of a company's organization might be a great dialog session for SCIP 09!
I couldn't agree more. As a CI consultant that works with a few of my clients internal corporate CI practitioners, many simply do not understand the pulse of executive management or business needs they require. They keep presenting the same way, same analysis models, same jargin, nothing new that makes an executive sit up and lean in. FYI - you should hear some of disparaging comments when the internal CI team leaves the conference room.
Hi Bill: I would definitely agree with you that the field is in a rut. Ruts-R-Us could be the new name for competitive intelligence practitioners and its practice. I wrote in the CI Review nearly two decades about the things that any field needed to professionalize and to become a mature and respected fashion. Amongst the characteristics of these legitimate professions is a growing body of knowledge (BOK) that is constantly challenged, examined and improved through rigorous research. Think about your field of law and how lawyers must remain current, look for innovation and ideas, and challenge not only existing laws but help craft new ones through policy development. Think about medical professionals -- can you imagine if they continued to use the same tools of two decades or more ago to exercise their duties when you are in there for a life-saving operation?

I said a long time ago that the field would have a difficult time advancing if it could not make inroads amongst the post-secondary sector (read: universities). Twenty plus years after I first starting studying this field we have made precious little progress... I'd actually suggest that we have run mostly in place or gone backwards while other related fields have been able to move forward. There is no shortage of concepts, disciplines, or fields that we in CI should have been on top of, making contributions toward, inviting to be a part of our discussions, and so forth. Some of these have already been identified by my CI Ning colleagues, things like information communication and technology, knowledge management, social networking, business intelligence (defined for this post as the "IT-driven side of organizational CI application"), all the neat things happening over in library and information science (exemplified nicely by the progress our friends at the SLA have been making for the last 5 years or so -- why SCIP wasn't at the front end of this is beyond my ability to discern), and the list goes on.

I know of no fields that have progressed to professional status in the absence of an active and somewhat ubiquitous presence in university programs and curriculum. CI barely registers globally at this level even today, although we always hold out the hope that it will somehow magically take hold at a top business school or two. Along those lines, we tried about 10 years ago to get courses and the consideration of a chair at the Wharton School, which resulted in ... nothing. We are still there today.

One of the reasons Babette and I wrote our analysis books was to help provide some foundation for the "science" of CI analytical techniques. At least people could go to our books and have access to 50+ tools (across the 3 books) that any CI practitioner might have an opportunity to use at some point in their practice. Our books have been adopted for use in university courses in approximately three dozen countries and at some of the best US business schools like Chicago, Cornell, Harvard, MIT and Wharton, but let me be perfectly clear about this .. none of these places has a course on "competitive intelligence" as a routine part of their core curriculum. Each of them, like most other good business schools around the globe, offer an occasional course in the field.

SCIP and the CI Foundation's efforts to develop, organize and disseminate a body of knowledge (being led by the field's longest-serving and arguably most enduring academic in Dr. John Prescott) is a huge step in the right direction -- admittedly several years overdue (I did what I could to push it along during my time on the SCIP BOD and in having the Foundation aimed squarely at doing this) but, better late than never I'd say. We will remain Ruts-R-Us until or unless we get more people who are trained to scientifically challenge the knowledge base of the field. Our body of knowledge is like a muscle, and like any muscles, wither in the absence of exercise, and the pattern of breaking it down and re-building up again.

This is great stuff. I've seen a lot of excellent posts here today. What can those of us with some effort to contribute and maybe a small amount of talent do to collectively move this forward? Contribute to the Body of Knowledge wiki? Contribute to the CI Foundation? There are likely multiple topics of great work being done to break us out of the rut-- how do we coordinate it in a way that takes advantage of our collective intelligence and energy?
Hi August: You've got the right idea. The more people who contribute actively and freely to these publicly available fora, the better. One of the biggest problems this field has faced is the "close to the vest" phenomenon that likely originated from our friends in the (public) intelligence community. For CI, if we are to make progress, we need to expose our practices and understandings to critical scrutiny, see if it passes the tests of our peers and market, examine it under the light of scholarly scrutiny, and the like.

You may be aware that Arik Johnson and Aurora WDC are currently and well into the process of making publicly available the most comprehensive bibliographical CI wiki (with thousands of detailed entries about articles on topics in the field) which we hope will be something that everyone in this field will use, add to, improve, and support. I don't want to "jump the gun" (Arik would probably shoot me -- they don't need any more items on their already busy plates), but keep your eyes open in the very near future for developments in this realm.

On a separate note, I remember when one of my MBA students did a study about 5 years ago of a dozen top CI consultancy web sites versus 12 of the kinds of strategy consultancies we are more generally familiar with (read: McKinsey, BCG, Booz Allen, etc.). Do you (or anyone else) care to guess what key differences he found between these? I will tell you that the answers were obvious to anyone who did this comparison -- and it did not shed a positive light on the CI consultancies. I won't provide the answer here -- just yet -- but it points to some of the obvious reasons that I'm suggesting CI might be better called Ruts-R-Us.


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