Competitive Intelligence

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

CI as a Dark Art: Do we need a new age of CI For The Straight Guy?

As a seasoned CI professional and professional cynic, it seems that many people, both industry insiders and the gawping public at large, see CI as a dark art – little short of bin-raiding (dumpster diving for our American cousins!) and corporate espionage. Given my exposure to the industry over the years, especially supply-side, I am very inclined to agree.

With that in mind, is it impossible to align CI collection methods (excluding the Mary Poppins / Lucy Librarian open-source intel approach) with ethics – are concepts such as informed consent, confidentiality, ethics, and downright decency simply not possible when you’re trying to get hold of hard-to-get-hold-of info on competitors, often from those competitors themselves? Or do we need to draw a line, and insist that CI should only be based on open-source intelligence and that anything beyond that – gambitting, mystery shopping, armed robbery – be outlawed? A new age of CI For The Straight Guy, perhaps?

Do we need a different code of practice (“it’s okay to lie to get what you want… as long as you don’t get caught”…?), as CI collection currently seems to fall foul of many aspects of market research codes of practice? And how do we ensure and enforce compliance ("do you PROMISE not to BS competitors into telling you about their sales operations?")? Do we need a CI priest / yogi / mullah to take our CI confessions and unburden our research sins?

Finally, what should best-practice CI involve, in terms of sources, resources, methods, guidelines, etc?

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Thanks for this discussion topic, Khalid, because the state of CI is very much in flux and asking questions like this is important to finding a direction (maybe divergent directions) going forward.

Your principal concern seems to be about public perception of what CI is (including inside the practice). This is valid. Is part of the issue the fact that as practitioners we tend to focus so heavily on the collection methodologies. We rarely address the questions of analysis, alignment with strategy or even a new more engaged role as "devil's advocates" within our companies (and for our clients). I'm coming around to the belief that CI is perhaps better aligned with management and strategy consulting and informed by robust and ethical intelligence practices as opposed to being a set of collection methods (ethical, legal or otherwise) learned from government intelligence operations with some analytical business frameworks inspired by economics tacked on to the end.
Hi August,

Thanks for your insights. My principal concerns are indeed public perception and also execution: specifically, the methodologies - many of them murky - that some (many?) CI practitioners and certain types of agencies use to collect CI data. The questions of analysis, alignment with strategy and implementation of research findings are also valid. Alignment with strategy / management consulting could be a better bet than with covert / govt intelligence, but the difficulty is in developing - and more importantly ensuring adherence to - robust and ethical intelligence practices (surely an oxymoron???).

CI is also typically seen as a discretionary rather than mission-critical service - with the value of good CI for informing strategy lost on key managers and decision-makers outside the research function - especially in a recession, when the research budget is the first to be cut. Given the poor perception - both public and in many client organisations - I think CI faces an uphill struggle in gaining the recognition it deserves in informing strategy, compared to more tried and trusted methods such as traditional market research / customer insights (surveys / polling) and business intelligence.

It would be good to read about the challenges other members have noticed, and how they are are overcoming these to develop and promote good CI.
Good shot, Khalid! However, ethical intelligence isn't more oxymoronic than ethical hacking. Just like ethical hacking is a very effective counter-hacking strategy, ethical intelligence is a very effective counter-intelligence strategy.

Hi Khalid, hi August,

just a short remark: I suspect that this "dark side of research" and the analysis part of the intelligence process are a zero-sum game. The less time (and also responsibility or resources) you have for a strong and thorough analysis the greater is the temptation to use unethical shortcuts. That means on the other side: the higher you are positioned in the food chain towards decision making the more you are able to ensure a straight open-source attitude...

Best regards, Andreas
Hi Andreas,

My primary issue is with the collection in the first place, rather than the analysis - it's not so much cutting corners as hacking, stealing, or conning sensitive commercial info out of competitors! In increasingly competitive conditions, companies are seeking greater levels of information - much of which may be outside open-source intel - on their competitors in order to remain competitive. This places increased pressure on CI practitioners to increase their level of gamesmanship and blur ethical boundaries in order to succeed. It isn't so much a matter of time, resourcing or responsibility as it is sourcing and obtaining the information.

Hi Khalid,

You are right!

Now clients (both internal and external) do a significant amount of secondary or open source research themselves.. (with google getting everything to your desktop).. they now see CI as "what else can it bring to the table that I do not already know". So using the same open source/ secondary information is actually of no value and is of no interest to clients (unless you do some fancy matrix etc etc).

So analysis based on primary research and information which you are sure is not available in the public domain are the only things which will now appease these clients. As a result CI professionals are forced to step into the gray area in an effort to ensure they add value. And this is fast becoming the norm. Maybe we should just broaden our code of ethics.

Hi Nimalan,

I agree completely - the accessibility and availability of competitor info on the internet means that open-source CI can be, and is often, conducted in-house. The main value-add that with third-party CI agencies bring to the table are:
a) to provide a more sophisticated level of analysis of open-source CI info - although, in my experience, many orgs are happy with rudimentary competitor strategy and performance updates, and top-level comparison of product / service KPIs, e.g. interest rates in banking, number of card holders in credit cards market, premiums in insurance.
b) to obtain and provide hard-to-get-hold-of info outside the public domain.

With some orgs even doing their own mystery shopping, the pressure is on agency CI practitioners to obtain increasingly greater levels of sensitiive competitor info in order to add value and differentiate themselves from their rivals.

I disagree insofar as Nimalan implies that primary research is the "gray area".

I always thought that human intelligence which means in our context speaking to people while abiding to the SCIP code of ethics (and analyzing the results together with secondary information) represents the core of CI.

Sorry, guys, but for me it belongs to a professional attitude not to do everything the client expects me to do. Usually I distrust utilitarian justifications for doing what you feel is "right", but if you want to do your job in a sustainable way, you should avoid questionable behavior.

And maybe that is a much better competitive advantage against non-CI practitioners other than delivering "greater levels of sensitive competitor information": doing things in a way that won't embarrass the client, that won't jeopardize the client's public image, that won't accept law suits and that won't compromise sources.
Hi Andreas,

I do agree with you that we should abide by the SCIP code of ethics and I do stick to that. But then what I see happening now (and the point that Khalid raises) is that most of the clients are beginning to expect more "value" (for want of a better word).

Especially over the last few months, many clients subtly ask if we can get confidential data. We also subtly refuse and loose those clients. This is definitely a bad time to loose clients and we have had such requests in the past as well. But what is unnerving is that such requests are on the rise now (maybe due to paranoia in the current recessionary environment) . And am also sure these clients go elsewhere and get what they want.

Maybe companies should have a compliance filing of sorts which ensures they abide by the SCIP code of ethics or use agencies which abide by the same code for all their CI needs.
Hi Nimalan,

I see the point. Maybe we all have to emphasize more that the "value" of an information always consists of two parts: the competitive advantage for the client AND his or her ability to use this information (without risking public image or suffering much more unpleasant consequences) - the latter being based on a proven and proper way how this intelligence is obtained.

You can't get one thing without the other - but obviously we have to educate clients about the level of risk that is attached to certain pieces of information. And that means risk for the client's company, its market position and for the job of our contact person.

Writing that I just got an idea: What do you think of developing a "Little Black Book of Competitive Stupidity" which contains case studies on ethical failures and their "loss on investment". I am sure we are able to find a lot of good examples ... maybe that's a little bit more convincing than just a boring pointer towards ethical codes.
In a recent blog entry I touched on some of my thoughts that often drive some of these requests for certain kinds of information, including sources the acquisition of which are likely to come at the expense of established ethics and even laws related to industrial espionage (at least as they are conceived in the US):

I attribute some of this being related to what is possibly a misunderstanding between CI professionals and our customers (whether practitioners or vendors we all support customers of one sort or another). It can often be difficult to measure the true value of intelligence. For my purpose I (perhaps simplistically) define "intelligence" as multi-source information transformed by verification and analysis. Quality intelligence delivers value in excess of the sum of the information components that are its raw materials, and Ben Gilad wrote an excellent article that challenges us to incorporate perspectives and judgements on what actions and steps our clients should take based on our analysis and incorporated into our intelligence products in the September-October 2008 issue of Competitive Intelligence.

So the value of intelligence is hard to evaluate if I am a CI customer-- particularly if I am a brand new customer of CI. Quality CI may also challenge some of my or my boss's assumptions, and maybe I'm genuinely uninterested in that for emotional, personal and political reasons. However, if I ask you for a specific piece of information I know immediately whether or not you have given me what I requested. Sliding into a dynamic of "I ask you for a specific piece of information and you provide it for me" is a consequence of laziness both on the part of CI professionals and our customers. This dynamic is a problem regardless of the question of the ethics of the collection process itself. The onus to change that dynamic is on the CI professional. It's a very difficult mountain to climb but critical if CI is to be seen as a valuable practice as opposed to a library/collection function that is an easy target for cost-cutting.

In my own continuing efforts to raise the bar and train new customers I have liberally employed the "qualified yes" to information requests that re-position these as intelligence requirements. This involves a lot of consultant-like questioning to move the conversation from what they want to what they really need to support a specific business decision that needs to be made. My batting average is not perfect in making this transformation but it's better than zero and most customers will admit (sometimes reluctantly) that the intelligence delivered was of higher value than the information originally requested. We generally get there with less effort and without compromising ethics. For the customer that will take that journey with you it's a win-win.

For the record I have seen no change in terms of collection-driven requests that challenge ethical considerations. Perhaps I am living a sheltered life as a practitioner in a major corporation. In past roles I consistently fended off demands for information that can only come from unethical collection. Ironically these requests were generally driven by purely tactical considerations and came from lower-ranking employees. When I was on the other side of the fence and in a vendor role the question of information (and ethics) versus intelligence was a good way to qualify a customer. As both a practitioner and a vendor I could clearly see that customers that would maintain a strictly information-focused exchange or dismiss ethical considerations were not the kind of customers you want. My experience suggests that these are people of a particular personality type who will never be made happy.
August - just excellent. That's what I meant with being "higher positioned in the food chain towards decision making". I truly believe that ethics and effectivity promote each other in a much more profound and sustainable way than an "information-driven" mind can imagine.

Regarding Ben Gilad's article I was rather irritated that he seems to condemn external human source collection wholesale as something you should keep your hands off.

By the way: I had your blog entry on my constantly growing reading list and I am about to translate your observations on cognitive biases between CI providers and CI clients for my German blog, if you don't mind...


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