Competitive Intelligence

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Digital C-Suite: Information Self-Service and the Roll of CI

I received a great and very though-provoking e-mail from Ellen Naylor this morning about how senior executives are seeking information. Obviosly this topic has significant relevance for CI practitioners, and this has generated some seeds of thought that have been sprouting throughout my day. Ellen's big take-away was that senior executives are engaging in self-service activity (such as "going on the Google") in surprising numbers.

First let me include Ellen's message in its entirety:

Naylor’s Mailer #13: How Executives Find & Value Information

A recent Forbes survey of 354 executives at large US companies indicates that competitor analysis is the most critical area for research. This bodes well for competitive intelligence, but somehow my phone isn’t ringing off the hook.

The Internet is valued more than any other information source, including internal, external and personal contacts as well as newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, conferences and trade shows. Rob Shaddock, Senior VP and CTO of Tyco Electronics explains his preference for digital information, “Newspapers and print are static. Often an article leaves you with just so many additional questions…on line, it’s so easy to find additional information.”

This is SCARY: info gained through the Internet is valued over experts! Furthermore, the c-suite first turns to mainstream search engines such as Google, Yahoo or Live Search. Yikes! They’re informative, but my, they’re shallow and, sometimes inaccurate and usually not that timely—the essential ingredients behind competitive intelligence—timely and accurate!

However, on the positive side, I like it that the c-suite does their own searching. Previously I think they relied too much on information from others and could more easily be blindsided by filtered information from managers who wanted to push their agendas. Now the c-suite is more armed to ask provocative questions based on their own research. However, their blinders might be swinging to an over-reliance on Google and the like!

Executives will dig through multiple links to find the information they seek and I can understand why they “Google” since search engines are “free” and easily accessed. However, to make good decisions, we need a balance of sources and I hate to think that the Internet wins over human intelligence—where you can engage in a dialog, not just more searching and multiple links!

I wonder how much time the c-suite wastes looking for data, which could be found so much faster through the various paid sources such as Dialog, Dow Jones, Thomson reports or the invisible web. I’m also concerned that the c-suite might be further distancing itself from people—who have expertise from years of industry experience—in favor of Internet searching. The answers and analysis that are required to make good decisions do not reside on the Internet!

The digital age has forever changed the c-suite. Younger executives make extensive use of social networks such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook—which allow them to engage with a far broader group of people than they would meet otherwise—another great resource to prevent from being blindsided. President Obama epitomizes today’s c-suite executive as the first president to use email, social networks and a Blackberry.

Thankfully personal and professional contacts still trump virtual networks. Sophie Zurquivah, Chief Technology Officer at Schlumberger says, “I get the most valuable insight from my interactions with people.” She mixes the views “of vendors, colleagues, internal managers, workers...” While technologies such as email or Web video certainly enable such interaction, “you can never lose sight of the personal aspects—relationships with people are your most valuable information resources. You cannot discount personal interaction.”

You can read this set of articles in the July Forbes magazine It goes into much more depth, and doesn’t include my editorial comments! I hope you’re having a great summer—those of you in the Northern hemisphere. It’s heavenly here in Conifer, Colorado!

Three challenges, opportunities or roles for CI practitioners immediately jump to my mind:

1. We need to be aware of what our senior executives and other internal customers are reading in their info self-service. What search engines do they use? What publications do they read and trust? We need to know this because we then need to scan these for relevant information that may impact the assumptions or thought processes of our customers.

2. CI practitioners need to synchronize some portion of their products (ad hoc project deliverables, newsletters, briefings, etc.) to add context, support, build on or refute information from preferred self-service information sources appropriately. We can quote from trusted sources to gain credibility and be prepared if we're going to counter a trusted source (regardless if we mention them by name).

3. CI practitioners may have a role here to improve customers' information self-service skills. This would include giving them the tools to conduct better searches (some Advanced Search Options 101 such as booleans, negative searches, looking in specific domains, etc.). We should also work on turning them into good evaluators and skeptical users of information to evaluate the reliability and credibility of sources and information they find through their self-service activities.

I'm interested in the thoughts of the rest of this community.

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Interesting article.

It reminds me of what is happening in the medical profession and how it it changing the relationship between practitioners and their patients. As you likely know, there is a great deal of medical information on the web. Some of the information is generated by patients or patient communities but there is a lot that is put there by researchers and other professionals. So, patients (like myself) have the easy ability to find information that is relevant to their diagnosis or treatment. Indeed, when I go the doctor (as I did this morning), I am far better prepared than perhaps my parents would have been at my age. I have all of the basic information already, I know about some possible new treatments and I have much better informed questions. All of this changes the dynamic in my relationship with my physician. He is just as likely to ask me medical questions as he is to provide answers. In either case, we don't cover what is basic - instead we move to more complicated or advanced topics.

The key lesson to me is that I still need the doctor (there is much that he knows that I don't). However, I need him to understand that he is not my sole information source. He (not me) needs to adapt to provide his unique benefit. Otherwise, I will find another doctor.

Turning this around, I think that the article forwarded by Ellen reflects a similar situation. Web searches are easy. Amassing information is easy. Connecting to others in social networks and communities is easy. The number of useful and easy things in increasing. Apparently the surveyed executives know this. We (not them) have to adapt.

Our opportunity as CI specialists is to connect on the parts that are not easy. Interpretation, primary research, analysis and so on are areas that are not simple. Then, we have to deliver (as you have said) the results in forms that fit the styles preferred by the executives.

I like the three challenges that you have posed and agree with you on them. Still, the hardest thing to overcome is being excluded from the personal relationships that the executives value. As the survey says (I sound like Richard Dawson), they still get more from people than online tools. Thus, that is the biggest challenge and threat, IMHO, to being successful in a sustained way with executives. How then do we become trusted partners instead of (only) tools or data providers and search specialists?

-- Tom Hawes
Strategically Thinking Blog
JTHawes Consulting Website
My experience with executives is that to become a trusted partner as a CI professional takes time and an understanding of their motivation and corporate politics. When I was a practitioner, I first had to prove myself in some way so that the executives would even know I existed. And I would never have dreamt the way that I "proved myself" would be effective since I didn't think about it that way: I was simply doing my job.

I was called in to lead a competitive assessment of how an RFP (request for proposal) might be awarded based on how we HAD responded versus how we thought the competition might be respond. I thought this would be a collosal waste of time since we HAD already responded to this RFP, so this discussion to me would be a mute point. Turned out it wasn't since I had a dialog with the sales team, and they were so sure that if we didn't win the sale, AT&T would. I thought another competitor had a much better shot at the business, which I shared with Sales, and they didn't agree...however, that is who won the business and for the reason I had stated.

This got the Sales VP's attention, even though it didn't change the outcome of the sale. It did give me great credibility as a resource since "corporate staff" wasn't perceived to know enough tactically to help Sales. I had come from Sales and it's my tactical knowledge that made the day.

It was that event more than any other that got me in front of the c-suite for a future acquisition discussion, often thought of as a strategic item. Ya just never know what works, and I think that is a point with executives. It's often an indirect road to the c-suite especially in large corporations, and you have to be patient along the road to get there.
I loved getting this particular article from Ellen's newsletter (and I love all of Ellen's entries :) And I agree with the comments so far. It is truly scary to know that, likely, executives are relying on open-web searches as a primary source of information. Is it their sole source? No - my guess is that, if something truly catches their attention and they want more info, they go to trusted sources - people they know. And this is to Ellen's point, that our job is to prove our value in whatever way happens to present itself. You never know when those opportunities will come along.

And, as Ellen states, it's kinda good to know they are doing their own searching. As Tom says, we have to know that their web searching is our competition, so to speak. As August states, we should know what they're looking for. What are the sources they're citing when they're talking with others? What is authoritative in their minds? Maybe approaching executives as competitive targets would be a good thing - finding out what makes them tick :)

To August's third point, I do believe that teaching opportunities in finding information come along - but they are point opportunities and very brief. I don't think executives would ever actually sit down for a training to learn boolean or advanced search strategies. That's part of the value of what we bring. The point is not to get them to do it, but to get them to think of us when they need it.


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