Competitive Intelligence

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

Repositioning CI - In Search of a New Product

Competitive Intelligence is a technical term - each and everyone of us has to explain regularly what it's NOT (like corporate espionage, using Google, or market research), and often we end up in explaining what it should or could be (if only the decision makers valued the methodology or the strategic impact of our work).

Let's take a look from the outside and find out what our real product is, what we deliver to the customer which differs from that of other information providers. Is it knowledge? No, too broad. Is it insight? Yeah, that's a bit better. Is it intelligence? Sure, that's what we all think it is. But still we have to explain what that means. And what it does not mean. So we still lack a term which is

a. self-explaining, which has
b. a positive connotation and which is
c. not yet adopted by other professions.

I still remember my very first SCIP conference back in Munich a couple of years ago, at the beginning of my CI career. I was nothing but an interested spectator, standing together with Bill Weber, Michael Belkine and a few others who were discussing why SCIP and CI still did not have the recognition and the public awareness they should have had. Coming from the PR industry, that was totally clear to me, and it is still valid now:

We are not able to deliver real-life success stories. Every time we have a huge success in favour of our clients or of our employers we are not allowed to use it due to non-disclosure agreements or due to the risk of losing the competitive advantage we just produced. You could say: who cares - if only the corporate client values the outcome, that's OK for me. The problem is that the real leverage for the public image and the reputation of a profession is not produced by personal successes, professional associations, or academic advancements - it is media coverage that drives recognition, respect, and demand.

The term intelligence has two sides since it describes a product and a process. Being not able to prove the validity of "intelligence" as a product moves us right into the trap that we have to concentrate on the process - which means first and above all defending CI as an ethical means which has, well, something to do with intelligence like in government intelligence, but not in all aspects, although analytical methods are mostly the same, and, by the way, primary intelligence is something other information providers are just not doing, bla bla bla. How exciting is that?

I call that an Empire State Building elevator pitch. You get into the cabin as a corporate spy, and after a long ride you leave it as a boy scout. I know how to make a fire, but I must not prove it.

So? Intelligence as a product is not an asset we are able to use in public. Intelligence as a process is techno-babble and confuses the image of our profession with government intelligence or even corporate espionage.

So what? Where is the term which is a. self-explaining, which has b. a positive connotation and which is c. not yet adopted by other professions?

Let's take a look back at economic theory. One of the theoretical conditions required for a free market to be efficient is what? Right: Transparency. Voilà.

Why don't we use that term in order to describe the product we deliver? "Transparency" means: chasing away the clouds, clearing the sight for better decisions. Transparency is not threatening, it is pure and simple. As Transparency Agents we do not accumulate data, but we strip off the unnecessary information so that decision makers can see the mechanics of markets and the next moves of our competitors.

Isn't that what we always wanted to be seen? Not as the guys who just collect information for everyone who orders it? Isn't that much more adapted to the abundance of information out there - "chipping away the stone that doesn't look like David"?

What do you think? Maybe I miss an important point or a certain connotation of the term "transparency". (I love the English language, but my mother tongue is German). Or someone used that approach in the past and failed completely.

I'd love to hear your comments on that.

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Exceedingly well-reasoned assessment Andreas! Bravo!

As I may have shared here before, I've always felt CI as an identity was something of a placeholder until we collectiively come up with something (at least) 10X better. So, while I like the core idea that comes along with the "transparency" identity, it's still a little... I dunno, vague? Abstract is probably a better description - it doesn't present an easily accessible and commonly intuitive visual (like CI does for the spy-association, to our great dismay). I think we need something very, very concrete - while also fitting all the criteria you lay out above Andreas - to form a visual that is commonplace enough across cultures that it's easy for people to explain and, by extension, to adopt.

A few years ago the generic term "foresight" was making the rounds as a better description of the outcome value produced by CI work (versus the confidentiality-driven process identity Andreas described us having fallen back to above) which also helped to differentiate from the somewhat condescending term "insight" (also much discussed), since the implication with insight is that... well, our clients are unable to produce their own insight, since they need us, right? For me, as a result of this inherent insult, terms like insight have never appealed to me.

The term foresight also creates a focus on the product-over-process criteria that Andreas outlines in his post while allowing for some creative application of the general term beyond the specific context of its application. For example, "competitor foresight" vs. "market foresight" have clearly differentiated implied focus and also convey the context as well. It's forward-looking and implies both information and interpretation in its production and I assume translates very well in various languages.

What does everyone think? Foresight... transparency... something else? Clearly we're uncomfortable with where the CI identity has landed after so many years so it strikes me this group is ideally suited to rethinking it. Do we have the courage to consider something else?
How is foresight currently being used? I may be mistaken, but my sense was that foresight had been adopted within the futures community and might imply a longer time horizon of study than the domain of many CI professionals. Is that correct or is it fair game for us to co-opt foresight for our own purposes?

Arik I really like your idea of having an all-encompassing word for what we do (like economics / economist) that can be modified with another word or words to describe that specific application of CI.

I wonder if the market for English words is too crowded with a variety of terms that don't quite fit the bill and that already have other connotations because of how they're being used. -- e.g. sense-making, this is a new term that seems to be gaining momentum within the design community.

For the international community members, are there any sexy words to describe CI in other languages?

Or maybe we should take a cue from rock stars and adopt a symbol! "The discipline formerly known as..."

In all of the ning discussions was there an agreement formed on 1) what CI is and 2) what public perception / brand we'd like to create for CI?
Great questions Alli - perhaps our resident futurist, Mr. Garland, can inveigh upon the futurist take on foresight as nomenclature? Could CI and the futures community co-create a new identity together?
I remember when SCIP was formed and at the time I asked "What the heck is Competitive Intelligence" is it a sport, game or competition? For years it had been a part of Sales Forecasting and Marketing and corporate intelligence had operated quietly with some success. It seems there is a money making culture around Washington, DC that the first into the space create a trade association and a high entry fee for those who follow. The computer industry has so many "Certified's" that it's hard to keep count.

I will use political intelligence as an case study. Back in the 1980's you had to have access and know the players, the staffers and Washington insiders to get a timely picture of the current scenario. You needed to move in the DC social circuit to get the whispers. In 2009 we have sophisticated computer algorithms and programs that monitor 113,000,000 Blogs, Twitter Tweets and every public forum imaginable. This is sucked in at around 150,000 articles an hour and displayed at 10Mb/s. We read at 200 b/s. This technology is used now by leading Fortune 50 companies. The visualization moves and players are pulled to issues, or repelled, and to top management they are watching a simulation, or "video game" of the marketplace.

So we now have the technology to drive any intelligence department, and display a real time visualization that a CEO can interpret, even have on a video screen on his wall. The need for "Lucy Librarian" to collect and file brochures is long gone. We now have a visualization of the media chatter on anything from the new iPhone, to the latest pair of Jeans from Levi's. This is SAAS and the wave of the future. Frightening, maybe, but welcome to the new digital universe, the Smarter Planet.

I have been toying with "Predictive Intelligence" and "Predictive Analytics" but they have been ruined by Snake Oil salesmen promising the Earth. "Intelligence" itself now has a terrible name tag thanks to the "Intelligence Failures" in government agencies, and the many large corporations who smashed into concrete walls whilst their CI Departments were collecting brochures and discussing Ethics.

Maybe the time has come to focus on achievable inputs and outputs that the enterprise needs and management watches carefully. Media image is one area, and the media and market perceptions go a long way to building a new foundation based on the Internet. It really does not matter if the competition has engineered a better mousetrap, for if the world does not know about it, or embrace it, it's not a threat. To answer the question we need to look outside this failing community to what the decision makers accept and embrace.
Too funny! SLA has been going through this conversation for a few years now as well and is in the process really trying to nail this down as an organization. An interesting thing I heard at this year's conference in DC was that John Cotton Dana, when he formed the organization 100 YEARS AGO, was that "special libraries association" would serve as a name "until something better comes along". VERY similar to Arik's comment about a placeholder - but that placeholder has been there for 100 years. The SLA Alignment project is partly about finally addressing this.

I was talking with a colleague yesterday about CI and sharing something that I think I heard from Ken Sawka at a CE offering at a SCIP conference several years ago (Ken, if I'm misattributing this to you or mangling it, my apologies in advance). He said something along the lines of intelligence essentially being about your thought, perspective and experience. In other words, you start with roughly the same information everyone else has; what distinguishes intelligence is that you've applied your thoughtful analysis to it and come out with an opinion, a perpective, recommendations, etc.

This encapsulation really struck me, and has stuck with me. The word that came to mind as I was reading Andreas' post is "clarity". And I think, for me, that's what really stands out - with all the information out there, intelligence ultimately helps give our customers and our stakeholders clarity around what that information means. And we have the framework, the perspective, and the experience to back that up. So maybe the pitch is, we give clarity, perspective and direction in a confusing business world. That, to me, is pretty powerful, and pretty easy for anyone to understand.
I have to admit that I 'm not sure that this discussion is so important. I feel that we have to concentate on others issues mainly what is expeted from CI and how we can deliver. I think that the term "Competitive Insgihts" can be used sucessfully. I'm taking the direction that CI has to be part of business strategy and to take it from there. At present I have two academic classes in CI ( in Israel). one: in an MBA program and the other in undergraduate studies where I'm taking the students to that direction.
Whew, I'm glad my focus for the past 20 years has been Corporate Planning / Strategic Planning because we get to call ourselves Corporate Planners / Strategic Planners and people know what we do.

"Competitive Intelligence" means, IMHO, information and insights about competitors.

If "Competitive Intelligence" is anything other than above, then I'm confused.

I believe the term that should be used is: "Competitor Analyst" because it's clear and accurate.

The reason I believe "Competitor Analyst" will not be adopted is because:
- It appears to be a subset of what an "Industry Analyst" does
- It appears to be a subset of what a "Market Research Analyst" does

But isn't above true? Maybe like a doctor with a specialty:
"Competitor Research Specialist"
can indicate greater focus and greater training than your average market research professional.
Interesting discussion. I like what people are saying, and especially want to run with an idea that Avner brought up.

When I was a little kid, my father said "Call me anything you want but don't call me late for dinner." I didn't get it at the time but I remembered what he said. About 10 years later, as a teenager, I recalled his words and I burst out laughing; I finally got it.

Marketing doesn't really care if it isn't called "communication services and techniques that inform potential customers and enhance perceptions of our products, services, and brands." Production doesn't really care if it isn't called "fabrication processes that build and deliver tangible or intangible items that add sufficient value to customers' lives that they are willing to pay for them." And so on. Human Resources, Accounting, Sales, R&D, all could be called something different. I don't really care what we call CI, so long as we're not called late for dinner. If you want to rename Legal, though, be prepared for clauses, stipulations, facto's (ipso'ed or de'ed), initials verifying signatures, and signatures verifying intials.

(That said, I agree with Arik that we can reconsider the name and I agree with Alli that a good name can help. Check out the book "Freakonomics," which has a fascinating study of the economic consequences of odd names. The book documents the case of a person saddled with a name that's supposed to be pronounced "shih-THEED." Figure out how it's spelled.)

People who are into relationship stuff say it's not so much what we say as what we do. Perhaps, since there are so many nondisclosures (Andreas' point), the best we can hope for is to get a reputation for doing good stuff even when we're bound not to say much about it. Or we disguise the cases we describe. I'm not allowed to talk about the business war games I conduct, so I have to be vague about the specifics while being clear about the benefits. I think it's doable. Then again, if I were so good at that dance, I'd be booked through 2050, which is probably beyond most companies' planning horizons, and mine.

Personally, I'm uncomfortable with two things that I hear CI being asked to do. One is simply to provide data, information, clues, tea leaves, glimmers of hints of suggestions of trends, whatever it is and however you want to put it. I'm uncomfortable with that not only because it is a go-fetch-it portfolio but also because it inherently panders to potentially narrow or misguided thinking. "If I knew what price my competitor is going to charge next year, I'd know where to set my price." No you won't, and I don't particularly want to aid and abet that kind of thinking.

(Notice, by the way, that before I pressed "Add Reply" there were 7 others who wrote. Six had names beginning with A, and one did not. Wow! That must be significant! (If I counted wrong please blame lack of caffeine.) What does that datum tell us? I'd argue that it tells us nothing at all, but there are many who, to twist the saying, find reasons for what happens. I don't want to aid and abet. See, for instance, "Fire! Or Maybe Not," my analytic commentary on the New Haven firefighter's case, at

The second is for CI to come up with answers in the sense of strategy decisions or at least recommendations. I don't like that any more than I like Marketing or Production or R&D or any other single group coming up with strategy. Strategy is inherently cross-functional even if it is not always practiced that way. CI, like the others, deserves a seat at that table.

In my opinion CI can up the value it adds not by saying "here's the data you ordered" and not by saying "do this." Rather, CI can say (and I think this gets to Alan Simpson's comments) "here's how we can use our data, and all the other expertise around the table, to figure out what we should do."

Allow me to quote myself (as though I haven't "contributed" enough words here already). This is from a chapter I wrote for SCIP's book "Starting a CI Function." You can find the chapter at

"We take as a given the usual prescriptions described elsewhere in this book: make your competitive intelligence relevant, work closely with your internal customers, build internal networks, be responsive, don’t mistake precision for usefulness, and so on. Those steps will take you perhaps a third of the way to success. The next third comes from connecting data to decisions. Many frameworks and techniques such as business war games, Porter’s Five Forces, SWOT analysis, and so on will help you do this. However, great decisions don’t come from simply plugging data peg A into data slot B. Which brings us to the last third: how your new CI function can improve the quality of your company’s decisions.

"Making better decisions than your competitors is a competitive advantage. Arguably, it is THE competitive advantage. Your company’s decision to build a CI function says that it recognizes CI’s importance. Great CI doesn’t guarantee great decisions, and great deci¬sions don’t guarantee great performance. But having an effective, decision-focused CI function improves your company’s odds of making those great decisions.

"In my experience, the biggest CI-related shortcoming in companies has nothing to do with its quantity and quality of CI (the first third of the way to success) or its practitioners’ familiarity with analysis techniques (the second third). Rather, the biggest CI-related shortcoming is in the last third, how you link competitive intelligence to decision-making. This means more than gathering CI and persuading the right people to use it. It means gathering the right CI and using it well. It means combining good information, good analysis, and good decision making. That’s tougher than it sounds, and it’s more valuable than it sounds. The flip side: if it were easy, your competitors would be doing it too.

"Your CI function’s responsibility doesn’t begin and end with gathering and presenting information. Its responsibility extends to applying CI to improve decision-making. If the CI function doesn’t do it (and do it well), who will? And so, in this chapter we explore the link between competitive intelligence and competitive-strategy decisions. In other words, we will explore the 'now what' of getting real value from your CI function."
Why being shy of using the "I-word" as product description? It is exactly what we deliver. But I already hear the statements of "Oh no! Don't mix it wih the military world or governmental agencies!" But let me tell you, that is what the customer understands. So take the bull by the horn and use the mililtary world as an example. Let's face it, we all use strategy, tactics, operations, retaliation,.........., and INTELLIGENCE". Hey, the whole vocabolary which we are using is coming from the armed forces. So why not using them to explain what intelligence is all about? We are even using the same assets - HUMINT, IMINT (others are not applicable in corporate world legally). Managers, who have an armed forces background know exactly what intelligence is. And others grasp the comparison easily.

We have the J2 and the J3 (and a some other branches) in our staff as we all know. Like the J2 is addressing COM PIR so is CI addressing the KIT of corporate management. J2 is preparing the battlefield and creates situational awareness. J2 describes targets. COM intent is based on J2 work. An J3 is executing COM intent. That is what we call "Intel led operations". Easy...isn't it?

An that is exactly what CI is doing for the corporation. Analying the economic battlefield, preapring it, creating competitive awareness about the competitive situation at management of all levels. Management makes its decision based on CI recos and SBU management is executing them with the help of strategic planning and other assets.

That is a straight forward elevator pitch. And guess what ..... it works.

Don't dance around with words. Client does not like it. This comparison helps - for us and hopefully for you.


So we're overthinking this a bit? Maybe CI has stuck because it is, quite organically, less placeholder than most accurately descriptive moniker that has evolved to encompass the diverse variety of activities that fall within it's umbrella?
My glossary of terms defines CI as follows: Competitive intelligence is a systematic and ethical programme for gathering, analysing, and managing any combination of data, information, and knowledge concerning the business environment in which a company operates that, when acted upon, will confer a significant competitive advantage or enable sound decisions to be made. I see no reason to change that!
Vernon, given your definition of CI, how would you describe the difference between CI and Industry Analysis?



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