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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As terms of the Creative Commons license of my blog any translation of my material into German must incorporate the word "schaudenfreude" because it is my favorite word in any language. ;-)
Yup, as you requested (with a little bit of accomodation to German orthography)... :-)
To add to this stream of ethical discussion. I have been a CI consultant since 1993, and I really see little change in customer's demands for collection ever since I started my business. What's changed is how much more I can get on-line, and social networking can connect me to sources that I could never have reached or it would have taken much longer to reach. I can place a warmer call with someone I connect to via LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, etc.

Ethics aside, people can easily find out who I am now too through the Internet as well, and with caller ID, choose not to pick up the phone since they don't know who I am. That was much easier before the Internet. You can't hide as a researcher, so don't even try.

I have had clients at all levels of management ask me to do unethical things, and I have lost clients this way. I think lower in management there is more pressure to please their bosses so they might be more willing to compromise ethics, but I have had some high up people ask me to do some unethical stuff too. Some have the "don't ask, don't know" mentality just "get me the information." We have to educate our clients one by one, since it's close to impossible to change this CI mentality. Spying and espionage have long been associated with CI and I don't see that going away. It's too compelling and the press keeps promoting it. And then there's the movie Duplicity which opens on March 20, which won't be helping our image either.

I don't think more / new ethics codes would make a difference. Based on my years in consulting and direct c-level experience with Fortune 500 clients, ethics collection issues always come up. When introducing / presenting credentials to a potential new client, I include "ethics collection" as part of my presentation and as part of our process. Very simply, I have found when we address the issues upfront it helps overcome potential negative perceptions clients may have later. CI is a much easier sell when we focus on the business benefits it brings to a company, not the details of how we do it. Fact is, most business leaders don't really care. Believe it or not, some of the "dark mystery" of CI is exciting to a client. Loosing it or watering it down will not help our profession.
Hi Scott,

You're right: clients don't usually care - or more specifically want to know - exactly how the info is collected. I wouldn't say they found the cloak-and-dagger parts exciting, more that they wanted plausible deniability of what is / was done on their behalf! They tended to ask their questions, get the answers (hopefully), and not question how the info was obtaiined.
Even though today's companies are requiring increasing degree of the accuracy and sensitivity of information, the field of CI as a whole shouldn't become viewed as "outsourced spies."

Just as many CI practitioners are asked for "more", today we do have "more" tools and signals to tap into than ever before. Back in the 90s we didn't have blogs, forums, and twitter. Twitter and other similar microblogging platforms especially are closer to primary source intelligence because these are communicated ad hoc, and usually live. All these contribute to increased signal to noise ratio, but that's why CI experts remain valuable to any industry. We're trained to sniff out what constitutes intel precursors and what is not.

I don't believe we need a different code of practice. For one, I'm not even sure many UNDERSTANDS what CI is and isn't, an assumption that keeps me concerned.

For example, a client told me on the phone yesterday that she may have 2 of her people go into a trade show deliberately not putting their company affiliations on their name tags because they're still new to the company. She said this way they can show up at competitor booths and get "CI". I bit my tongue from going into the code of ethnics and the misrepresentation of who you are to get what you think you can use, because I didn't know how to respond diplomatically without making her feel like I'm being accusatory.

Jane Chin
Khalid bhai,

Micro Picture - Competitive Intelligence is a tool for Corporate Warfare

Macro Picture - Competitive Intelligence is a tool for Economic Supremacy of the Nations.

Now we all know about PPP ( Private Public Partnership )

Cold War is over? So what do we do? Hunt terrorists, which we are.

But today Nations compete for Economic Supremacy. For Economic Supremacy of Nations, each one of us pools in the best resources whether they are Keiretsus or RAHAB ( oops I let the cat out of the bag! )
My friend M. Alain Juillet, Senior Director in charge of Competitive Intelligence, French Govt very rightly said:

"Competitive Intelligence is Control and Protection of Strategic Information"......It is to the competitiveness of the economy and security to the State and enterprises.
Do you (as a particular group among the other professionals) feel better not being alone with your moral dilemmas ( )? ;-)
I am not challenging "Holier Than Thou" syndrome here.

The issue is that "Intelligence" we generate has to be Competitive.

The yardstick should be that each one of us must be aware of the "Consequence of our Actions".

The tools CI professionals use in Collection and Analysis of Information to generate Intelligence are also used by my friends from:

1. WAD
3. Management Consulting.

We have to see the World in various shades of Grey rather than Black or White (Michael Jackson...just kidding).
Those questions asked in Peril At End House ( ) seem to be even more straight directed to Competitive Intelligence professionals, don't they? ;-)
The only comment I would say is the general public at large will never have heard of Competitive Intelligence.

People tend to over complicate things and make it appear a dark art too. Just my opinion.


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