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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As I see it, industry analysis is a subset of CI. CI actually looks at everything in your business environment that may affect your operations and activities. That environment includes competitors, markets, clients or customers, regulations, other government activities, suppliers, distributors, industry trends, social and economic factors, etc, etc. Industry analysis refers only to those matters concerning the industry in which you operate, and not to the other factors referred to above.

Kind regards,

Your discussion regarding nomenclature around the nature of "competitive intelligence" is an important one, but a bit of a red herring.

Please keep in mind, I live on the marketing/branding side of the fence, and cross over into your world when it comes to issues analysis and reputation management. That said, understand my perspective...

Yours is not the only discussion I have read on the subject, but they all focus on the same central issue: Like it or not, many (but not all, of course) of you emerged from the "intel apparatus" of the federal government - CIA, NSA, etc. And like it or not, your "brand" as a collective industry remains tied to that baggage.

From a branding perspective, that's a double-edged sword. On one hand, it presents the issues Andreas articulated. On the other, it presents a certain mystique and cache that "research", "marketing", or "foresight" do not quite capture. The term "Competitive Intelligence" - like any other wonderfully specific brand - is evocative and powerful. If it were up to me (and it clearly is not), I would be cautious of moving away from a term that communicates so specifically. Yes, it poses issues, but every strong brand fights that as it matures. Moving to "Market Intelligence" could be an option, but that's what people in our business used to call "Marketing Research". I am not sure your industry wants to be confused with ours.

I pulled and analyzed a 3 month data set of mentions around "competitive intelligence", and it is interesting what I found. If you examine the concept graph, you'll notice your industry is already closely aligned semantically with marketing, and I am not sure that's a good thing. In other words, I am not sure I'd go farther. Also, I am not seeing (even when I dig into the data set) any of the red flags around "CIA", "spook", "spying", or "interrogation" as you (and even I) might have expected. Not to say those perceptions do not exist, but they don't seem evident in this quick analysis. I'd have to do crunching more to find out.

I am not sure of a better way to put this, but your industry may need to (collectively) suck it up and take the good with the bad...
Over the past 18 YEARS (yes YEARS) I have seen so many discussions around CI, BI, MI - all around naming and the meaning of what we do. As an old hand at CI, I have to agree with Jason. We have a name that has been around for a while and differentiates us from a lot of disciplines and yes, people will always confuse us with many other things.

But isn't that true for many other management activities? For example marketing versus sales - a lot of executives still believe that marketing is all about selling. Others talk about corporate finance versus accounting, personnel versus human resources and so on. We know it is all about perceptions. And using a common name that has been around for a while is useful in managing customer perceptions.

Yes, some market segments are not going to get it and will make fun of it but are they the market segments we are after? Does everyone have to be on the same page? Some people will buy because they believe they need our products/services and find great value in what good CI professionals deliver. Others won't because they believe they don't need CI or already know it all. This is not going to change.

There are also going to be people who claim to be doing CI that have no idea how to do it either. And yes this is the same with many other disciplines..... I even know surgeons who should never lift a scalpel!!!

I would like to suggest that we need to spend more time on delivering good outcomes for our clients so we stay in demand and in business.
Thank you, Jason, for your perspective, and thanks to Babette for her usual, sensible approach. I have to confess that I am happy to call it anything you like - just as long as it gets done! My glossary is simply a means for novices to understand what it is we are talking about (every profession has its jargon). Once they understand that, they go on and do their own thing - witness the enormous variety of definitions available.
The reason for our "Existence" is to "Generate" Early Warning.

We do not have to justify our existence or what we do to anybody, especially customers / clients.

We generate Intelligence which is Competitive, that is, in the ordinary world, we provide cutting edge Analysis by generating EARLY WARNING.

Because we are able to generate Early Warning, nobody can subsitute us.

We are the finest and the best and we do not require Clients to tell us "Who we are"
I confess that when I go out into the "real world" and people ask what I do I have taken to saying "research" because if I say "competitive intelligence" they say "oh, you're a spy" and then my doctor or new acquaintance looks at me quite differently than they did just a moment before. It gets a bit wearing. But if they say "what kind of research" and I explain, then they say "oh, you're a spy" so nothing has been gained except I appear to be hiding it and then they really study me closely. So now I just say I am a consultant because no one really knows what consultants do and people just accept the term.

For my clients and potential clients, I generally talk about market intelligence so that it's a bit broader, and I added strategy to my subtext along with intelligence. This seems to resonate with them.

But overall, CI provides an air of mystery and indefinability that may indeed be good for the business. Why? Because the market environment is somewhat of a mystery to our clients which is why we are useful and helps to support what we provide. Competitive intelligence sort of defies description in some ways.

Still, it would be ideal to come up with a marketable name. Perhaps Strategy & Intelligence? The Association for Corporate Growth is an example of a title based on the outcome so perhaps we could look at the outcome(s) and develop a name from that?

Interesting discussion!
Further to my earlier response, you might like to check my glossary for the term 'Industry Profiling'. Hope this helps.

Thank you Vernon. I was trying to bring more transparency to this discussion to support Andreas' goal of bringing more transparency to what CI means.

Specifically, CI means X number of things. Optionally they can be categorized: CI products... CI services... CI processes... CI tools that support above. The more specific each product, service, process, and tool can be defined, the better CI can be holistically defined.

My personal belief on why CI is not today the transparent term that Andreas would like is because people outside CI assume that CI includes a set of UNIQUE activities, products, services, processes, and tools, which is why Claudia is often viewed as a spy (because that portion of CI is obviously unique.)

Vernon, your definition of CI (that: "CI actually looks at everything in your business environment") sounds IMHO too close to an industry analysis (what I do every day using Porter's five forces analysis).

My suggestion is that CI needs to be defined in terms of activities performed with an emphasis on UNIQUE activities not performed by other well-established professions. (Outside the "spy" stuff... my view is that CI adds much more focus on competitors - like an MD with a Specialty in laser surgery - and at SCIP, CI Specialists (doctors) are on call now to analyze your current and potential competitors.

I could write a book (and, indeed, have done) about this topic. But a definition should essentially be as brief as possible while, at the same time, clarifying what we are talking about. Hence I stand by my definition.

Just as a matter of interest, in my seminars (presented in many countries over the past 20 years) I have usually been able to identify the most capable CI people very quickly. They have been analysts, planners, marketers, researchers, consultants, psychological profilers, journalists, information scientists, private investigators (of the more ethical type), information managers, project managers, linguists, even jewellers and insurance agents, and so on. In every case it was a matter of attitude. Without that, CI is not possible.

Apart from having the right attitude, they need to have imagination, common sense (not too common), insatiable curiosity, an open mind, persistence, and integrity. They should know as much as possible about the industry in which they operate. They sould be information literate, with excellent communication and presentation skills. They need to be able to convince senior management that access to them is essential, and they should be willing to take a lot of criticism.

Note that these characeristics are not unique to CI, which is where our trouble lies.

What Mark Chussil and Alan Michaels said resonates with me. I think part of the difficulty in trying to come up with a term that makes what intelligence is more transparent is extremely difficult because, at least in the corporate environment, – and I know many will recoil at this – there is no real place for an intelligence unit, at least not in the same way there is a place for an accounting unit, a Legal group, or a library. Don’t throw tomatoes just yet…

Alan made the points:

1. …CI means X number of things…

2. …people outside CI assume that CI includes a set of UNIQUE activities, products, services, processes, and tools…

3. … CI needs to be defined in terms of activities performed with an emphasis on UNIQUE activities not performed by other well-established professions…

Amen, brother! What, exactly, is unique about what dedicated CI practitioners do within a company? What generates the need for a number of intel practitioners to organize into a unit and merit their own sector of the cube farm? It’s not to manage the collection of invoices and payments; it’s not to manage the collection of legal dockets and intellectual property records; it’s not to manage a central collection of books, journals, internal documents, and other info resources.
If I’m part of a cadre or senior scientists who, as a portion of my job, systematically tracks potentially disruptive technologies, which makes perfect sense since I am tuned in and linked in to the peer group most keenly aware of these technologies, is there some intel analyst down the hall who has a better understanding of what potential paths the technology relevant to my company may take? If I’m part of a leadership team that lives and breathes the market, social, environmental, and technical factors that shape our business environment, is there an intel analyst down the hall who can construct our corporate strategy better than I can? The intel practitioner who thinks they know more than the specialty experts around them do about their own areas of focus is arrogant. Yet that’s exactly what I hear some intel practitioners professing. “Our analysis shows that technology A or competitor B is going to do C, and that means our action needs to be D, but the stupid decision-makers aren’t buying it.” Maybe those decision makers haven’t laid it all out in a visible analytical model (or maybe they have), but they certainly base decisions on the results of a whole bunch of internal analytical models. That’s their expertise. Intel practitioners sometimes think they have the market cornered on analysis. They don’t. Trust me, with a background in natural sciences and math and a natural inclination for organizational development, I developed and performed complex, robust, and predictive analysis in both technical and “soft skills” areas long before I ever heard of CI, as did/do many, many others around and before me.

Mark said that he’s “…uncomfortable with two things that I hear CI being asked to do.”

1. …simply to provide data, information, clues, tea leaves, glimmers of hints of suggestions of trends…it is a go-fetch-it portfolio…[and] 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.

2. ...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.

Amen, brother, to this as well! Except for the occasional times when someone must oversee sensitive primary research to get critical data without which the decision makers seem unable to move forward, internal experts probably have, can find, or can estimate most data they need.

So Alan and Mark sum up what I also believe are two potential places within companies where dedicated intel practitioners can add UNIQUE value:
1. In subject areas for which no one else is systematically tracking and analyzing data critical to overall decision making and strategy. (PRODUCT)

This could very well be in the area of “competitors.” Often times, various other internal groups are experts about their competitors in areas that directly relate to their own specialty, but don’t have any driver or mechanism for pulling together the big picture on their competitors. If that’s the case, intel practitioners may have an opening to be the internal experts on competitors and to drum up awareness of how competitor understanding can improve strategy and decision making. As Alan said: “…my view is that CI adds much more focus on competitors….”

2. Strategy and analysis integration (PROCESS)

Intel practitioners can act as process consultants to try help their companies develop strategy and conduct analysis that moves them toward decision-making and strategy development with a more “systems thinking” approach.

Or, as Mark summed it up: “…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…’here's how we can use our data, and all the other expertise around the table, to figure out what we should do.’”

Of course, all of this is highly dependent on the internal culture and structure of the individual company and what needs emerge from these factors. In some companies, it may be better to skip the “intelligence” as a department idea entirely and, instead, embed/develop various people with intelligence skills into existing units such as strategic planning or various other internal functional groups to better standardize, strengthen, and unify the company’s ability to develop strategy and decisions. Then you don’t need to worry about defining intelligence in a way that outsiders understand it, you just need to do it. That can make companies better, but it defeats intelligence in corporations as a stand-alone profession, requiring its own department, which seems to be an unpopular view in CI circles.

You may be wondering, “Isn’t it the same with the information/library profession?” My answer to that is YES, it WAS. Many corporate libraries did not anticipate and plan for the impact of increasing end-user access to and competency with information… and disappeared. Many of those that remain figured out that consulting on information management, integrating information flows, and, sometimes, filling unique but critical information gaps is now what corporate libraries provide is their new role in the organization. In other words, corporate libraries shepherd and consult on information PROCESSES (get the right resources, link them together, make sure end-users understand them and use them effectively) and only take on finding/analyzing/disseminating information (create information PRODUCTS) when it is essential to fill a critical gap. Of course, there is a major difference, too. Corporate libraries and librarians were already well-defined and well-established fixtures and professionals within the corporate world. They simply had to re-invent themselves. Intelligence, as a recognized unit and a profession within corporations, was, generally speaking, only recently invented and still, to my eye, is having a heckuva time agreeing on what exactly it is. If you have defined it in your organization, I bet you can find a more “transparent” label that works really well for your organization. In the same way, libraries can be labeled as knowledge centers, information centers, libraries, etc. depending on what works in the corporate culture. Underneath, they still operate in the realm of “library”, just as there is an underlying realm of “intelligence,” no matter what you call it.

I talk too much. Sorry for the lengthy treatise.
Hello, Michelle, have you ever heard the similar thanks ( ) for your CI work?

Best wishes,
Information Harvesting to Identify Strategic Inflection Points and generate Early Warning.


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