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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I found the clear answer regarding the definition of what CI is .... and because the source is the best available (and because I fully agree with the definition)... hey, I'm happy... and I hope you are too.

Competitive intelligence is... "the legal and ethical collection and analysis of information regarding the capabilities, vulnerabilities, and intentions of business competitors."

Source: SCIP website / About SCIP

P.S. - At we track who the competitors are for the top 10,000 global industries. (We do not define their capabilities, vulnerabilities, or intentions.... so maybe opportunity to partner with those who do.)
May I point out that the difference between "competitor" and "competitive" resulted in a change of name for SCIP? For obvious reasons.
I'm chiming in late on this discussion since I've been out of the office most of this year! I just attended a webinar last week “Why are there so few good product managers: a CEO’s Perspective.” The webinar will be posted Ryma's webinar archives in the next week or so. Look under August 2009 & listen & view the slides on your time.

As I put on my CI hat listening to this discussion about CEO's perspective on product managers and their frustrations, it made me realize that CI is really a behind the scenes function especially compared to pr.... We don't have a career path for CI like there often is for product managers...and CEOs often have product management experience along the way...and not CI.

I think what competitive intelligence is missing is PR, and I would like to highlight Robert Bugai, NJ SCIP coordinator who is a PR guru. Look at this meeting he organized with 10 other professional associations in NJ in July with over 400 attendees. He does this at a time when CI chapter meetings are dying.

I agree with Babette and Vernon about defintions and firms that "get it," but I think we could do a far better job with PR and getting the word out about CI and its benefits than anyone has done to date. It's touchy since companies don't want to tout or give away their competitive programs, and consultants sign NDAs. However, there are exceptions to this, such as Best Buy who touts their competitive advantage openly.
I couldn't agree more with Ellen - well said. CI is a backroom task, lots of different skills and experience are needed in order to do it well - just like management, really. And our role in life (as it has been mine for many years - I have spread my articles far and wide in the process) is to try to convince decision-makers to get involved, to offer support and commitment, to listen to us, and to make good decisions based on their own experience and with what we provide. That means we need to PROMOTE ourselves much more than we currently do.
I have seen this conversation continually proliferate on this board since joining, and it causes me great consternation and alarm to say the least; that there appears to be this need to define and differentiate CI, and that there is this impetus to want to distance CI from its roots, which is indeed with the IC. So, as a CI Director and Strategic CI analyst, I would like to chime in with my perspective.

1) So, why is there this need to define and differentiate CI? My perspective on this is that at least some of the blame, if not a great majority of it, lies with SCIP. SCIP was supposed to be an organization for CI folks, but I watched them take MR/MI, industry analysts, KM, library sciences under their wing. In my opinion, this caused a lot of convolution of roles/responsibilities and was a hell of a disservice to real CI pros. I don't know if this was done to increase SCIP revenues and attendees at conferences, but yes all the sudden everybody and their dog was claiming the intelligence banner. And we wonder why now some people don't know what real CI is? Gee I cant imagine...KM,MR/MI, library sciences are not CI -and any trained CI pro knows this, and should not have any problem whatsoever articulating the differences and showcasing how their work product differs. I've certainly never had a problem, although when I started a new CI function at a company that never had CI , I initially had to fight all this-ie aren't you just like IDC, Gartner? How are you different from market analysts? SCIP seems to throw all this under the CI banner why wont you? Yeah, it took me about three seconds flat to clarify how I differ from MR/MI, industry analysts. That said, there is actually talk amongst the old vanguard of starting a new org for CI pros only...yes, I think it is long overdue and maybe in doing so we can finally get past this ridiculous co-mingling and separate CI back out which I think must be done for our survival.

2) So that then brings up the point of what CI is and how we differ from MR,MI, KM, library sciences, industry analysts. This is quite easy to articulate actually.

MR/MI-more tactical, more project focused than CI which has to be more of an ongoing,continuous effort. MR/MI emphasis on markets and customers.MR/MI dont have HUMINT, elicitation skills, not focused on competitors and providing SEWS, or understanding the nature of competitive advantage or disadvantage and cant answer questions like "what is really happening inside my competitors walls and how can I capitalize on it?" MR/MI however good at answering questions like how many units will be sold in 2010, is this market shrinking or growing, etc.

Library sciences-mostly manage data, again dont have HUMINT skills and dont provide SEWS. Gather secondary data and existing primary data that the company may have to put together a general profile, But don't go do primary work themselves and certainly couldn't answer questions like what are my competitors in depth IP/category strategies, how do we maintain technical advantage, nature of firm Y's competitive advantage, whats happening inside competitor X's walls...

KM=about managing, maybe mining, existing data that has been created.

Industry analysts-most have background in MR, see above, they operate on a short term project by basis , they focus more on customers not competitors. Competitive coverage very general, not much depth because they don't look at competitors systematically over time and build the linkage historically to go deep or put things in perspective. Not focused on SEWs, no HUMINT skills.

CI-provides SEWS so the company is not surprised and can proactively plan, HUMINT to know what is really happening with competitors that isnt so publicly visible. Deep context and perspective because we have followed things over time.

3) Yes,CI in the private sector came from the IC. It is irrefutable and we should be proud of this and embrace it, it gives us our background and history and does indeed provide the foundations for clarifying what we as CI pros DO. I think the folks who want to separate themselves from the IC link are not real CI pros, nope they are the KM, MR, LS contingency who fail to know how to showcase a few points of difference in private intel operation vs public sector/gov, and because they cant illustrate the differences, they worry about being associated with espionage etc and this just goes back to what I said above, KM,MR/MI, LS are not CI folks because CI folks have no problem demonstrating how their methods differ to stay within legal parameters for collection,etc.


Monica Nixon
Very well written, Monica. You have a well-defined understanding of how you contribute unique value. I think that part of the issue is in your statement, "...any trained CI pro knows this, and should not have any problem whatsoever articulating the differences and showcasing how their work product differs..." In my experience, "any trained CI pro" does not necessarily know this---some (many?) spend way too much time trying to do (poorly) the jobs of all the other types of professionals you mentioned instead of focusing in areas like SEWs and HUMINT where their talents shine. If CI pros are confused about how they contribute unique value, so is everyone else.

You make a good point that I should have laid out in my piece with regard to what I meant by trained CI Pro-I meant those that had been trained by folks who were previously in the IC. I can see what you mean though, that those who might have been trained by SCIP, gone around calling themselves CI pros, and because SCIP has taken an overly broad view,have gotten lost and tried to compete against folks in all these other disciplines, which is a mistake. I did not take this element into account, and I should have

I think this still harkens back to one point I made, and that's that we collectively need to separate out CI from MR,MI, KM and library science because frankly there is room for all types of these various folks and their skills in most organizations but the skills are not the same, the deliverables are not the same and calling everything CI confuses those without much experience with real CI.

As much as some people may not like it, at the end of the day, I think we need to return to a more linear view of what CI really is because it is not helping any of us to throw everything in one bucket. We need some delineation between the disciplines again and I think things will go much smoother for all involved...
I've been reading recently about the activities of the OSS during WWII. OSS was the precursor for the CIA. OSS stood for Office of Strategic Services.

I've watched the discussion of "WHAT WE CALL OUR DISCIPLINE" for a long time.

Competitive Intelligence has overtones of spying which this dialog addresses. Folks from Strategy Software a few years ago argued for Competitive Affairs. Business Intelligence would be better, but that term of art has been coopted by the CRM/Datamining discipline which is fundamentally internally focused on analyzing mountains of customer transaction and account data for business insight.

That's what got me thinking about the OSS. What would be wrong with calling our discipline Strategic Services? We aren't entirely focused on competitors. We look at economic conditions, organizational dynamics, financial modeling, and a variety of other disciplines.

Our discipline depends heavily on close alliance and understanding of strategic planning. We do work on tactical issues, but our bread and butter should always be more strategic in direction.

So...would Strategic Services be a better way to position our discipline?
Would this call for a larger skillset/training of strategic planning?
Would our better organizational placement be in a strategic planning team?
Would it successfully downplay some of the ethical garbage that bogs down our discussions?


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