Competitive Intelligence

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

I’ll put in an unsolicited plug for my buddy Ken Sawka at Outward Insights, and direct you to a recent article of his called “The Death of the CI Professional.” []

This is a concept that has been bouncing around in my head for years, and which has been discussed at SCIP Board meetings. Is the future of CI in a relatively small group of full-time practitioners, or in a huge group of general business managers who can benefit from having CI skills and an “intelligence mindset”? Obviously, it will be some combination of the two, but I (and Ken) argue that the future lies more with the latter group. If we are correct, the profession will look very different in the future than it does today. Depending on how we react, it can be either a huge boon for us, or we can choose to fight it and watch the world pass us by.

For the last 15 years or so, I would argue that CI has become more and more diffuse within organizations. In general terms, we went from a centralized CI team serving the executive suite to a hub and spoke model of a small centralized function that connected with CI contacts in individual business units. Next, we started to see CI professionals who acted as internal consultants for their organizations – producing some CI, but mostly facilitating the process, and acting as a subject-matter expert for one-off exercises in scenario planning, war gaming, conference collection, etc. In each instance, the number of full-time CI practitioners grew smaller, while the reach of CI in the organization grew wider. The next logical step in some organizations may be for the full-time CI professional to disappear altogether.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think we will see that organizations are not necessarily worse off as a result of this trend. The “CI virus,” if you will, has spread throughout the organization, which still gets most of the CI that it needs. While one may argue that this CI is not as good as a full-time practioner would provide, this is akin to arguing that vinyl records are superior to CDs/MP3s in audio quality. Yes they are, but that difference is lost on the consumer, who is more concerned with convenience and portability.

Our customers – senior decisionmakers – don’t care about distinctions between CI, market research, library research, etc. They just want the information they need, and they will get it in the most efficient way possible. Compounding this trend are demographic factors. The decision makers of today grew up doing their own online research, and know better how to leverage their contacts for CI. Intelligence is more in their nature than it was for their predecessors. We’ve certainly seen this in many of the successful Silicon Valley and tech start ups. Many of these companies have never had a formalized CI function, or if they did, it was started only after these companies became so large that someone needed to manage the process.

Your thoughts?

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Bill is on to something important here.

I have found the recent drama about competitive intelligence, and more specifically SCIP, as an argument that interests a decreasing slice of world's population of managers. The vast majority of professional managers have no exposure whatsoever to competitive intelligence, and even fewer to SCIP. As Bill points out, they want data, and if there's a profession that guarantees better data, great. If not, hit the bricks. I would posit that nobody is tied to the term CI except for people reading this right now.

The skills of CI remain as important as ever - in fact, they are more important. But the notion of one person whose sole function is to track competitors may be quickly on the way to extinction, remnants of an era of stable economic systems and massive barriers to entry. Therefore, to define yourself as a CI professional may soon be as career-damning as saying "I work for the planning department!"

And yet the skills learned in what we call competitive intelligence are applicable to every professional discipline in organizations. So why not advertise that you are an intelligence professional? Ah but this then becomes a debate for how we market the importance of our skills to the potential clients of senior management. In this, every professional and vendor is out for themselves in how to best promote their value. BUT, there's value in collective action, a recognized set of professional skills.

How to best move forward? Like you, I'm still cogitating on the answer. I think we should take care not to navel-gaze too much, arguing about specific terms. It would remind me too much of that scene from Monty Python's The Life Brian.

Great insight Bill.

I agree with your core idea and now that you make it explicit I do believe to have witness a similar trend.

Allow me to just pick one side of your comment, as well as Eric’s comment.

I for long have struggled with the CI term.

If it is difficult among English speaking countries imagine on all others.

Additionally I have found that CI is one of those terms that suit those that work in that field but hardly explains what it is to all others 'non-initiated'.

Being a CI consultant as well as a teacher in university courses, I often find myself having to spend a reasonable amount of time explaining what is CI and what it does and does not means.

It is one of those cases of poor marketing, meaning, the ‘product/concept’ is not centered in the customer view/perspective but rather on the ‘sellers’ view.

Unintentionally I have been pursuing the route you have described in the sense that instead of presenting myself as a CI consultant/teacher I am slowly but consistently shifting towards ‘decision-making support’ consultant. Of course in English it is a very poor option but in Portuguese it works quite well.

This allows my counterparts to catch the core benefit far more easily.

I also believe that cultural and language issues are critical when thinking on how to choose the best way to approach each ‘counterpart/client’.

Your point on the seller's vs. the customer's perspective is an excellent one that I've seen afflict many professions. It's very easy to get caught up in what we do and lose sight of the objective. For years, there has been an ongoing debate about whether we should use the term "intelligence," and I doubt that debate will be resolved until someone else (our customers) resolve it for us. Let's not end up like the PLF in the Monty Python sketch.

In the past 12-18 months, I have seen an increasing number of job titles with the word "insights," rather than intelligence. I'm not advocating that we change our titles to reflect this, as this is largely pointless. Rather, I think it may point to a larger trend that companies are moving beyond the terms of competitive intelligence, market research, etc and describing what they really want, which are insights. Any distinction between the source of these insights is irrelevant to them. I also notice that many of these insights positions call for CI skills among others, not as stand-alone skills. This category of jobs is one step above CI.


I agree with you allow me to just add, again, the language/cultural issue.

For instance, in Portuguese, 'insights' is hardly able to be translated into its full meaning and even in those circles were business English 'jargon' is used I am not sure most people fully realize its meaning.

Coming back to your point each geography has to find the most appropriate term. It was interesting the example provided by Andreas - "Konkurrenzanalyse" - were, if I got correctly, it only captures part of the CI scope.
Great article by Ken - Thanks for bringing it to our attention...

For those of you in manufacturing, the current state of CI reminds me of the Quality intiatives of the 80's. Lots of executive level visibility and centralized organizations, but in the end, knowing and following your competitors, like focusing on quality in your product, is everyone responsibility, and everyone has to know and apply the proper tools and skills. It can't be 'outsourced' to a support organization.

If this is the future for CI, then the focus for a CI professional should be on education and research. It should be a core course in business school, particularly for Marketing, Strategy and Manufacturing concentrations. Some large companies may support some internal experts with very specialized skills (Reverse Engineering perhaps), but will probably outsource their training to universities or to corporate trainers.

This change mainly affects the CI analysts. The collection functions performed by the 'library' branch of CI will probably do just fine the way they are, since the data still needs to be collected and organized, no matter who is doing the analysis, and having a central support function is a very efficient way to do so.
Just let me add an experience I made last week when I was talking to business development managers as a guest lecturer at a renowned Swiss business school. Of those 24 managers (various industries and company sizes) only 4 knew the term "competitive intelligence". When speaking in German on this subject I quickly turn to call it "Konkurrenzanalyse" which is something like "competition analysis", but since everyone would say that his or her company watches the competition in some way (mostly done by interns and students) I never use this term without the adjectives "systematic and professional". Being asked how many of them would say that their companies pursue this kind of systematic and professional competitive analysis again only 4 (that is four!) said so (three of the former group plus one).

The problem is not only that terms may vary or seem to be blurred - most people I talk to do not even understand the basic concepts of CI. And that refers to research at a very basic level (like using Google hacks or or even knowing of clustering engines), the idea and necessity of KITs or the ability to use several analysis approaches - not to speak of elicitation techniques or exploiting Web 2.0 application and services.

Yes, I agree with Ken's and Bill's observation that decision makers are used to doing their own online research - but, come on, from our professional point of view this is kindergarten most of the time. And far away from an "intelligence mindset".

In my impression the biggest daily problem is that our customers just don't know what they don't know in terms of skills, tools, and mindset. Which leads us back to the most important structural problem of our profession that we cannot work with success stories which would promote ourselves in the public sphere and raise the awareness of the usefulness of our approach.

Therefore, CI as a discipline is not a continent, it's an archipelago.
Man, it really says something that tracking the competition is reserved for interns and newbies. That's not a sign of serious buy-in.
The other day (around two years back) I met Hector Ruiz, Chairman, AMD at New Delhi, India

McKinsey for positioning them in India.

I asked Hector, what does he think of the role of Competitive Intelligence for AMD

He said, never heard of it. The Indian MORONS ( Business Tycoons ) laughed.

Then I rubbed it in to Hector Ruiz. I understand Operational Security aspect, but why do you have to deny the role of Competitive Intelligence in making AMD what it is today. He softened up then.

Later in the evening at the party Billy Edwards approached me. Billy was handling Competitive Intelligence for Motorola before and he was now with Hector Ruiz at AMD.

He said for Operational Security reasons they are Discreet.

Do we get it here, ladies and gentleman.

We are like the Aids virus, everybody denies our existence.

But who cares really. We survive and exist because we are the best and because we are worth it.
Read "McKinsey for positioning them in India" as "McKinsey was positioning them in India".
I can add a different perspective on this having also had a strong Enterprise Information Management (EIM) background which is an area within organisations that is beginning to take a real interest in Competitive Intelligence to add to their stack of capabilities given the common theme of data and information analysis. There are many synergies between where we are at with CI with various other aspects of EIM. Most areas within EIM have at some stage gone from being a business unit lead function within an organisation subscribed as a service by the overall organisation through to an organisation wide deployment of a capability, in many instances involving a large technology component.

If CI follows this trajectory then I see the role of skilled CI professionals becoming even more important as it has the potential of becoming a critical service to a larger volume of users. The CI practitioner becomes as CI Subject Matter Expert, or as I heard it called yesterday a CI Champion. The success of rolling out this capabilities hinges on the expertise of people who know how to analyse the information? How to measure the quality and accuracy of the information? How to categorise information? And quite simply how decide what is intelligence and how to use it? The big challenge here is that CI could become a part of many employees job role.

I have seen many projects fail because they have neglected the core function and deployed a capability organisation wide without the right people to champion the capability, train and guide users and analyse and interpret the information. Involving CI experts high up in the governance structure helps mitigate this risk.
One way of looking at popularity of term of "Competitive intelligence" could be obtained looking at the relative number of searches of this term in google (at google insights) I used terms like "business insights" ,
"consumer insights" , "market insights" , "research insights". I understand this could be influenced by some companies names and not everyone searches on google but still gives a big picture.
Hi, Mislav, you've convinced me--your dark glasses are so convincing [Longman Interactive American Dictionary ©Addison Wesley Longman 1997--People may say dark glasses rather than sunglasses when they mean to show that the person wearing them is trying not to be recognized, rather than trying to avoid the sun: Do you suppose that man over there in dark glasses is an international spy?]. ;-)



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