The Problem with Competitive Intelligence

An out side the box strate­gic dis­cus­sion by TS Galpin

The Prob­lem with CI

When keep­ing up with the CI prac­tice, a com­mon theme is CI falls on deaf ears and is heav­ily under uti­lized.  How do you fix that?

In a nut­shell, if you don’t main­tain a close rela­tion­ship with your CI cus­tomers, espe­cially exec­u­tives, how do you know you are giv­ing them what they need, and why should they trust you?  It’s impor­tant to know that in CI, exec­u­tives are very com­pli­cated and impor­tant cus­tomers, not sta­tic sub­scribers to a newslet­ter or blog.

The CI Mind
The Exec­u­tive Mind
Turn­ing Ene­mies into Friends
Pri­mary Intel­li­gence and Sec­ondary Intel­li­gence.
The Best Practice


For those not famil­iar with CI, CI is com­pet­i­tive intel­li­gence.  Defined by the Soci­ety of Com­pet­i­tive Intel­li­gence Pro­fes­sion­als as:Com­pet­i­tive intel­li­gence (CI) is the process of mon­i­tor­ing the com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment and ana­lyz­ing the find­ings in the con­text of inter­nal issues, for the pur­pose of deci­sion support.”

Lit­er­ally, keep­ing lead­er­ship informed on every­thing they need to know to keep the busi­ness com­pet­i­tive and suc­cess­ful.  CI accord­ing to that def­i­n­i­tion needs to know how every­thing in the com­pany works, every­thing that hap­pens inside and out­side the com­pany rel­e­vant to the busi­ness, what the needs, expec­ta­tions, and desires of lead­er­ship are; and what needs to come to the atten­tion of the deci­sion mak­ers to make informed deci­sions.  Good intel­li­gence often has sum­ma­rized analy­sis, options, rec­om­men­da­tions, and the risks and con­se­quences asso­ci­ated with them.

The CI Mind

Com­pet­i­tive Intel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als are smart.

Let me take that back.  CI pro­fes­sion­als are VERY smart.  They are up there with sci­en­tists and engi­neers.  They tend to be very tech­ni­cal, pre­cise and wonk­ish (tech­ni­cally pedan­tic).  So just like sci­en­tists and engi­neers they tend to be very good at what they do, under­stand all the details, intri­cately com­pre­hend the value or their work, and can’t fathom why any­one wouldn’t appre­ci­ate and under­stand their work and uti­lize it properly.

But there is a prob­lem with being the smartest guy in the room.

The Exec­u­tive Mind

Now con­sider for a moment the typ­i­cal exec­u­tive mind.  They are obvi­ously smart and good enough to get and keep the job, they are not dum­mies.  The aver­age exec­u­tive is equal parts arro­gance, abil­ity, over­worked stress and inse­cu­rity from fight­ing to get and keep their job.  Most exec­u­tives are not trained or groomed for the posi­tion.  The get pro­moted on merit and do their best to keep up (Google “Peter Prin­ci­ple”).  Most of the execs I’ve worked with put in 60 — 80 hours a week, answer sev­eral hun­dred emails a day, and have to keep track of sev­eral hun­dred respon­si­bil­i­ties and issues, includ­ing lit­tle things like bud­gets, hir­ing and fir­ing, respon­si­bil­ity for profit and loss, and sur­viv­ing com­pet­i­tive inter­nal pol­i­tics on top of com­pet­i­tive busi­ness.  They answer work emails on their black­ber­ries on nights and week­ends.  Its always inter­est­ing to see a string of emails that started at mid­night, bounced between 10 peo­ple in the mid­dle of the night and hits you in box at 4am with a note from your boss say­ing — “Urgent, address this first thing when you get in the office.”

It’s a very hard job, but good for worka­holics, and many use perks like golf meet­ings, lunch meet­ings, gen­er­ous vaca­tions, Mar­riott points and big bonuses to man­age stress.

Here’s the point, say you are a expe­ri­enced exec­u­tive, you’re under the gun try­ing to com­pete and and pre­vent lay­offs in a dif­fi­cult econ­omy.  The CFO keeps beat­ing you up on your bud­get, the VP of HR is hound­ing you to get eval­u­a­tions out, and the CEO wants to know why your group isn’t per­form­ing as promised.  You are under tremen­dous pres­sure and have plenty to lose (all the perks and that great salary).

Then some geek from some dark cor­ner of com­pet­i­tive intel­li­gence walks in, quickly com­presses 6 months of research and analy­sis into a 10 minute power point sum­mary, and then expects you to do some­thing with it.  You think there’s prob­a­bly some­thing to this, this CI guy is cer­tainly smart and could prob­a­bly do your job.  And worse, while you’ve spent the past few months in meet­ings and fire fight­ing, here’s some genius ana­lyst that had the lux­ury of a few months to fig­ure out every­thing you’re prob­a­bly doing wrong or ignoring.

How do you take advan­tage of this with­out look­ing stu­pid?  How do you explain this to any­one else when you’re not quite sure you get it?  How do you main­tain author­ity if you start ask­ing CI dumb ques­tions? How the heck do you know you can trust this CI?  Where did it come from?  Is it worth risk­ing your career to stick your neck out act­ing on this intel­li­gence you barely under­stand done by some­body you barely know?

Even worse, say the pre­sen­ta­tion is done to a room full of com­pet­i­tive and ner­vous exec­u­tives.  Nobody wants to appear stu­pid or weak, exec­u­tives already know every­thing right?  So every­body pre­tends they under­stand, talks around the issue, and unless they are part of a very pro­gres­sive and sophis­ti­cated cor­po­rate cul­ture, odds are their best self inter­est is to sim­ply ignore the intel­li­gence report after the meet­ing, main­tain the sta­tus quo,  and hope either it goes away or the CEO does some­thing with it.  Act­ing on it is not worth the risk, even if it looks good.


CRM in this case is cus­tomer rela­tion­ship man­age­ment.

CI pro­fes­sion­als, like their engi­neer­ing and sci­ence cousins, tend to enjoy research and analy­sis.  CI can never under­stand why nobody uses their analy­sis when it’s obvi­ously very right and very impor­tant.  “If I’m right what does pol­i­tics and rela­tion­ships have to do with any­thing?  It’s sit­ting right there in black and white; just read it!”  That’s clas­sic engi­neer mind.

CI will hap­pily spend months in a dark base­ment doing cal­cu­la­tions and fig­ur­ing out answers to ques­tions. How­ever in the same tech­ni­cal per­son­al­ity, most CI pro­fes­sion­als don’t seem to take the time to under­stand their audi­ence, the cor­po­rate pol­i­tics, or more impor­tantly how to get their cus­tomers of intel­li­gence to value and uti­lize the prod­uct.  No mar­ket­ing or sales, just the thud of the report on a desk.  That’s why com­peti­tor pro­files are so pop­u­lar an intel­li­gence prod­uct, they may be next to use­less and time inten­sive, but every­body at least under­stands them.

And If I’m an exec­u­tive that instinc­tively hates and fears every group of smart peo­ple that threaten my abil­ity or polit­i­cal posi­tion, keep­ing a group of expen­sive CI ana­lysts busy doing work with neg­li­gi­ble return on invest­ment is a good way pre­vent CI from becom­ing a threat, and maybe even get rid of them dur­ing the next bud­get cut.

So how do you win over an audi­ence that prob­a­bly hates and fears you?

Turn­ing Ene­mies into Friends

Fun­da­men­tal Sun Tzu, this is Psy­ops 101.  The Green Berets actu­ally have many books on the sub­ject and call it counter insur­gency.  A polit­i­cally savvy CI group will engage and com­mu­ni­cate with it’s exec­u­tives and deci­sion mak­ers in per­son on a reg­u­lar basis.  That means stop by their office at least once a week, talk to them, get to know them, under­stand their needs, and sup­port them directly. If you are located to far away to talk in per­son, phone calls work too (They did for me across three time zones and 5 states).  For CI to sur­vive, they need to embed them­selves into the lead­er­ship process and mind of the com­pany.  That’s inter­nal cus­tomer rela­tion­ship man­age­ment.  In fact using a CRM tool to track and pri­or­i­tize inter­nal needs for CI may be appro­pri­ate in large organizations.

The take away here is com­pet­i­tive intel­li­gence needs to work their audi­ence like human intel­li­gence assets.  You need to keep them happy, secure, informed, and even depen­dent on you.

Pri­mary Intel­li­gence and Sec­ondary Intelligence.

For those unfa­mil­iar, Pri­mary intel­li­gence means get­ting infor­ma­tion by talk­ing to peo­ple, Sec­ondary intel­li­gence basi­cally means read­ing it some where (often on line).  Mod­ern CI prac­tice is overly reliant on sec­ondary intel­li­gence, and from what I’ve seen with SCIP (the Soci­ety of Com­pet­i­tive Intel­li­gence Pro­fes­sion­als) Pri­mary intel­li­gence is actu­ally rarely if ever used in the cur­rent com­pet­i­tive intel­li­gence practice.

Most Savvy CI folks know that exec­u­tives and any­one with cus­tomer or ven­dor con­tact are an invalu­able source of pri­mary intel­li­gence.  Easy pri­mary CI is called hav­ing lunch with busi­ness devel­op­ment every week.

No deci­sion maker is going to trust sec­ondary intel­li­gence from some ana­lyst in another depart­ment.  But if your CI liai­son that vis­its your office three times a week vol­un­teers use­ful infor­ma­tion on that new account your work­ing, that’s a totally dif­fer­ent animal.

And if CI actu­ally comes to you as a source of Pri­mary intel­li­gence on a reg­u­lar basis, trusts your insight, and is happy to talk shop, exchange notes, ful­fill ad hoc requests and feed your ego; of course you trust them, their work is based on your input and you talk to them often!  Exec­u­tives need par­tic­i­pa­tion with and own­er­ship of CI to trust it.  Depend­ing on the size of your team and orga­ni­za­tion, the CI leader may just walk the halls and stick his head into every office every­day; or maybe you need to assign ana­lysts to stop by every stake­holder in the com­pany, then coor­di­nate CI needs and strat­egy in a CI staff meet­ing based on liai­son inter­nal pri­mary intel­li­gence.  Maybe based on per­son­al­i­ties of CI staff, some peo­ple will stick to full time sec­ondary sources and analy­sis while oth­ers main­tain CRM with the CI audi­ence.  A sim­ple best prac­tice is to have every­one in CI main­tain an inter­nal pri­mary intel­li­gence net­work of peers in every depart­ment of the com­pany — this will pro­vide invalu­able pri­mary intel­li­gence, give mul­ti­ple stake hold­ers into the CI process and prod­uct, and keep CI very famil­iar with the “con­text of inter­nal issues.”

But how­ever you do it, CI needs to think more like spies, and start treat­ing any stake­holder in CI as a pri­mary intel­li­gence human asset that needs to be main­tained, sup­ported, and uti­lized on a fre­quent basis if CI really expects to have a large impact on exec­u­tive deci­sion mak­ing.  If every­body knows and trusts you, the research and analy­sis becomes the hard part of the job.  If you use your net­work to infor­mally sup­port research and analy­sis; you can get infor­mal buy in early on at mul­ti­ple lev­els in your intel­li­gence cycle.  Imag­ine hav­ing dif­fer­ent exec­u­tives explain­ing dif­fer­ent parts of analy­sis to the group in an exec­u­tive intel­li­gence review meet­ing.

The Best Practice

If you work in CI, and you’re not the first per­son your exec­u­tives call when they need an informed opin­ion, you’re hon­estly not doing your job.  Imag­ine you stop by a VP’s office, and he is frus­trated by a prob­lem.  After let­ting him vent for ten min­utes,  you as a CI pro­fes­sional can quote him what the Har­vard Busi­ness Review, the Wall Street Jour­nal, the Econ­o­mist, and Strat­for have to say on the sub­ject, plus you can quote the inter­nal met­rics, com­pare them to indus­try bench­mark­ing, men­tion that a guy down in IT you talked to the other day was work­ing a sim­i­lar prob­lem for HR, and maybe we could get some syn­ergy by expand­ing the scope on the HR solu­tion to sup­port a com­pet­i­tive need.  And you know from research for the annual com­peti­tor analy­sis, that if imple­mented well, the solu­tion would actu­ally give a good edge on your pri­mary com­peti­tor.  You know some of the strate­gic ini­tia­tives are under bud­get, and you think there may even be avail­able bud­get for it.  And you are prac­ticed at artic­u­lat­ing these insights to the VP that you talk to often and share a com­mon vocab­u­lary with.

CI should be in so tight with exec­u­tives, that they are famil­iar with the con­tent of intel­li­gence pre­sen­ta­tions weeks before the meet­ing, so your audi­ence is informed and tak­ing action at the meet­ing, not con­fused vir­gins try­ing to fig­ure out what it means.  You do that by main­tain­ing the cus­tomer rela­tion­ships, know­ing their expec­ta­tions, and keep­ing them con­stantly informed, in per­son, by talk­ing to them.

That’s what CI should be.  If you are still main­tain­ing sta­tic reports that get pub­lished to peo­ple with no time to read them — guess what, your CI has lit­tle if any impact on the com­pany; it’s tac­ti­cal or ran­dom at best.  If you can infor­mally form strong rela­tion­ships with all your stake hold­ers, lit­er­ally by just walk­ing into offices and say­ing, “Hi, my name is Bob, I’m with com­pet­i­tive intel­li­gence, my job is to answer ques­tions, what do you do, do you know where I can get infor­ma­tion?  How can I help you?”  and go from there.  Don’t show them your CI prod­ucts, just learn their job, form a rela­tion­ship, and see what prob­lems they have that CI can help with.  Sim­ply engage their ego and get them talk­ing.  You’ll be sur­prised what hap­pens from there.

It worked for me on more than one occa­sion.  I’m hop­ing it can work for you.

Thanks for reading,

Your hum­ble strategist,

T.S. Galpin

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18 Responses to The Problem with Competitive Intelligence

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  8. Dave says:

    If you work in CI, and you’re not the first person your executives call when they need an informed opinion, you’re honestly not doing your job.

    Not necessarily. It depends on the size of the organisation. This statement is probably true for a small organization, a few hundred people. In larger organizations the hierarchy reigns. The excecutve will one of his direct reports, who will ask one of his direct reports, etc. until the question finally works its way down to someone who knows the answer.

    As you note earlier in your discourse, “Its always interesting to see a string of emails that started at midnight, bounced between 10 people in the middle of the night and hits you in box at 4am with a note from your boss saying – “Urgent, address this first thing when you get in the office.”

    That bouncing among 10 people is the question working its way down the hierarchy to you. Tom Clancy’ novels not withstanding, a chief executive is not going to bypass the chain of command to talk directly to an analyst.

    So, mister strategist, how do you handle the hirearchy?

    • tsgalpin says:


      Trick question. It’s a matter of context.

      A clarification would be – If your organization has a formal intelligence function, and the leadership does not utilize it as the primary source of intelligence; there’s something very wrong. The Jack Ryan / Tom Clancy Analogy would be if your the national security advisor, and your not the first call the president makes for defense intelligence, you’re not doing your job.

      The word executive connnotates senior leadership, not CEO exclusively – VP’s, directors, budget owners and departments heads. Really any key stakeholders or decision makers.

      The point of the article is in most organizations, regardless of size, there is a formal competitive intelligence function, that has yet to establish itself as a credible member of the hierarchy. This article explains how to use techniques borrowed from networking, social engineering, and primary intelligence practices to establish trust, influence and credibility within the organization. And keep in mind most competitive intelligence functions are managed directly by an executive who should not have significant hierarchical barriers, rather cultural barriers.

      Now at the heart of the article, whether a formal or informal intelligence function, one can use intelligence trade craft to circumvent the hierarchy. Now it will take time to establish a social network and penetrate the organizational barriers. And there may be limits to what you can accomplish with your rank and location. Kids in the mail room rarely get access to the CEO regardless; but a sophisticated CEO should be aware of what’s going on in the mail room; you find ways to leverage that need and curiosity to your operational advantage.

      The ENTIRE POINT of the article is – a good intelligence professional should be able to identify their audience, and form a direct, likely informal relationship with their audience (hopefully some key decision makers). Which means the first target of intelligence analysis should be your organization to identify those people within the organization and figure out how to reach them.

      Because without a relationship with key decision makers, competitive intelligence functions have no ROI, and frequently are the budget that gets eliminated during lean times.

  9. tsgalpin says:

    The Problem with Competitive Intelligence « – view page – cached

    When keeping up with the CI practice, a common theme is CI falls on deaf ears and is heavily under utilized. How do you fix that?

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  14. Joe Levy says:

    I just came across your post and love the way you structured it. I agree completely that if the CI team isn’t heavily relied on by the appropriate executives, there is something that the CI team isn’t doing right. Thanks for writing!

  15. Archibald Bomwitz says:

    If the CI function is properly organized there will be one top manager in the leadership group that is responsible for being in contact with CI and report regularly to the leadership group and the board of the company. Only in special cases will analysts be asked to present their report directly to the Chief Executive Officer.

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