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Quotations & Competitive Intelligence

March 26, 2010 1 comment

I’ve been reading Seena Sharp‘s new book “Competitive Intelligence Advantage

The book is good (at least so far) – and an easy read which is more than can be said for a lot of business books. More importantly Seena’s approach corresponds with mine. She emphasises that competitive intelligence is not just about competitors but about understanding the total business environment and how it is changing, and using this knowhow to make effective business decisions. This means it’s not just a how-to-do-it book like many of its competitors but a why-to-do-it book too. This is important. Many businesses still fail to understand why they need competitive intelligence. If you don’t understand the need, why do it. Others see the focus as primarily on competitors – but they already “know” all about them so are “OK” (or so they believe). The book exposes this canard – and shows why surprise is so dangerous for companies.

Although so far, I have mostly praise for the book, there is one niggle. Making decisions on inaccurate intelligence is dangerous. It is always important to check facts first rather than to assume that just because something is common knowledge or sounds right it is correct. In the world generally, there have been many mistakes made based on information that turned out to be rumour or false. Part of the role of analysis is to verify information – and act accordingly. Failure to verify information is a route to strategy failure.

So what is my niggle. It relates to a quotation on page 20: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” This is a great quotation – and it is widely used. A search on the Internet turns up multiple examples – and most claim it was written by Charles Darwin, in his works looking at evolution. The problem is that Darwin almost certainly never said or wrote this. A few years ago, I wanted to use this quotation in an article I was writing – and needed to provide a reference. I searched through Darwin’s complete works online and couldn’t find it. I then contacted Nigel Rees, an expert on quotations who couldn’t either. Replies to a post I made to the FreePint Bar suggested that the attribution was probably false (but nobody knew where it originally came from). The series of posts at FreePint both by me, and others, debunk a few more commonly attributed quotations too. (E.g. “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics” was definitely not originally said by Mark Twain as many claim and possibly not by Disraeli either, as I and others had thought.

Whenever I use a quotation I try and attribute it – and give a reference for the source, where possible. Maybe it’s because I’m pedantic or overly thorough. However I also believe it is part of the mindset needed for effective competitive intelligence. Just because something is commonly believed doesn’t make it true and I wish Seena had either stated that the quotation was “attributed” to Darwin instead of being by Darwin – or found the source.

In fact, the source was probably a close follower of Darwin – such as JBS Haldane. And Haldane supplies a lesson for all involved in competitive intelligence: just because something is unexpected doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

A discussion between Haldane and a friend began to take a predictable turn. The friend said with a sigh, ‘It’s no use going on. I know what you will say next, and I know what you will do next.’ The distinguished scientist promptly sat down on the floor, turned two back somersaults, and returned to his seat. ‘There,’ he said with a smile. ‘That’s to prove that you’re not always right. Found at Today In Science History‘s page on Haldane – quoting from: Clifton Fadiman (ed.), André Bernard (ed.), Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes (2000), 253.

RIP Kartoo

March 14, 2010 Leave a comment
When I conduct training sessions on how to search I always emphasise that it’s more important to know how to find information rather than to depend on a small selection of key web-sites.

Many searchers depend on their bookmark list but what happens when a key site disappears: if you don’t know how to search you are stuck.

Searching isn’t just going to google and typing your query in the search box. Expert searching demands that you consider where the information you are looking for is likely to be held, and in what format. It requires the searcher to understand the search tools they use – how they work and their strengths and weaknesses. Such skills are crucial when key sites disappear as happened in January with the small French meta-search engine, Kartoo.

Kartoo was innovative and presented results graphically. It enabled you to see links between terms and was brilliant for concept searching where you didn’t really know where to start. Unfortunately it’s now gone to cyber-heaven, or wherever dead web-sites disappear to. It will be missed – at least until something similar appears. Already Google’s wonderwheel (found from the “options” link just above the search results”) offers some of the functionality and graphic feel, and there are other sites that offer similar capabilities (e.g. Touchgraph). Kartoo however was special – it was simple, free and showed that Europeans can still come up with good search ideas.

Example of a Kartoo Search

Of course Kartoo isn’t the first innovative site to disappear. Over the years, many great search tools have gone. Greg Notess lists some in his SearchEngineShowdown blog – and an article in Online magazine. There are more. How many people remember IIBM’s Infomarket service – an early online news aggregator from 1995, or Transium.

In fact, it was learning that sites are mortal that led to my approach to searching: don’t depend on a limited selection of sites but rather know how to find sites and databases that lead you to the information wanted. That’s a key skill for all researchers and is as valid today in the Google generation as it was in the days before Google.

Google – public data explorer

March 10, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve just been pointed to a new Googlelabs initiative – the Google Public Data Explorer. This promises to be a useful tool for finding public data in one place. (It’s always worth keeping an eye on GoogleLabs as they often bring out new ideas and products. These are kept together until ready to launch – and can be found from http://www.googlelabs.com.).

The data is not new – although i think some of the presentation is. I don’t recall being able to manipulate the figures from Eurostat so easily (but then that may be because I’ve not had to use Eurostat for a while). Eurostat – the European Union’s statistic service – is large and complex (or was). With Google a couple of key Eurostat databases (unemployment statistics, minimum wage, consumer price index) now become easily manipulable. Other databases include OECD, World Bank and a number of US databases.
Hopefully many more databases will be added – and eventually the service may become a one-stop-shop for global statistics, replacing the need to visit various local country statistics services (e.g. the UK’s Office for National Statistics).
Even though there are currently only a handful of databases available many of the most important types of data looking at GDP, population trends, health, etc. are available – plus interesting, but probably less critical examples, such as Internet users per 100 of the population. In this example, I compared the UK and US with two of the emerging power-houses – China and India for Internet usage. I found it interesting that the UK had more users per 100 than the US but not surprising that China and India were so low, despite the total web user numbers in China being higher than those for the US and growing rapidly. It would have been possible to add any of the countries on the left to the chart. 

Unethical CI – out in the open!

March 4, 2010 Leave a comment
As a competitive intelligence specialist, we try to practice what we preach – and keep an eye on our own competitors. In most cases, we view ourselves as complementers as much as we are also competitors. There is enough work for all of us – and the market is far from saturated.

Part of the task of a Competitive Intelligence consultancy is to show companies that competitive intelligence is a necessary business skill – and that it is legitimate and ethical to outsource competitor research to external consultants whatever can’t be handled in-house. (Reasons for outsourcing include lack of time, lack of skills and experience and the need for an objective view – which can’t be obtained by doing research in-house). In fact AWARE views training in competitive & marketing intelligence as a key element of its business mission, so as to raise CI/MI skills.

There are many ethical competitive intelligence consultants apart from us – in the USA there is Market Analytics, Fuld and Aurorawdc to name three. In Australia – the Mindshifts Group,  led by CI industry leader Babette Bensoussan is important. Within Europe there are similar consultancies. We link to a number of top CI consultancies on our alliances web pages.

Unfortunately there are also several companies that fall short ethically and even legally. I recently came across one – with a great domain name, but that’s as far as it goes.  This “business intelligence” company (which I won’t name for now, for legal reasons), openly states that they engage in industrial espionage.

Secondary research – their “light touch” is legitimate if it doesn’t employ hacking or password cracking. However their in-depth research placing moles into the target company is highly unethical and probably illegal (depending on the information supplied, and any non-disclosure agreements signed by the agent and their “employer”).

Such behaviour brings all competitive intelligence under suspicion – which is part of the rationale behind this post: to expose such shenanigans.

Fortunately this “business intelligence service”  doesn’t come cheap and only very few (probably desperate) companies will avail themselves of such services. In fact the company actually implies this by saying on their web-site:

We hope that you never need our services, but if you do, then you can be assurred of an excellent service.

Their charges range from £10,000 for the “light touch” research to £150,000 for their in-depth research (including “employee placement and surveillance“). Even this is not their top price. When looking at individuals, pricing ranges from £25,000 for “light touch” research verifying personal details, employment, connected people, etc. to £200,000 for fully in-depth analysis (lifetime checks, asset checks, lifestyle, etc.). Some assignments are charged at fees of up to £25,000 per day (although most are claimed to be a fraction of this).

To put things into context, we have never charged anything like £10,000 for pure desk research and from conversations with other consultants, they haven’t either.

They claim that their “researchers” come from military, police and government service backgrounds – but they don’t mention any business or marketing background. They seem to be ignoring, or perhaps do not even know the risks involved in industrial espionage and based on what they offer, I’d question whether they’d see the value in standard strategic analysis as a means for understanding competitors. (The US Economic Espionage Act, 1996 is just one risk. Even when companies don’t go to law, there can be serious financial ramifications for espionage).

Instead of looking at public non-confidential intelligence that, when aggregated, can create a detailed picture of all aspects of a company they seem to prefer subterfuge. Such approaches may say what a company is currently planning but it won’t help in understanding what the company is thinking or likely to do in the future

Interestingly this company is not as immune to standard CI investigation as they probably think. Standard secondary research suggests that they use a Plymouth, UK, based front company for finding work placements for their agents, and that their minimalist web-site has at least one hidden / secret directory – which can be found by searching for a robots.txt file. 

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