Competitive Intelligence & Culture
My last few posts have gone off my topic – and the main raison d’être of this blog – competitive intelligence and finding business information. I’m tempted to write about the turmoil currently going on in the Middle East – but echo the reply that Zhou Enlai of China is reputed to have told President Nixon when asked for his views on the 1789 French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell”.
At the same time, any attempt to understand what is happening has to take into account the cultures involved. Too many pundits ignore culture as an influencing factor and expectations that the Middle East will suddenly adopt Western democratic ideals strike me as unlikely. That is not to say that some form of democratic rule won’t appear – it just won’t be the same as found in the US, UK, France, Australia and other countries dominated by Western Christian traditions.
Understanding culture is also important for competitive intelligence professionals – yet is often ignored. Several years ago I was speaking to a US based consultant – and asked how he went about doing cross-border research. His response was that all research was done in-house. I then asked how he coped with different languages and time-zones. He replied that he used people fluent in the relevant languages working in shifts. At no point did he accept that different countries expect differing approaches – and that his approach may not always give the best results and so be value for money (or even safe) for his clients.
A few months ago, I led a workshop on competitive intelligence in Indonesia. On the second day I was asked a question that I’d never been asked previously. I was asked when I was going to teach the attendees “unethical” ways for gathering competitor intelligence. The reason given was that they knew that their competitors did not follow ethical approaches to gathering competitive intelligence and they also wanted to learn such techniques. They felt that if they only used the standard ethical approaches used in America and the UK then they would be at a disadvantage. Unfortunately they were probably correct.
Of course the ideal situation is to be ethical in all that you do – but if your competitors don’t follow US/UK ethical guidelines it can cause a problem for you, if you do. Especially if ethical norms are different in the country concerned. I handled the query by spending some time talking about counter-intelligence and what to watch out for – mentioning the sorts of things that could be done against them, and how to detect them. This way, hopefully, my questionner will realise that they can stop their competitors gathering material unethically – and that they can do things the right way themselves. (Of course they could turn what I told them round – and use the same approaches back. That is their decision and at least they’ll know the risk to their reputation if caught).
The point about the question however was that it illustrated a cultural difference. The standard SCIP code of ethics is essentially an American construct and relates to US business. I personally believe it is correct – but that may be because my cultural background as a Brit is not too dissimilar to American business norms.
As another example, I have had to spell out to a non-European client of mine that I am not willing to recruit “a company insider” to provide a constant flow of information. He kept asking me to try and locate an employee who I can periodically pay for the latest information on his employer. My client found it very difficult to understand why this is unethical – as he views it as normal that employees will want to supplement their income by sharing information. When I pointed out that this was industrial espionage he disagreed – as I was not hacking, or using bugs but just speaking to somebody who is willing to provide information on a regular basis, and rewarding this person for their time and effort.
Then there was the client who failed to understand why I preferred to interview UK contacts via the telephone rather than arrange meetings. In his culture, unlike in the UK, face-to-face contact is crucial for any form of business relationship or transaction. The telephone is used to set up meetings – and the idea that you could ever do business over the telephone instead of in person seemed strange.
These are just some of the ways that cultural differences can impact competitive intelligence practice. There are more. Imagine that you want to find out whether a particular product is about to launch. Within the UK, you may call up a contact and simply ask whether the product will launch within 3 months. You will get a yes or no answer. However doing the same research in Japan needs a different approach, as the standard response in Japan will be yes even if the answer is no. Saying no would be bad form – and result in a loss of face. A better approach would be to provide an alternative e.g. “when will the new product launch – less than 3 months or more than 3 months”. This way, you have to get an answer – it is not a yes/no type question.
These are extremes. However even within Europe there are differences – traditionally in Germany you would not use a first name to speak to a contact, while within the UK that is generally acceptable. Behaving in the wrong way can put a distance between you and your interviewee – so it is important to know the cultural impact of your approach.
Unfortunately not much appears to have been written on the impact of culture on competitive intelligence practice – and this is a topic ripe for research.