Archive

Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Competitive Intelligence & Culture

February 21, 2011 7 comments

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.

Japanese vs. European greetingsThese 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.

Advertisements

The camera never lies… or does it?

September 16, 2010 1 comment

When people look at a photograph, they see a snapshot of history. That is one reason that people used to say that the camera never lied. Of course, today, with Photoshop people are warier and look for signs that the photo has been edited. There have been a number of notorious recent incidents of photo editing that highlight this problem. Examples include

However there is another problem with photos – and also news stories, and gathered information in general. That is the context. Understanding the context is crucial for effective business decisions. Gathering information is not the difficult bit. It’s analysing the information to convert it into intelligence that is hard. Without the correct context, poor or even disastrous decisions may be made. These may impact both business and individuals.

An example of how this can happen was highlighted in a sermon given by Rabbi Ivan Lerner on the sabbath between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Rabbi Lerner pointed out that the Hebrew word for truth (אמת Emet) is made up of the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Truth about an event isn’t just information about what is happening at a point in time, but also includes the events that led up to that point, and the consequences of the actions taken based on the event. It includes the beginning, middle and end. Rabbi Lerner gave an example from the famous photograph taken by Eddie Adams on the 1st February 1968.

Eddie Adam's Pulitzer Prize photo. This photo led to Adam’s gaining the 1969 Pulitzer prize for spot news photography, as well as the World Press Photo award. The photo showed the moment of execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Close examination even showed the bullet exiting from the prisoner’s head.

The impact of the photo was immeasurable. Calls were made to charge General Loan with a war crime for the execution of an “innocent” civilian. The anti-war movement used the photo to justify their protests against a war that was seen as overly savage, cruel and gratuitous.

The impact on General Loan was significant. A few months later, Loan was severely wounded and taken to Australia for treatment. When people realised he was the same man from the photo, protests led to him being evacuated to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Even then protests continued – and Loan returned to Saigon, leaving the army due to his injuries. At the fall of Saigon his pleas for help from the Americans were ignored although in the end, he and his family managed to escape and he moved to the US – where he took on a new identity. He opened a pizzeria in Virginia but in 1991, he was discovered – and business disappeared, with graffiti scrawled on the restaurant walls.

The story so far shows the event and its aftermath – but not the context that led to the execution. General Loan was vilified as a war criminal, while Nguyễn Văn Lém was seen as the innocent victim. Loan had to hide his identity and lost his future as a result. In fact, the executed prisoner – Nguyễn Văn Lém – was not an innocent. He commanded a Viet Cong death squad that had targeted South Vietnamese police and their families. He was captured near a ditch containing over 30 bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives – men, women and children. Lém was personally responsible for the deaths of several. Adams has confirmed that this was the case. The Viet Cong had attacked during a truce arranged for the Tet Holiday. Some of their victims has been at home celebrating.

Subsequently Adams found out more about General Loan. Loan was seen as a hero to the South Vietnamese. He wasn’t just a soldier. He fought for the construction of hospitals, helping war orphans and for a way of life that was destroyed. Adams regretted taking the photo because of what happened afterwards. (Eddie Adams describing his notorious Vietnam photograph)

…Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?…’ (Eulogy: GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN, Time Magazine, Jul. 27, 1998)

Information needs a context. When gathering information it is important to know the source and why the information became available. It is important to understand the context and when interpreting it, there should be no hidden agenda. The Adams picture failed in that it didn’t give the context and instead only helped to support and confirm the biases of anti-war journalists, letting them further their own agenda. As such, it ruined Loan’s life.

CI versus corporate espionage: thoughts on an ABC News story

February 19, 2010 3 comments

I read this news item from ABC news ‘James Bond’ Tactics Help Companies Spy on Each Other” and had only one thought: that guy is totally unethical and wrong.

A few years ago, an Israeli colleague commented to me that in his experience, most of the ex-secret service operatives who try and enter the commercial world of CI fail. The reason he said is that they don’t know the boundaries of what is legitimate competitive intelligence collection and what is corporate espionage, and illegitimate. He also said that in many cases, they also have no real idea of budgets and what is valuable to a company strategically versus the cost of obtaining it. Most never had a budgetary role when working for the various national security services and so could not do a cost-benefit analysis effectively.

This story shows both examples. Purchasing the garbage from an organisation is not only unethical but strikes me as wasteful. Garbage is thrown away for a reason – it’s not wanted and valueless. The majority of companies today have shredders and routinely shred anything that would be seen as highly sensitive. True, the mid-level material may be chucked, but not the high-level stuff. (And those that don’t shred deserve what they get – I’d be surprised that any Fortune 500 companies don’t have shredding contracts!)

As for the other shenanigans implied – any company that employed a consultant to use such techniques deserves to get sued and end up paying more than they gained. The trouble is some do – and the list of companies that learned the hard-way that espionage doesn’t pay is still growing.

So let me make it clear: espionage is wrong, while CI is a legitimate practice that uses only ethical means to collect intelligence.

This involves declaring your identity and NOT collecting information that would be classed as secret or confidential. As Issur Harel the Israeli spy-chief responsible for capturing the Nazi war murderer, Eichmann, is reported to have said:

We do not deal with certainties. The world of intelligence is the world of probabilities. Getting the information is not usually the most difficult task. What is difficult is putting upon it the right interpretation. Analysis is everything. James Bond is not the real world.

%d bloggers like this: