5 lessons for competitive intelligence from the NOTW drama

The rapid unwinding of the News of the World has been well documented for the past couple of weeks.

As a competitive intelligence analyst, I was struck by the following:

  1. This is why competitive intelligence practitioners keep banging on about ethical practices. When unethical practices catch up with you, things can get ugly and it will be difficult to control what unfolds.
  2. People will disclose private information for very little inducement. If contact details of the Royal Household may be had for £1,000, and the Met Police can supposedly be bribed for thousands of pounds, imagine how little inducement is needed for the less sensitive information that corporate intelligence teams require. These are presumably significant sums to the people receiving them, but not to corporate budgets.
  3. It is relatively easy to blag people into revealing anything. Competitive intelligence buyers often find it difficult to believe that competitors may disclose this or that. But if (allegedly, blah blah) law firms and banks can be made to reveal the financial details of a Prime Minister, getting a competitor to reveal how much they pay for their supplies should be child's play. The limits are set by the ethics of the competitive intelligence team (see (1) above) and not by the physical possibilities of obtaining information. This is not hugely surprising: while intelligence teams live in a state of paranoia, most employees are not constantly on their guard against intelligence gathering attempts.
  4. Success can breed complacency: at News of the World, they found intelligence methods that worked and continued to use the same methods without question. Competitive intelligence techniques must be questioned regularly, for both ethical validity and effectiveness. Using the same methods for years makes them vulnerable.
  5. Competitive intelligence needs involvement from the senior leadership team. Other competitive intelligence bloggers have written about how competitive intelligence must have an impact at board level, driving company strategy. Otherwise it just adds to the mountains of unused data that companies produce. What the News of the World saga shows is that CI teams are playing a sensitive, often high stakes, game that can generate massive negative publicity if it goes rogue. Someone on the senior leadership team needs proper awareness of what is going on.