In defence of competitive intelligence

Former competitive intelligence analyst Eric Garland recently wrote in The Atlantic about how “strategic intelligence makes us dumber”. I was not going to respond, partly because I did not think the idea would gain much traction, partly because I suspect Garland is being controversial for the fun of it, and mainly because I am British and do not want to cause a fuss.

But the idea may indeed be gaining traction:

  • Being in The Atlantic (one of my favourite publications) is already a good platform
  • Ernst & Young’s August Jackson has summarized and largely agreed with Garland’s arguments
  • Russia Today summarized Garland’s ideas as “don’t trust these people”
  • and now Aurora WDC, one of the better known competitive intelligence firms and home to Craig Fleisher, will hold a webinar on the subject.

So, I must raise my hand and disagree.

I will assume that “strategic intelligence” is similar to competitive intelligence, perhaps just a term more accessible to the readers of The Atlantic. Garland does not define the term, which on Wikipedia relates to military applications, but since Garland was a competitive intelligence analyst, and the discussion has been picked up mainly by the competitive intelligence community, this is probably what Garland meant.

And I will gloss over the term “peak intel”. Used in the same way as in the oil industry, it means that “the point in time when the maximum rate of intelligence extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. Garland cannot possibly mean that April 2012 is the point in all human history when the (nascent) competitive intelligence industry has peaked. But as a catchy term not to be taken seriously, it is clever – I disagree with it but I like it.

Analysts are not here to disrupt customer thinking

Garland’s main point is that the intelligence industry “once lived to disrupt its customers' thinking, not reassure it” but now “mostly just tells [clients] what they want to hear”.

Disrupting customers’ thinking is not the primary role of a competitive intelligence analyst. The primary role of a competitive intelligence analyst is to deliver information. Yes, I know all the stuff about adding value with analysis and recommendations, actionable insight, etc. But every good analyst can do analysis – and many of our clients can analyze far better than we can. What singles out a competitive intelligence analyst (/librarian/information professional) is that we can find the unfindable. From that information, inferences can be drawn (or the other way round - one of those two).

Even where analysis and recommendations are concerned, the role of the analyst is to support the client in making the right decision. If my goal is to disrupt the client’s thinking, I have assumed the client’s thinking is wrong, which is a big bias. Not to mention that neither the client nor the analyst know what advice is right, because no one knows the future: so take a position, but ease off on the dogma. And if the right advice were indeed disruptive, taking a road away from the conventional, then by definition most analysts would never think of it. My favourite analysts du jour (Horace, Rags) are not disruptive, or particularly strategic, but they are worth listening to nonetheless.

Customers are not looking for fake justifications

“While people may be pretending to follow intelligence, impostors in both the analyst and executive camps actually follow shallow, fake processes that justify their existing decisions and past investments.”

This is an opinion that analysts often like to hold (including Garland and, in the comments to his article, Nils Gilman): no one takes me seriously, executives use my research to justify decisions that they already planned to take. In my 94 years of competitive intelligence work, I have rarely found this to be the case. I can only think of two cases where the client said in advance what he wanted the results of the research to be. About a third of the time, clients have wanted to justify a decision and so commissioned competitive intelligence, but if the results came back strongly against their thinking, they have backed off. Now, this could be an exceptional set of examples. That is partly the problem; you can’t make sweeping statements about how executives use research. Personally, if the client wants me to justify their already-taken decision, it’s not a big moral drama: I either take their money or move on. I am not running Amnesty International here.

I would like to defend the client, this blundering moron who buys research to cover himself, and ignores the wisdom of us mighty analysts. I must remember with some humility who is out there on the front line while I, the analyst, sit safely behind my desk. It’s all very well to get proud and noble about being an analyst ignored by stupid clients, but at least the clients are getting this done while I spend all day copy and pasting. I can give you a ton of analysis about your business, but for heaven’s sake don’t make me CEO. It’s easy for me to tell some $10 billion brand to get onto Twitter, but don’t ask me to manage the repercussions. It is easier to talk the talk than walk the walk, if I may be forgiven a cliché.

As an analyst, when you’re wrong it doesn’t really hurt you. Aqute has often been wrong (if you’re a client reading this, we actually haven’t). As an analyst, it’s easy to overlook your own mistakes; they may cost you a contract, but they are unlikely to cost you your job or your company.

Why now?

Fourthly, even if Garland is right in his assertion that analysts are not serving clients well, and that clients do not want to hear contrary opinions, how is this different to any other time? ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ points exactly to the days when unpopular news could cost you your life. Last year, only two Aqute analysts were shot for presenting unpopular slides. In fact, although my understanding of business history is zero, I would bet that the internet age is the most disruptive business period in a long while. Even where companies fail it is not for want of trying. So there must be more disruptive executives than ever before. Surely that must mean analysts are being asked to support more disruptive decisions than ever before (unless the disruptors are too busy disrupting to hire analysts).

Politics does not render competitive intelligence useless

Finally, Garland argues that competitive intelligence is pointless. There isn’t much competitiveness anyway, he says, because the manipulation of markets by governments overrides any free market.

Well, perhaps. I am not knowledgeable enough to argue that point. Let’s leave aside whether that is truer now than ever before. But even if true, political manipulation applies the same to you and your competitors (if it doesn’t, hire an analyst to tell you how the competitor is lobbying better than you are). It will still help you to know what new products your competitor will launch, what it will cost, what they will do next.

Competitive intelligence is not broken

Garland argues that clients are making poor decisions, that analysts are tagging along like sheep and that anyway it does not matter because there is no free market. His assumptions are wrong and his conclusions are wrong.

Every day companies are making risky decisions, entering new markets, inventing new products, fighting against their competitors in fascinating ways. And much of their intelligence, their models, their scenario planning, comes from analysts doing their job properly.