Is it impossible to stick to SCIP's code of ethics?
We have previously written about the vagueness of the SCIP code of ethics. Most items in that code are redundant because they are restatements of the law; or are they about promoting the profession rather than ethics itself.
The most significant statement in the code is the third one:
To accurately disclose all relevant information, including one's identity and organization, prior to all interviews.
On the surface, this is pretty straightforward, but it is actually a difficult and unclear dictate, for several reasons:
- "All relevant information": does this include the name of the client? That may be the most relevant information of all, certainly from the interviewee's point of view. It could also be argued that during the project, your real identity is not as a competitive intelligence vendor, but as a representative of the client. But you cannot reveal your identity because you probably promised confidentiality to the client (including through an NDA).
- Let us assume that you do not have to reveal the client name. So now we are allowed to keep back some information, what if you set up a subsidiary called the Institute of Business Benchmarking, and interview people under that alias - do you have to declare the Institute's real corporate ownership? If yes, how far does that go - do you have to reveal every detail of your corporate structure?
- What is an "interview"? One must assume it means any probing interaction in a competitive intelligence project. Otherwise one can avoid this rule by separating formal interviews from conversations and other informal interactions. Does it include walking up to an exhibition booth? One would imagine that is in the spirit of the statement. Yet it cannot include general mystery shopping, which has a long pedigree in the greater market research industry. So now what if one walks up to an exhibition booth to buy something? Or just to assess how employees react, in the same way one might assess customer service in a mystery shopping exercise.
- If an interview refers to all such interactions, how does it govern visiting competitor websites? Or scraping employee profiles on LinkedIn? Should you email them in advance? That is not a facile question, especially if you accept the website being just as important as a physical store presence. Even more so if the purpose of the competitive intelligence project is to assess that website itself (e.g. assess ease of use of AdWords). It is no excuse that the information on a website is public, because the SCIP rule does not limit itself to interviews about non-public information.
- More intrusively, suppose you have to register on a website to download their promotional material. As an ordinary citizen, you would do that with a Hotmail-style email address, or a made-up one, to avoid being spammed. As a competitive intelligence analyst, must one act differently?
More philosophically, what is the purpose of revealing one's identity? The real ethical (or legal) issue is to not acquire information that the competitor wants to, and can expect to, keep confidential. That stands whether you reveal your identity or not. Revealing your identity does not raise/lower the bar about what should be confidential. The implication must be that, knowing your identity, the competitor's employee can assess what is confidential, but that is a fallacy. If the competitor's employee makes a mistake in assessing confidentiality, or you lure him into revealing more than he should, that is still a Bad Situation, regardless of your identity being known.
Aqute doesn't have the answers, just thorny questions. This one item is the backbone of the SCIP code of ethics and it is important for the statement to be clear and applicable. As it stands, it is a difficult sentence to interpret.