19 Dec 14 Five Debates about Competitive Intelligence that will never be resolved

Last November, at SCIP Amsterdam, I was enjoying the excellent coffee at the Krasnapolsky with an old friend, and long-time SCIP veteran. During our conversation, he bemoaned the fact that the same issues and topics were repeated at every conference.

Thinking about this later, it struck me that some debates never die. Like the origin of the species, or left brain vs. right brain. While this may appear to be a waste of time, I think it’s great! Else we might not have anything to argue about – or discuss at conferences, or in linkedin groups!

So, I’ve put together a small list of debates that we competitive intelligence professionals endlessly engage in, and which will probably never be truly resolved.

Should CI be strategic or tactical?

This is one of the most enduring debates in the competitive intelligence profession – despite the fact that most CI veterans vote on the side of strategy. Of course, if high quality CI can drive C-suite strategic decisions – that’s brilliant. It’s also Nirvana!

No matter how important we CI geeks think our profession is, the reality is that the rest of the world (and many of those who control budgets) don’t always see CI as indispensable to strategy.

At the same time, intelligence is used for a number of day-to-day, so-called tactical decisions. Should this intelligence not be called CI?

Personally, I don’t think it really matters. If somebody (our boss or client) can use intelligence to make a better decision, then CI has a reason to exist. Let’s not belittle the person who needs to make the “small” decisions… nor the professionals that support this decision making.

Where should CI reside?

Should the CI team report to the CEO or Strategy or Marketing? Or be somewhere else? Naturally, the CI team should reside close to decision makers, but this becomes very complicated when there are many decision makers in a globally distributed organization. We’d all love to work directly with the CEO, but that’s not always possible.

This is a great topic for debate simply because it cannot be answered. What’s good for A may not be good for B. Every company has its own DNA, evolutionary history and organization structure. Ultimately, CI should reside where it can have the most impact – and this will vary for each company.

Insight versus information?

Several CI gurus bemoan the supposedly low-end, data collation efforts that they claim are erroneously passed off as legit CI activity. How many times have we heard that information gathering is not CI?

We’re then told that the quality of insight is what defines good CI. Like all humans, we love to hear that what we do is “sophisticated”. It makes us feel important. “We’re not merely information providers. We’re helping change the world!”

But does everyone in the CI value chain have to be an insight provider? Is it possible to provide great insights without long hours spent in reading and sifting information, and building up our own knowledge? Does the quality of information or analysis not affect the quality of insight (and therefore decision making)?

How to calculate RoI on competitive intelligence?

In the highly competitive and financially driven world, bean counters (and CEOs) need to justify every investment. And at each conference we hear about how important it is to measure RoI. Of course it is! If we cannot do this, then why should companies hire CI professionals or consultants? At the same time, very few (if any) have actually succeeded in developing a fool-proof method of measurement.

I’m not suggesting we stop trying to measure RoI. Simply that precise measurement may not be possible, and such exercises may end up missing the wood for the trees. An interesting take here is that companies often learn the value of CI when things go wrong (i.e. they lose market share, or new technology blind-sides them). It may be easier to measure the cost of not doing CI, than the returns.

What exactly is competitive intelligence?

Finally, what do we mean by competitive intelligence? I did some searching, and to my surprise, I found literally hundreds of definitions (try for yourself). While many of these say the same thing in different ways, and there are a couple that I personally like – many of the definitions are way off the mark.

Some equate CI with only competitor intelligence, others restrict intelligence gathering to public sources. I even found one definition which said that CI was industrial espionage performed in an ethical and legal manner!

Despite the best efforts of SCIP and several senior CI professionals, there is no single, commonly accepted definition. And given that the Internet allows all of us to self-publish, the variety of definitions will only increase.

Would more than welcome further endless debate on these topics, as well as any other similar topics you could suggest.

Arun Jethmalani

Arun is one of the founders of ValueNotes. Apart from trying to build a high-quality research business, he has spent the last 27 years researching, analyzing, and dissecting companies and industries. He has worked with clients of all shapes and sizes, from all parts of the world – in providing them insights that make a difference to their business.
Prior to ValueNotes, he was an equity analyst/advisor, and wrote extensively on investing – including a column titled “Value for Money” which ran for 10 years in the Sunday edition of the Economic Times. To this day, he remains an avid “value” investor.
He has also been published in several other publications, and is a regular speaker at events related to technology, investing, competitive intelligence, business process management, Internet, etc. See: Valuenotes Events
He has been instrumental in developing a community of research and intelligence professionals in India, and is the founder and current chairman of the SCIP (India) Chapter. Arun holds a B Tech from IIT, Bombay and an MS from Duke University, NC, USA. LinkedIn Profile

  • Sarvesh Bhasker
    Posted at 03:32h, 24 April Reply

    I appreciate your knowledge.

  • Avner Barnea
    Posted at 19:05h, 21 April Reply

    You have touch the relevant debates and it looks to me that open discussions of each is very welcome. it is the same in every field. on one item there is a needed agreement – that quality CI has the potential to give significant added value to organizations, mainly to decision- makers. Best regards, Avner Barnea, Chairman, the Israeli CI Forum.

    • Arun Jethmalani
      Posted at 05:38h, 24 April Reply

      Thanks Avner.

  • Arun Jethmalani
    Posted at 08:09h, 30 December Reply

    Dear Avner,
    I’m sorry I could not attend your session in Amsterdam. Will mail you separately for the slide deck.
    I agree that there are some excellent definitions for competitive intelligence. The problem is that not everyone uses the accepted terminology, or understands what CI really is (and is not).

  • Avner Barnea
    Posted at 21:53h, 29 December Reply

    Dear Arun, Thank you for your notes. They are interesting, and some of them are in the center of the CI discussions. Regarding measurement -Unfortunately I have to disagree with you. This is a major challenge, and as I did not see you in my presentation about this issue in the Amsterdam SCIP conference – you may change your view about it! As to CI definitions – there are a few excellent definitions, which are covering CI responsibilities in a good way. Best regards, Avner Barnea, Israel

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