Dr. Benjamin Gilad, founder and president of the Academy of Competitive Intelligence, recently spoke with ArchIntel discussing how he teaches analysts to conduct competitive intelligence and analysis. Specifically, he focuses on common corporate challenges, competing in the marketplace, data collection and success in the field.
“Defense is lightyears ahead on competitive intelligence because it’s embedded in the culture. When every contract is the size of the gross national product of an African country, you must have intelligence embedded within the company and contract. Defense is ahead of any other industry, but it doesn’t mean they do it right.”
ArchIntel: What are the common challenges you see with establishing a competitive intelligence strategy?
“There is famous research by a German psychologist, Gerd Gigerenzer that demonstrated how decisions are mostly defensive in the sense that you’re supposed to be able to defend your decision and deflect blame, and not necessarily do what’s good for the company. That’s completely understandable because this is how corporate works.
The way to deflect blame for competitive intelligence managers is to say, ‘we have the best sources or we hired the right consulting firms,’ and they can defend their work. If anyone asks the competitive intelligence practitioners ”why you do what you do”, they can back it up by saying that it’s what the customer wants or this is what we need to give for capture. They are very comfortable with it and they are very defensive.
You’ve got to get a little bit out of your comfort zone. That is the number one quality I’m looking for in a brilliant analyst, and I’ve seen thousands over the years. The inability to get comfortable, that bit of inner restlessness is essential. You’re always looking for the next challenge. If you get comfortable and you think you’re doing the “right thing” within the corporate mentality, you get lazy.
Within the defense industry, everybody starts from the same database, everybody has the same information so everybody can defend what they are doing as in “this is what everyone does in this industry.” The number one thing I’m looking for in a brilliant analyst is being a maverick; Don’t do what others are doing because that’s comfortable and familiar. Tell me what I don’t see. Tell me what others don’t see. That will make it intelligence.”
ArchIntel: How do you gain an advantage over your competitors?
“While larger competitors have access to the most advanced technology, in reality, the more resources you have, the more bureaucratic you get. This applies to competitive intelligence activities as well. Competitive intelligence is supposed to enable the gaining of advantage in the competitive arena. The executives you interview on this site claim they provide ‘critical’ intelligence, as in crucially important information for that advantage, but how do they know it’s so important? In large contractors many are guessing at what executives will find crucial in attempting to reach competitive advantage.
When people come to the Academy, the first thing I try to teach them is to think differently about intelligence because it’s not about winning every contract. It’s not about return on investment. You can’t measure it. It’s about affecting the thinking of the user. Therefore, the number one way to measure whether or not you have intelligence is: do you have any impact?
Unfortunately, the focus for many intelligence professionals in Defense is about the excellence of the product, but the most important thing is the use, not the product. Companies just increase the sophistication of a product with AI and data mining, but the use hasn’t changed in 30 years, and that’s something that lacks attention. If you don’t strive as your number one goal to have impact on thinking about competitive advantage, you can have the best product but no real value. I’ll take a simple insight and intentional use over a most sophisticated product with little actual usage.
Many people say curiosity is the most important thing to have within intelligence, but curiosity without strategic perspective means nothing to me. Skepticism is the number one thing I’m looking for because if you’re skeptical, you’re questioning the way things are perceived. And if you question assumptions and conventional thinking, you may have impact on competitive advantage. True, it’s very hard to be skeptical within the corporate culture. That’s why I look for my mavericks.”
ArchIntel: Is data collection more important than data analytics while conducting research?
“Today data collection is not that important, especially with all of the data sources and government contracts available to everyone. Everybody collects the same information. Analysis is important, but even analytics is being bureaucratized in many companies. They follow a process, they follow a procedure, they have a “template”. It’s busy work. I understand why they do it, it is defendable.
If everybody has the same information basically, and reaches the same conclusions, it’s the delivery that makes a difference, because delivery connects to use, and if you understand how the intelligence is used, you understand what’s “critical.” We teach a lot about how to deliver to people who know more than you and tell them something they don’t know already about competitive advantage.
If you establish a dialogue with the user and the user asks questions and you ask questions you have evolved to real intelligence. This dialogue is the missing point in many companies especially with senior users. When you have a disconnect between a producer (intel practitioner) and a user, the superior product means little as it is less important than how it is used. That’s what we teach. We teach them to understand the usage. It’s the missing piece for many large defense firms; not the research, not the sources, not the analysis, the structured, established, productive, regular connection between users and producers which results in intelligence being integrated into strategy.”
ArchIntel: How can corporate companies improve their competitive intelligence?
“Processes are way overhyped; techniques are way overhyped and technology is marginal in true CI. The way to improve your analysis is through changing the way you look at intelligence. You must determine how you are going to get impact.
We have approximately 600 observations in three surveys from CI managers and we studied in- depth what will help intel analysts and their bosses get an impact on decisions. This is my goal – enable the analysts to impact the thinking of the decision maker. I can teach them the frameworks and perspectives that will make the impact, but whether they can actually get there depends a lot on them. If they are comfortable doing “busy work” mostly, sending information and waiting for the call, then they’ll never get there.
There are two types of intelligence managers, just like there are two types of decision makers: bureaucrats and leaders. Both are needed in a large company. In CI, the bureaucrats make sure processes are followed. Work is produced on time. The leaders make sure the work has real impact. If your entire CI team’s focus is bureaucratic, you will not deliver the input to create competitive advantage.
If they think they’re already doing the right thing, then they’ll not go beyond what they already have, and I can’t help them much. I try to change the way they look at CI, not their process. Competitive intelligence is a paradox. I’ve been in CI for 40 years and I think it is the most exciting area to be in because it involves looking at the same information every day, and eventually finding something that others don’t see. That’s unbelievably challenging, and not everyone is built for it. That’s not bureaucratic.
You can deliver information, but intelligence comes from looking beyond the obvious. It doesn’t matter how much data you have. Intelligence comes from the way you look at the world. It’s the frameworks that we use to look at the world that make the difference in dialoguing with the users. Some people don’t see this because they are happy to just deliver news on what is happening, but it’s not intelligence.”
ArchIntel: What background is essential to work in the field of competitive intelligence?
“You definitely need industry experience. I don’t care about an educational background, but you can’t do competitive intelligence without understanding the industry and gain credibility that you know what you’re talking about. On the other hand, if you understand it too well, you’re useless to me because you already have tunnel vision. So somewhere in between?
If you’re an engineering-based company, that doesn’t mean you have to be an engineer, but it gives you credibility when you talk. Executives listen to people with credibility. You can gain expertise by using a community of practice inside your company (as long as you do it right), but once you have credibility, you need to bring on your maverick personality.. I know people who fight for years to get out of certain jobs into competitive intelligence – they share my passion for looking at things differently.
VP hiring for CI must understand that the qualification is actually not following the conventional wisdom. It’s a vicious circle. If your executives are not really thinking right about intelligence, they’ll recruit people based upon experience and background but not the entrepreneurial “spark” of skepticism and critical eye.
Experience is important, but if a person is falling in-step with the consensus, the process, the “research” for research sake, that person can make a great archivist, but not a real intel analyst. In that respect, true strategic analysts are “made of” the same stuff as senior executives. Some executives are good bureaucrats which large companies need. But the ones that are mavericks move higher. I’ve trained thousands of people through the academy over the years. The one thing I’m good at is spotting talent. I think that’s what a professor does. So I can tell within one day, which one of the people in my classes is going to become an executive one day. They have a different way of looking at things- broader, strategic, wholistic way.
This talent for strategic perspective has nothing to do with background and nothing to do with industry. All those are necessary, but not sufficient. The talent is this skeptical viewpoint. You can’t conform. You can’t be comfortable. You can’t agree with just “do your job” and be an intelligence analyst.”
ArchIntel: How do you measure success in competitive intelligence?
“After seeing how the product became so sophisticated, but the use remained deficient, I realized that the standard “maturity” model for competitive intelligence – popularized by research vendors who sell products- hasn’t changed anything in the way intelligence is actually being used. In contrast to resources and budgets and “culture” or whatever the standard model declares as “world class” CI capability, it is simply the relationship between decision makers, the selected intelligence “briefer”, the intelligence team and the internal network that defines the best systems.
It is not the software, not the number of people, not the place in the organization, but this dialogue is the test of maturity in the companies and there are not too many of them that have it institutionalized.
The Economist Intelligence Unit published a survey of top executives of 500 large companies compiled with the Project Management Institute for the Brightline initiative in 2017. It studied causes for failures in implementing strategic initiatives. The companies that succeeded in achieving almost all of their strategic objectives (only 10%!) identified the crucial variable for success the effect of intelligence had on changing strategy.
Rather than monitoring the competitive environment, which they all do well just like the Defense companies do, it was this interaction and feedback between the strategy planners, the implementers and the intelligence producers that resulted in competitive insights reaching the right people at the right time.
That’s the number one criterion to the success of intelligence — not the product, but the integration of the product into the planning and implementation cycle in the company. That’s a model of maturity and alas, not too many companies are there yet, and their top executives need to pay heed to this simple solution: integrate well.
I measure success in a very specific way: Do you have this dialogue integrated into decisions to affect the thinking? Not PPP presentations, not 10 minutes at the retreat, not background research for “red team-blue team” technical battles, but integrated dialogue with feedback and change in thinking. There is no right or wrong intelligence. Intelligence is a perspective on a future. It might take 20 years to see if you’re right or wrong, but if they use it, you succeeded.”