By Paul Kinsinger, Thunderbird professor
Recently, a pair of my retired relatives showed up at my house having driven 2,000 miles on what constituted a substantial road trip for anyone. Looking hale and hearty for two seniors who had just spent four days in the car, we inquired into how the trip went.
They laughed and told us about the new Global Positioning System device they had bought at Wal-Mart, with an eye toward this trip. It was easy to set up and use, took them doorstep to doorstep, showed them where motels and restaurants were, and even helped them get back on track if they took a wrong turn.
They absolutely loved it.
As I was struck by the impact that GPS devices have had on travel, I thought about how technology has had a similar impact on the gathering of competitive intelligence (CI) in the business world. The Internet has placed substantial information at everyone’s fingertips, diminishing the reliance on CI professionals to gather information. While some CI professionals might see this as a threat, I consider it an opportunity for them to move up the corporate ladder, becoming the people who develop actionable insights and strategies about the larger flow of information.
Before GPS, people got around with things called “maps,” and most adults have at least a story or two to tell about sitting in the back seat watching their parents argue over maps and directions. Indeed, entire premises of books, movies, and songs have been developed around “getting lost,” and they almost always begin with a misread map.
To put all this into “intelligence speak,” maps usually contain the correct data, but they need to be read and interpreted effectively in order to provide the decision maker — in most cases, the driver — with the insight necessary to execute the appropriate strategy.
And, unless the driver had sufficiently studied and committed a route to memory before getting behind the wheel, he or she needed a second pair of eyes to read the map in order to be able to take advantage of the intelligence and insight it offered. In other words, effectively leveraging a map meant the need for a “specialist” who would navigate the route for the driver. Enter the navigator, the prototypical role for the intelligence professional.
Well, as my retired relatives showed so clearly, GPS has erased this need. Now, you don’t need a map-reading specialist to get where you need to go most effectively. Technology has taken over that role, and it has done so in a manner that is both trustworthy and easy to use.
This same shift that’s occurred in intelligence gathering is not new to the world of national intelligence, where technology long has had a substantial impact on the way intelligence is collected, interpreted and utilized.
This is perhaps most apparent on the battlefield, where technology’s impact over the past two decades has been revolutionary, delivering pinpointed intelligence directly to troops in combat and to their command and control simultaneously. It has allowed — one could even argue, forced — “ground-pounders” to become active players in the use of intelligence instead of relying on support from intelligence specialists in the rear or in the air.
But, what is the impact that advances in technology have had on corporate intelligence practices?
Corporate CI efforts have traditionally been based on the government organizational model, meaning that CI responsibilities were largely in the hands of some kind of a lower-level person (G-2 in the government vernacular) who managed the collection, analysis, production, delivery and often the information management system behind it for the company. Corporate CI professionals provided intelligence support to one or more key corporate decision makers who used it to help execute corporate strategy.
In some companies, CI professionals were able to enlist the participation of the organization’s “eyes and ears” in the sales force, customer support and service, and elsewhere to help gather intelligence. In others, they did this themselves. At the heart of this has long been the contention — just like at the government level — that corporate CI belongs in the hands of professionals. In many companies, most employees have never had anything to do with the CI.
But, just as with the GPS and driving, technology has been having a revolutionary impact on intelligence in the business world, with the Internet placing substantial external information at the fingertips of everyone. As everyday employees become increasingly facile in using the Internet, the gap between their abilities to locate key intelligence and that of the average CI professional is shrinking.
This has the potential to empower many corporate employees to become “CI armies of one,” especially once they get a little basic training in the intelligence field.
Is this a good thing? No doubt some in the CI profession would demur, perhaps on the grounds that their jobs could get infinitely more difficult with dozens and even hundreds of self-deployed intelligence “Rambos” careening around out there. But, if they are trained, think of the potential impact all around — a smarter corporation benefiting from fielding a much larger and better set of eyes and ears.
This, in turn, would free up corporate CI professionals to move upstream in the CI value proposition to a revered place where they create actionable insight and develop strategies that help company executives surpass barriers and seize opportunities.
I would argue that this is exactly what should be happening in corporate intelligence.
The availability of technology, the dramatic compression of decision-making timelines and the flattening of decision-making processes means, frankly, that intelligence is not just the responsibility of a few professionals in a company, but of all employees, and especially of those who spend a significant amount of time “touching” the world outside their employers’ walls.
This shift has lessons for all three of the major sets of actors in corporate intelligence — front-line employees, CI professional and senior executives. First, average employees, especially those with outward facing or decision-making responsibilities, should be considered to have a corporate intelligence function.
Those employees could use some training to get the most out of their encounters with the world outside the company walls, and to maximize their Internet search activities.
Training around such skills — as well as awareness of the legal constraints and the company’s ethical guidelines toward using them — should be provided to new employees when they first come in the door. Indeed, this would be a key step to creating a living, breathing corporate intelligence culture. As opposed to being dismayed over the proliferation of their skill set, CI professionals should look to take advantage by moving further up the intelligence value chain.
CI pros will still have two key roles to play — first, in managing the synthesis and analysis of the new flow of intelligence, and second, in taking on the more compelling challenge of helping corporate decision-makers make the best use of the new flow of external knowledge. This shift will require new training so that CI professionals can become stronger business analytical thinkers, and so others can become more experienced in understanding the drivers of key decisions in their companies.
Finally, just as presidents, key cabinet secretaries and military commanders have had to come to grips with the increasing challenges of using intelligence in a complex, truly global decision-making environment, so too will corporate leaders. Unfortunately, they are handicapped in a way that their public sector counterparts are not—the vast majority of business leaders have never been trained in using external intelligence to drive strategy.
It’s certainly not taught in an organized way in business schools. To the contrary, the business world seems to expect that budding executives will come to learn through experience what kinds of external input, which kinds of sources, and in which kinds of situations they will need to draw upon when they confront key corporate decisions.
But this concept — along with the idea that CI is reserved only for a select few — should be folded up (as best you can) and placed in the glove compartment of the past, leaving room on the dash for a new way to navigate through the business world.
Paul Kinsinger is a professor of business intelligence at Thunderbird School of Global Management and the managing consultant of Thunderbird’s Learning Consulting Network. He served as an intelligence officer with the Central Intelligence Agency from 1975 to 1995, with his last posting as chief of the Africa Division.