By Dr. Ben Gilad, ACI Faculty

India1In a new book, Red Team just published (Basic Books, 2015), the author Micah Zenko, a senior fellow of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations states: “Most people like to believe that they are nonconformists… they also like to believe they think outside the box… yet in reality, few are capable of this without training and practice.” (p. 11-12). The problem is magnified a hundred times over by the fact that most employees “learn overtime to just say “yes”, remain quiet, or qualify dissent to the extent that its impact is diminished or negligible.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that many so called “CI professionals” are nothing more than information/data pushers who find shelter in moving data around and expressing no perspective of their own. Over time, they become coordinators of the dozens of vendors who are happy to provide all the data they want (so they aren’t even data collectors at the end).

Then they are laid off as someone senior asks: why can’t we just let the vendor take over? Or: wouldn’t it be cheaper to move these back office data fetching operations to Hyderabad (India)?

Against this background, the Academy held its latest Fall 2015’s CIP program in Cambridge, MA with a large group of enthusiastic, committed, engaged and rowdy (my favorite) new attendees. Even though one of my partners in this program, Fuld + Co., is a global vendor (the other is Jan Herring, a leading thought leader in the field), our explicit goal has always been to develop the CI manager’s skills to a degree that no one will confuse him or her with an information/data specialist (“stick fetcher”).

For most of our graduates, we succeed in that. For some, we succeed spectacularly, though it is not so much us as the individual with the unique ability to grasp the strategic aspect of intelligence. We just provide the tools and give validation. We can’t change corporate cultures, but we can change the way the users look at competitive intelligence. To change users’ perception, though, you have to first change the practitioner’s perception of who they are and what they can do. So the comments in the evaluation forms that make me the happiest are like this one: “liked how it made me think strategically.”


But the best comment on one of my advanced courses was
“Ben doesn’t think like a CI person or maybe CI people should think like him.”

Indeed. I’ve been in CI for over 30 years and I never ever thought to stay quiet and just send in vendors’ data (re-packaged). I always strive to make an impact and I instill this drive in all my CIPs.

In this program we tried something experimental: an overview of Big Data Analytics. The course was a rare failure for us, and I take the full blame. In my last installment for HBR ( I expressed doubts about the relevance of Big Data Analytics to the advanced, complex and much more strategic competition analysis space. However, with ear to the ground, we sensed fear from CI managers that one day BI managers/data scientists/algorithm-addicts may be encroaching on the CI space with sophisticated analytical platforms. I believe the course convinced everyone that that is not the case (so this was the upside…) The only difference between Big Data Analytics and old world statistics is sample size. In competition analysis, there are hardly any big data and the use of predictive statistics is at best limited (especially in B2B). Above all, it is not at all clear where such high powered number crunching is superior to qualitative insights. We may visit this topic in five years when maybe someone in academia or the hundreds of vendors pushing BDA tools actually shows how it can be useful beyond mining to death terabytes of customers’ transactions or social media chatter.  Sorry, guys, I tried.

Finally, in Zenko’s book (do buy it, it is an eye opener), he quotes an intelligence analyst saying the following:

“A better channel should be established to convey speculative and /or unorthodox views of experienced analysts to the upper echelons… this might be done by means of gists of only a paragraph or two.”

The analyst quoted? Robert Gates, CIA analyst of the Soviet Union, 1973.

You know where he ended up. So to my newly minted CIPs and the newly minted Masters of the CI art I remind:

Never send in data without a paragraph or two expressing, hopefully, unorthodox, new, intriguing perspective. And the Force will be with you.

And to all those who think they can “do CI” without a CIP, good luck in Hyderabad!