Ken Sawka once again wrote a very interesting article on their Outward Insights blog. It’s about the problem of perfectly good Competitive Intelligence simply being ignored by management. I’d like to discuss this article in more detail in this blogpost, for two reasons. Firstly because this really is a problem every CI practitioner will recognize. Sawka describes the three forces that influence the level of success in being heard by management, which I think is enlightening. Secondly because I would like to share my vision on this ever returning nuisance and provide some suggestions on how to deal with these forces. Needless to say, I would really recommend the Outward Insights blog since it contains very useful posts on Competitive Intelligence.
Sawka starts his article by stating it’s a mutual responsibility of management and the CI team that intelligence is actually recognized and used. Even though this might be a bit of a no-brainer, it’s imperative that all parties involved acknowledge this. Because experience shows that management often thinks it’s the responsibility of the CI practitioner to make sure he or she is heard. It’s their job to get insights regarding the environment and it’s their job to make sure those insights are properly communicated. If it’s important enough, they will make sure they deliver the intelligence to the relevant managers, won’t they? On the other hand, CI practitioners often stop at the point of delivering this world class piece of intelligence. It’s now in the hands of management to make sure they handle this treasure with the care and attention it clearly deserves, according to them.
Now that this is clear, let’s take a look at the three forces Sawka describes in his article.
First, decision-makers may have the wrong expectations for intelligence. For competitive intelligence to be useful in setting strategy, it needs to be anticipatory. That is, good intelligence should provide a reasoned judgment about future competitor, market, and/or industry behavior. Because predicting the future is impossible, managers have to take actions based on intelligence that is, by definition, speculative and subjective. For many managers, making decisions on anything less than hard facts is extremely difficult.
Before I move on to this first force, I’d like to point out that unlike Sawka I do think predicting the future is possible, just not with a 100% accuracy. Apart from this, the first force is a tough one to start with. Sawka mentions that it would be helpful to not only define key intelligence topics – so that both parties agree on what business issues need attention – but also to make sure the CI practitioner knows the accountabilities, corporate culture, and personal objectives that influence how each senior executive makes decisions. This sounds great, right? So, how do you do that? How do you make sure you understand exactly what they expect from you as a CI practitioner?
I believe the answer lies in ‘managing expectations’. In any CI environment – but especially in a starting one - it’s paramount that expectations are properly managed. I would always recommend CI practitioners and their internal customers to define their expectations in a formal document, that I like to call a Service Level Agreement (SLA). In this document one can determine what the CI practitioner delivers exactly, the format it is delivered in and of course the frequency (or time span in case of an ad hoc question). To come to this document, both parties need to sit together and discuss the needs of the customer as well as the possibilities on the CI side. This (repetitive) process forces both parties to synchronize their expectations. The issue Sawka describes is commonly seen in these situations, and therefore it’s important that customers know in advance what they can expect. They will realize a CI practitioner can never present hard facts about the future. On the other hand, the CI practitioner will realize the customer needs more than just information: he’ll need intelligence that he can act upon.
Second, I would contend that most intelligence deliverables that managers receive are heavy on facts and data, and light on insights and judgments. Despite their best intentions, competitive analysts have a hard time providing their opinions, assessments, and conclusions about the data they are examining. There are several reasons. Perhaps they have not been trained to do so, or the company does not value well-reasoned opinions, or they are unwilling to open themselves to criticism and disagreement. Whatever the explanation, intelligence that does not speculate about likely future conditions is bound to be ignored.
I think this force is, as Sawka suggests, partially a result of the company culture. Of course there will be companies that do not value well reasoned opinions, and in those cases it might be very helpful to use proven analytical methods to move from facts and data to insights and judgments, as Sawka suggests. But personally I don’t believe that is the most important cause. I think it’s a result of the nature of the profession. CI practitioners forecast the future based on circumstantial evidence mostly. To get to actionable intelligence, they need to interpret the facts and draw conclusions that can have major impact on the organization. If they present the facts (rather than the conclusions) to the customer, for instance the board of directors, and discuss the possible impact these facts can have on a competitor, the board will also be partially responsible for the conclusions drawn. That way, the risk of a wrong conclusion based on the presented facts is shared. This is another reason why the service level agreement is so important. Both parties will have discussed the above situation and can find a way to deal with it that suits both parties.
Last, even good intelligence is often communicated poorly. Business analysts have been conditioned to produce and present long, heavy reports that present fact after fact, and to deliver any conclusions or opinions only at the end of the report or presentation. Time-pressed managers simply do not have the luxury of plodding through page after page, or slide after slide, of graphs, figures, and quotes to reach a conclusion. If a piece of competitive analysis does not provide the chief conclusion and implications for the company right up front, chances are decision-makers will stop reading or listening before the analyst can get to the grand conclusion.
Though of a completely different order than previously mentioned forces, this force can effectively kill any attempt to get the attention of management, regardless how good the Competitive Intelligence (or any piece of information for that matter) that you are showing, will be. There are of course ways to avoid this from happening. Sawka thinks this can be solved by training CI practitioners. Of course, if they aren’t already at the desired level of communication, it makes sense that analysts must be trained in expository writing techniques that clearly state conclusions up front, and support them with carefully selected facts and evidence that lend support to analytic reasoning. I on the other hand would say something about managing expectations and SLA’s here, but I would feel like I’m repeating myself over and over again.
I think my point is clear: a lot of resistance a CI practitioner can encounter can be reduced or even avoided by managing the expectations properly. Make sure everyone knows in advance what they can expect, and there will be much less disappointment. Sawka’s forces and the solutions he offers can be used as a guideline for the SLA’s to determine in great depth what the expectations are, but it’s essential that you come to a formal process of managing the expectations in the first place. When you achieve that: how can a customer not accept something that is exactly what he asked for?
In addition to this article, I’d also like to point out another article by Sawka about how to present Intelligence findings. In this article, Sawka discusses a rarely used but very effective form of presentation, the scheduled executive briefing. One of the reasons it’s not often used is because of the fact that many CI practitioners are not very effective presenters. According to Sawka, that is, because I personally wouldn’t dare saying such a thing. But I dare say they are not all close to perfection, so to those who think there is room for improvement I would recommend Sawka’s article and the funny Youtube video on the 10-20-30 presentation rule by Guy Kawasaki.