Article: Are you gathering competitive intelligence ethically?

As I suggested in my previous post (Article: Misrepresentation in CI: An Ethical Analysis) ethics in CI is a difficult subject. It is difficult to know where to draw the line between what can be tolerated and what absolutely cannot. Drawing this line is something each CI practitioner should do for him- or herself. Although this may be true, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any guidelines. In my previous post I discussed an article from Julia Evans, where I outlined several positions concerning these guidelines. In this follow-up post about ethics and CI I would like to discuss the perspective of Devin Liddell as outlined in his article: “Are you gathering competitive intelligence ethically?”.

For Devin Liddell the main question in his article is:

What’s the line between gathering competitive intelligence and industrial espionage? How can you keep tabs on your competitors in a responsible manner?

In order to answer these questions Liddell describes three statements that should guide the ethics of gathering competitive intelligence. The first one is:

Never Create an Excessive Expense for Your Competitors.

Liddell states that the investigation of a competitor should not cost this competitor critical time, money or talent. In this statement the term “excessive” is open for interpretation, and that is just what makes this principle a guiding principle. According to Liddell, the CI practitioner should decide for himself if the investigation he is conducting causes excessive expenses for the competitor.

The second statement is:

Never Allow an Insider to Compromise Their Ethics.

The guiding principle here is that a CI practitioner should not involve insiders (for example employees of the competitor) in his investigation. This is because of two reasons. First, the CI practitioner allows the insiders to compromise their ethical responsibilities (which is inherently not ethical). Second, the insider fails to fulfill his obligations as an employee, because the act of handing over confidential material can be categorized as theft. Because of these two reasons Liddell strongly recommends not to use insiders in a CI investigation.

The third statement is:

Never Misrepresent Who You Are Unless You Absolutely Have No Other Option.

Liddell argues here that deception to gather marketing materials is unnecessary and should be avoided if possible. He regrettably doesn’t mention a situation in which you have absolutely no other option than to misrepresent yourself. I guess the CI practitioner here also has to decide when this is the case.

Misrepresentation

Questions about misrepresentation play an important role in the statements Liddell poses. As Julia Evans describes, misrepresentation occurs when a CI practitioner in order to gain access to information misleads a competitor about his or her identity. I would like to take a look at the first and third statements Liddell made once more from the perspective of misrepresentation.

The first statement (“Never Create an Excessive Expense for Your Competitors”) is all about how the CI practitioner represents himself. When a CI practitioner honestly tells the competitor he is investigating what his goal is, it is not likely that the competitor spends excessive resources (if it spends resources at all) on the CI practitioner. In this case, it is left up to the competitor to decide which resources are provided and it isn’t left up to the CI practitioner to decide whether he or she is using excessive resources. Although this seems to be the most honest way to obtain information, the question remains whether this is the most efficient one. Liddell acknowledges this by mentioning the following example:

[…] it’s okay to visit a competing restaurant chain so long as you order enough food to be consistent with a typical customer, and your presence doesn’t preclude ordinary customers from their patronage.

In this example the CI practitioner presents himself as a customer. Although he is a customer (because he orders food), this act can still be seen as an act of misrepresentation, because he holds back information about his goal, which is gathering information about a competitor. He is misleading this competitor in order to gain information about him. According to the definition of Julia Evans (“Misrepresentation occurs when a CI practitioner in order to gain access to information misleads a competitor about his or her identity.”), this is a case of misrepresentation.

According to Liddell’s third statement (“Never Misrepresent Who You Are Unless You Absolutely Have No Other Option”) all misrepresentation should be avoided (if possible). His guiding principle seems to be the one Treviño & Weaver found in their survey: there shouldn’t be the intent to deceive (see my previous blogpost). This third statement can be applied to the first (“Never Create an Excessive Expense for Your Competitors”). As I explained earlier, if the CI practitioner doesn’t misrepresent himself (and honestly tells who he is and what he’s doing), the question as to which resources are used and at what expense is up to the competitor, and not up to the CI practitioner. First of all, this means that the first statement isn’t that relevant anymore. Second, it is interesting that I previously concluded that misrepresentation is allowed according to Liddell, as concluded fromd from the example in which it is okay to visit a competing restaurant and present yourself as a customer. Maybe this is a situation in which a CI practitioner doesn’t have no other option than to misrepresent himself? I think that this is no convincing example, and that the first and third statements aren’t as reconcilable as they seem to be.

As I showed above, misrepresentation is an important issue when talking about ethics and CI. Julia Evans states that the most common ethical questions in CI concern misrepresentation, and I agree. In the statements as described by Devin Liddell misrepresentation also plays an important role. A strong statement such as the third about misrepresentation (“Never misrepresent yourself”) has its consequences for the entire CI research that is allowed. The clause “unless you absolutely have no other option” leaves room for interpretation, but also for questions. When do you absolutely have no other option?

What do you think? Can you think of an example in which you have absolutely no other option than to misrepresent yourself?

Links:
Article: Are you gathering competitive intelligence ethically? by Devin Liddell
Article: Misrepresentation in CI: An Ethical Analysis by Julia Evans

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2 Responses to “Article: Are you gathering competitive intelligence ethically?”

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by JeroenvanLuik: Nice read: Are you gathering Competitive Intelligence Ethically? http://bit.ly/3nWeEP...

  2. [...] Competitive Intelligence in relation to ethics (Misrepresentation in CI: An Ethical Analysis and Are you gathering competitive intelligence ethically?). Of course if you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read those, but I’ll try [...]