Recently I had the opportunity to review a CI collection software tool that aggregated multiple streams of news and secondary data searches into a single report and provided daily updates. This tool, built at almost no cost and using low- to no-cost web services, required only a small amount of CI manager interaction to sort out the relevant findings from the noise. As a way to populate a CI newsletter and provide market tracking, it was very impressive.
Reviewing the tool got me thinking about how technology has changed CI — and what has not changed. The software for aggregating data feeds has been around for a while now, and much of it is very well developed. With each successive generation, the software gets better at finding information from more sources. Not too long ago, it was a well-trained and highly skilled information librarian who knew how to work the databases that everyone turned to for quality secondary sources. Now these software tools put a librarian on every CI professional’s desktop.
The result is that all these new ways to get at secondary information, and the ease with which CI professionals can access the data, has created an impression that any bit of competitor insight needed can be found with a powerful enough secondary sweep. Certainly there is some truth that a more powerful search tool can uncover more information, but for many CI professionals, the seduction of data is an irresistible siren song which feeds a desire for more data without ever satisfying the need for unique insight.
All this secondary data can overwhelm CI professionals. The data aggregation tools can effectively sort data, and many can even put together a very attractive newsletter ready for distribution. But the real role of an effective CI unit is to take information and transform it into intelligence. This requires perspective and the ability to interpret the signals collected in secondary sweeps to produce true insight. So far, none of the software tools are able to replace the human analysis skills that are the essential component of all CI.
In fact, the volume of data that can be collected using secondary sources masks an important component of competitive advantage. This is to understand that if you can find something using a secondary source, so can your competitors. To get unique insight, insight that your competitors don’t have, a different approach is needed. From our experience, the only way to find what your competitors can’t find is through primary intelligence. The Fletcher/CSI 2012 Effective CI Units survey found that the most effective CI units did indeed use a combination of secondary and primary data and analysis. These units understand that a competitive advantage comes when you have unique knowledge and can act on it. They also know that secondary is an adjunct to primary and is best suited to identify where further probing is needed.
Secondary tools have a significant role to play in the operation of a CI unit. They keep you up to date on the latest public announcements and actions of a competitor, and if budget is limited, secondary tools deliver a good bang for the buck. However, secondary can’t deliver unique competitive insight and won’t deliver key insights into a competitor. In many ways, secondary data is like a treasure map. It can tell you where to dig, but it won’t tell you what you’ll find or what to do with the treasure once you have it.
– Erik Glitman, CEO