What Does it Take to be a CI Professional?

Looking back over our thirty-year history, I am reminded of a key question that crops up whenever I talk to companies starting a CI unit. The question most frequently asked is about how to staff the unit and more specifically, what kind of person makes a good candidate for a CI professional. This is a difficult question to answer as the CI professional must apply a wide range of skills in a variety of situations.

The first requirement is the ability to collect useful data. There is a significant difference between data and useful data, and the CI professional must be able to filter out and get only the parts that are relevant to the task at hand. This is more complex than simply finding data and requires knowing what can be found, as well as how to separate the important data from the interesting facts.

Many times, there is a focus on narrow CI duties. When this happens, the result is selecting candidates who have strong data and analytical skills and are proficient at applying analysis tools to large data sets. There is a need for analytical skills in the CI profession. For many CI units that rely on big data, quantitative analysis skills are crucial, so it is understandable that data analysis skills would be mentioned as a key requirement for the CI professional.

Another frequent selection criterion is an ability to craft information into visual depictions. CI can be an information dense activity, and often the audience is not as adept at understanding the raw data, or more likely, does not have the time to conduct the analysis themselves. The ability to effectively translate complex data set analyses into simple-to-understand visuals or written summaries is critical to the effectiveness of CI. Every CI unit needs to have someone who can do that.

Along with the ability to craft visual depictions of information is the ability to effectively communicate CI findings along with recommendations for action. To be effective, any CI unit must communicate its findings in terms the audience can understand. This typically requires very good verbal and written communication skills, along with the ability to distill key information into digestible bits and to convince the audience to act. This level of communication skills is difficult to find and often the CI unit will share the duties across team members.

Ultimately, each of the above skills are needed in a CI professional. However, I argue that they are not sufficient and that the single most important skill to look for in a CI professional is not a skill at all. The most important characteristic of a successful CI professional in an innate sense of curiosity and a drive to know why things are the way they are. The reason it is so important to have curiosity is that without it, the CI profession is only reacting and not anticipating. Curiosity is also the key to looking beyond the obvious and into the less clear issues the produce competitive advantage.

To me, curiosity is the one element that can’t be taught. The other skills needed are just that – skills that can be taught. But, without curiosity, the skills may not be learned properly, and the deeper probing and meaning aren’t grasped. When I look for new team members, I always look at the skill set the individual has coming in, but the deciding factor is if they are a questioning person or not. Good CI is about asking and answering questions. A CI unit that only answers questions may be good enough, but to be great, the CI unit must also ask questions.

Erik Glitman, CEO, Fletcher/CSI