First, some definitions. Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) are used when conditions make seeing the horizon and land difficult, such as in a cloud, or when the route is pre-planned and at a steady altitude, such as a jet airliner on cruise. Visual Flight Rules (VFR) are only allowed in daylight and when the pilot can see the horizon and obstacles and navigate by landmarks. If you’ve flown in a small regional turboprop before 2001, there’s a chance the pilot was using VFR for a short flight.
One of my most impressive flights occurred in the fall of 2000. My flight left from Burlington, VT (my home base) to Newark Airport. The pilot flew our twin-turboprop ATR 42 down the Hudson Valley on a cloudless sky day at the peak of fall foliage. The trees were a complete riot of color from deep red to yellow, gold, and green. The flight was on Visual Flight Rules (VFR), meaning the plane was flying at less than 5,000 feet, and the pilot relied on what could be seen out the window. The view was, to say the least, fantastic. Looking out the small cabin windows, we could see details that were unobservable from street level. I cherish the memory of passing the Empire State Building and the World Trade Centers at rooftop height. Sure, there are movies and photos that capture the scenery, but nothing compares to seeing it first-hand. Flying under VFR is a completely different experience compared to using Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). There’s more to see when you’re up close.
Which raises the question. What does this have to do with Competitive Intelligence?
In many ways, secondary intelligence is like IFR. We use IFR when the view is obstructed and we need to avoid crashing. The instruments keep us safe by telling us where we are, where the obstacles are, and finding the pathway to reach the destination. In CI, secondary data has a similar role. Well done and properly maintained secondary data keeps track of competitors and alerts to emerging threats. With proper interpretation, secondary provides hints for competitor operations, strategy, and operations. At a big picture level, secondary identifies knowledge gaps and guides additional research to close the gaps.
Primary intelligence is much like VFR. Primary observations come from being closer to the subject, which produces a clearer picture of the threats identified through secondary data. Primary fills in the gaps from secondary data, adding nuance and validation. What primary also gets is information that is never put into secondary data sources. In CI, this information comes from first-hand unfiltered collection. Talking to a competitor employee at a trade show about a new product is a very different experience from viewing a staged and edited video recording. Effective primary data collection and analysis creates an informational advantage, meaning having information that your competitors don’t have and can’t duplicate.
Secondary data has many uses in setting direction and even navigating the competitive landscape. However, just as GPS systems will sometimes direct you to the wrong destination (or even tell you to drive your car into a lake), effective CI requires primary data to validate and augment secondary information. To put that into perspective, a few years ago I was skiing at an unfamiliar resort where I did not know the trail system. As luck would have it, the mountain top was completely clouded over and navigation was by trail map (Secondary data/IFR) only. At one point, the right side of the trail disappeared into the cloud. The trail map indicated it was part of the trail. However, it was impossible to see (Primary data/VFR) because of the cloud. I opted to take the easier trail in front of me. The next day was clear, and I ventured to the same spot. With a clear view (VFR), I was able to navigate the slope with ease. Secondary data in CI tells us where to look, primary data interprets what we see. Both are needed for success.
Effective CI professionals are sometimes like well-experienced pilots and skiers. They operate in constantly changing environments and need to integrate multiple data sources to succeed. CI pros use IFR/secondary data to track the market, find gaps, and identify threats before it’s too late. And they use VFR/primary data when a higher level of detail, and unique information, is needed to build strategy or tactics based on true informational advantage.