Competitive Intelligence / Competitive Strategy, by Arik Johnson
by Arik Johnson

Trip Report - the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professional's 2002 International Conference and Exhibition - Cincinnati Ohio - 3rd - 6th April 2002

I like to go to conferences - new ideas, new takes on old ideas. I like the exhibition floor too - especially when you know many of the people there and even better if you have occasion to visit with customers, vendors and other business partners while you're profession gets "everybody" (though it's never everybody) in the same town for a few days. Eat a good steak… have a few laughs… maybe a few beers… (or more than a few). Conferences are fun.

The past year, however, has been pretty rough on the conference production business - I've had almost as many cancelled as I've actually gone to - and I was more than a little fearful that 2002's SCIP conference, held in Cincinnati the first week of April, would be rather poorly attended as well. Quite a few friends and associates that I'd spoken with in the previous few weeks leading up to the event had offered their sad condolences that we wouldn't be able to hook up at SCIP together this year. All of the reasons I heard for not attending seemed to have less to do with a lack of interest in the subject matter or opportunities for getting together with colleagues, but were centered squarely on travel budget restrictions that were even more severe among corporate practitioners than were their conference fee budget restrictions!

To my very pleasant surprise however, I was gladdened by the turnout - though reduced from last year's Seattle conference just a tad (which was down from the previous year, when I believe attendance peaked), I felt the participants were, to put it rather more snobbishly than I might otherwise prefer, "higher quality" that conferences past. I think this year's crowd represented the true zealots of the field of CI - those that simply "can't not go" that is - whether we call them "market intelligence", "business intelligence", "competitor intelligence", "strategic intelligence" or even the new one I heard this year, the interesting "competitive affairs". (Incidentally, that age-old hemming and hawing about what to call people like us still hasn't ceased.)

Regardless, the folks who showed were those who couldn't bear the thought of missing out on what can truly be said to be "the" intelligence-in-business event of the year. The conversations seemed deeper and more sophisticated… the Q&A sessions following most presentations were likewise more complex and the responses well-developed. Despite the fact that SCIP needs new members recruited on a consistent basis (although more importantly it must convince them of the value of maintaining their membership), I think that by letting the rather more "newbie" elements diminish a little, SCIP 2002 experienced a sort of revitalization in Cincinnati by its longer-toothed brethren.

Even after a couple of years where the field definitely took its share of licks - from highly-publicized flaps about ethical behavior (which, I need not add, everyone knows is not kosher) to the continual and outright ignorant "spy" associations by the media - SCIP remains the last, best and future hope of competitive intelligence professionals everywhere. Despite the fact that, in the past few years, lots of other intelligence-related "summit" and "symposia" events have come and gone and tried to differentiate themselves from SCIP in one way or another (and many I've been to have added some value in that respect) none of these are mutually exclusive to SCIP's impact on the field of CI. Significantly, as the only not-for-profit organization with a focus on building the reputation and impact of what might be called one of the most complex and important specialties in business today, I felt Cincinnati helped to define the boundaries, establish the objectives and set the standards for what a world-class intelligence outfit should look like - and behave like.

The theme of this year's conference was appropriate for such an audience - one seeking advice in how to truly achieve "Success at All Levels" - whether than means within a company intelligence team or as an external vendor or service support contractor for that team.

This year I gave an hour-long "session" rather than something more workshop-style in length - principally because I'm not nearly as young as I used to be - but also because I felt one topic in particular was in dire need of attention. That is, the proper care, feeding and role of intelligence consultants and contractors for their customers - my talk evolved from what I'd submitted in my speaker proposal a few months earlier into something more akin to "Best Practice Observations" and "how to get into the intelligence consulting business for yourself" - which, as a consultant in the field for the past several years, I wished I'd had when I first got going. Incidentally, I find there continues to be ironically little true zero-sum competitive pressure even today between consultants- especially ironic in our field - although not entirely unexplainable.

One of the reasons behind my choice of topic centered on the fact that, of the ethical problems and controversies that have sprung up to plague the field in the past few years (perhaps since the beginning of the field of practice itself) nearly all have involved some breach of ethics or laws on the part of external entities acting on their clients' behalf. This has happened variously, sometimes with the client's knowledge and sometimes without it - but, since practically every organization of any size or scale uses, at least occasionally, external collection and analysis specialists, I felt that it was important to at least try to establish a set of expectations of ethical conduct especially for the external consulting and research contracting community.

Alongside this idea of ethical behavior, I tried to address the conflict-of-interest issue - which I think needs to be examined very carefully on the part of consultants and research contractors, as well as their clients. Because we live in a finite world of firms who compete with one another in some markets and cooperate in others, I think there needs to be some additional thought added to how to structure a consulting organization that is free of such worries. Can we simply exclude certain subject matter from study for a competitor organization for a period of time - as the pharmaceuticals industry tends to require of its contractors? Or, should we expect a consultant to make a choice as to who's side their on - eventually sloughing off their least important client in favor of their competitor? And, what of non-disclosure - a much more serious issue that one might think - I personally hold that the very act of identifying client organizations by name borders on breach of confidentiality, unless that client has specifically offered to be used as a reference for that consultant's future business development.

Likewise, while I'd specifically considered the topic to be appealing to a broad range of audience - other consultants and research contractors as well as the customers who hire them - I was a little surprised at the corporate practitioners who showed up for the session. A significantly large percentage of those on the corporate side of the fence, as I discovered after a whimsically informal poll of the room at the start of the presentation, responded with a raised hand when asked the question: "How many of the corporate practitioners here today are attending this session because they want to become a CI consultant?" (If you'd like my slides, drop me an email.)

In the end however, it was still about connections - maintaining old ones, building new ones - and creating a community of practitioners with the progress of the field in mind. For those of you who made it to Cincinnati this year - I know you were really glad you did. For those who didn't, I hope to see you in Anaheim next April!

Arik R. Johnson is Managing Director of the Competitive Intelligence (CI) outsourcing & support bureau Aurora WDC. Learn more about Arik at his firm's Web site