CI For Beginners, Part 1: What the heck is Insight Work?

Victoria Richard
5 min readAug 31, 2017

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Originally written for SLA New England, and published at http://newengland.sla.org/archives/140713

When I accepted the invitation to deliver a session on the fundamentals of competitive intelligence (CI) at the 2017 SLA annual conference, I clearly deluded myself about the ease of teaching insight work.

“No problem”, I said to myself as I sat down at my keyboard. “I’ll bang this presentation out in a weekend.”

Three weeks passed, and I still had a blank PowerPoint presentation. My calendar had time blocked off to work on this; that particular appointment was moved at least half a dozen times. I found new ways to procrastinate, including the reorganization of my entire apartment. Finally, the conference was just a few weeks away, and I had precious little to present, except a folder containing a collection of cat GIFs and Game of Thrones memes.

What was the holdup? I was stumped. One Sunday afternoon, I forced myself to sit at the keyboard and vomit words, hoping that I could tear down this writer’s block that had established some deep roots while I was delaying the inevitable. In the paragraph of nonsense that tumbled from my fingers, I asked one question in about four different ways– what ARE the basic building blocks of CI?

And thus, I found the source of my problem, and ultimately the foundation of my presentation. When asked what intelligence work is, the answer is complicated. It is not one particular thing. It’s a group of skills — primary and secondary research, qualitative and quantitative inquiry, relationship building, critical thinking, technological acumen, creativity, and business know-how … the list goes on, and on, and on.

It is much easier to answer what intelligence work DOES — it provides a 360-degree view of the past, present, and potential futures for a particular set of problems. The typical definition says something like “Competitive Intelligence is the art of turning ethically-collected data into actionable insights and strategies”. However, I think this definition is a bit too theoretical — it lacks practicality and application.

First, let’s take “competitive” out of the equation, and focus on intelligence in general. Insight work (another way to describe intelligence work) covers a lot of ground. Yes, an insight worker will be defining and assessing competitors. However, they will also need to understand the industries and markets their clients play in, and how they are changing. They will need to understand the technical features of relevant products, and the marketing around products and services being built and sold. They will need to understand the vendors and partner networks who sell those products and services. Important and often overlooked, they will also need to understand customers and their pain points.

Second, the word “actionable” always makes me cringe. Yes, it’s a bit of business jargon (ugh), but it is also generic to the point of being almost useless.

So, let’s turn to the original purveyor of intelligence work — the CIA. How do they define intelligence? A basic paraphrasing is that intelligence work is any activity that helps us understand or influence foreign entities. Taking this definition and reworking it for our purposes, we get something akin to “Intelligence is a set of internal activities to help understand and influence corporate strategy, deals, competitors, markets, and customers.” Ah! A definition that encompasses all that our intelligence work might touch on, and a description of the actual desired end state — understanding AND influence. Good. Now what does that mean?

This definition highlights the fundamental shift that grows info pros into intelligence professionals: moving from a reactive fostering of understanding, to a proactive use of understanding to influence outcomes.

This is where a chart comes in handy. (Please forgive my lack of artistic skills.)

This chart was a lot more amusing in person, thanks to all those GIFs and GoT memes I collected during my procrastination.

In the lower left, we have a researcher who is basically doing nothing to provide understanding of a situation, or influence potential movement around it. Imagine a college kid paraphrasing Wikipedia when asked to describe how Rome was built, and that about sums it up. I am confident that most people reading this article are not providing this level of service to their clients.

The upper left is where most info pros live. It is not a bad place to be! People who live in this quadrant are consistently fostering understanding, they are great at helping to figure out what the real questions are (beyond what your stakeholders think the questions are)... And they are probably providing all the necessary inputs to those answers — who to be concerned about, what’s happening in the environment, and so on. They might even be doing some forecasting about potential movement in the market or from competitors.

The upper left and lower right are basically opposites. The lower right is best explained with an example: It is that person who, when asked what action someone should take, they answer with “Well, my gut says…” while simultaneously refusing to prove that “gut feeling” with data. When you work in a field for long enough, you certainly develop a sort of sixth sense about how things work. However, it is the height of hubris and incredibly myopic to think that you can predict what other people (and by extension, their companies) are going to do based on your own “gut”. You must be willing and able to take in external data and view it objectively — and be willing to prove your gut “wrong”.

The upper right, as is typical with this type of chart, is where we aspire to be. This is where we are taking our ability to foster understanding, and using that to present weighted, potential options for action (or inaction) — along with the potential consequences of those actions. It’s where we add the “why” to the how, what, where, who, and when; why does this information matter? What should we do with it and why?

It can feel like a huge leap from the upper left to the upper right — and it does usually take a leap of faith in our own abilities to make any major shift in our work. It’s a big change to move from providing information to presenting suggestions for action. Sometimes it takes a huge leap of faith in our leadership’s ability and willingness to consider our suggestions.

The truth is that it usually takes a combination of the two, along with a change in our research patterns. The practical key to grow information into intelligence starts with a shift from your typical research cycle to a more interactive intelligence cycle — which we’ll cover in the second half of this series on CI for Beginners. Stay tuned.

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Victoria Richard

Strategy & Chaos | Purveyor of glitter and snark | CrossFit Junkie | Coach & Mentor