Ben Gilad, noted competitive intelligence theorist once wrote something to the effect of “bird watching is a fun hobby, but you shouldn’t do it in the middle of a busy highway.” Greg’s last post about needing investigative reporters on staff is to me a bit like bird watching on a highway. I see the point, even the theoretical beauty, but it also potentially dangerous.  In this case, not to the bird watcher but to me and those in the industry like me – the competitive intelligence practitioner. 

As CI practitioners it our jobs to be the guardrails at the top the cliff, to identify the early warning systems for both the firm (business of law) and clients (the practice of law).  It is our mandate to embed ourselves in practices, to keep the pulse of the firm, monitor the outside world and bring it into the firm to make decision making better, easier, smarter.  It is our jobs to make sure that client interaction happens with the most current and relevant information on hand. 

The scariest, though not entirely surprising part of the post for me, was the notion that firms use a myriad of business development and competitive intelligence resources and tactics to attempt to provide proactive service.  What is scary about that you might ask? The perception that this is not happening, and that there are tools and tactics not people, training programs and processes behind the service.  CI, is still seen, even by prolific law office management as being a set of tools and tactics, rather than a highly skilled group of people.  This is where we have failed our firms.  It is a bit like suggesting that the library as a place is providing information rather than the librarians and other information professionals who work there. How many times have you heard in firms “oh, the library (meaning the people but referencing the place) can get that for you”.

The jury is still out on whether CI is in fact a profession or a series of competencies, but one thing is clear, there are firms doing CI just as described in the post. It is not merely about access to databases, data manipulation and current awareness.  There are law firm CI practitioners (be they librarians, BD people or otherwise) who are embedded in practices, providing quarterly analysis, monthly reports and the like.  Just as there are law firm librarians who are great at asking questions – using their reference interview skills to verify fact and figures just as a journalist would do.

I will concede however, that despite our best efforts there is something missing. And it may well be the concept of training, certification or even recognition of a CI as an actual discipline rather than a series of tactics and tools.  This might be where journalism as a known and classic trained discipline can supercede.    There are many consulting firms out there (I won’t name names, but send me a note if you want some referrals) who will work with Librarians, Business Development folks, and CI people to set up current awareness portals staffed by real analysts (some even former journalists) on the other end – people – who can provide the extra layer of analysis the Investigative Journalist post envisions.  Many of these same consultancies will work with firms to provide primary research to back up secondary findings, but the thing that is missing is a road map.  The plan if you will, for how to take CI farther in firms, moving it away from market research, data crunching and analysis frameworks towards being the strong, recognized and necessary guardrail it is designed to be.

So while I welcome out of work investigative journalists to join the ranks of law firm support staff along with the librarians, business development people and others being downsized across industries and professions, in true CI fashion, I must as act as the guardrail here and suggest that until firms know where they are going, its best not to get caught watching the birds. [Zena Applebaum]