I recently returned from the 29th annual Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) Conference in sunny and warm Orlando.  The conference was a terrific networking event as per usual. I am constantly impressed, and inspired by the professionals who work in CI across a variety of industries every day.  But I am also intrigued by the questions and concerns that underlie so many of the sessions and the hallway talk afterwards. It seems regardless of the industry, CI professionals share common issues, even if the language or descriptions of the challenges are nuanced.  As a known entity within the CI community, I am often asked for my advice on helping to solve practitioner challenges and rather than answer them one at a time, I thought some 3 Geeks readers might also benefit from the answers and/or be able to contribute and add further suggestions.  To that end, below are five of the more interesting questions that were bantered about throughout the conference and my attempt to answer them.  The questions are in no particular order and my answers are a combination of my own thoughts as well as some of what I heard while at the conference.

1 – Where in an organization should CI sit?

Everyone has an opinion here. Some believe that CI should always and only report to Marketing, others to the CEO, others to finance.  Research &Development was another reporting option, and I even heard one practitioner suggest that sales was the only appropriate place for CI to report.  Since law firms don’t have sales departments I think we can safely rule sales out. But lawyers, specifically partners who interface with clients on a regular basis are similar to sales people in many respects. As CI practitioners in firms, its important to always maintain a good rapport, even develop close relationship with partners to keep the lines of communication open.  It will aid with HUMINT collection, but it will also provide a window into the issues facing lawyers and clients in the course of daily business.  But CI in a law firms can’t report into the partnership at large, so the function does need a home.  Some law firm CI practitioners report to Marketing, others to the Library, KM or some hybrid of the above just as our colleagues in other industries.  The bottom line is:  it doesn’t matter much where you report, so long as you are providing excellent service in meeting intelligence needs in anticipating surprises for your firm and its clients.  In ideal world, a law firm CI function is so highly collaborative between the various administrative groups the reporting becomes only a formality for booking vacation (what is that?).

2 – Do hiring managers prefer CI practitioners with CI certification, or industry knowledge?

This one’s a bit trickier. I heard Directors of CI two Fortune 500 companies say the opposite where this issue is concerned. Its seems the response is both culturally and hiring manager specific.  But one element of the hiring process was clear:  soft skills are as important as the hard skills.  For those of you looking to transition into a CI role, or increase your responsibilities in a current one, brush up on your networking skills, practice your elicitation, develop your analytical fitness and never stop being curious or creative.  These are the essential qualities to a perfect CI practitioner – certified or otherwise.

3 – How do I merge a competitive intelligence practice with a Library function? Or a KM function?

See the note above about collaboration. In the three short days of the conference alone, I saw the “C” of CI referred to as Collaborative, Cooperative, Collective, and I am sure if I attended a few more sessions, I am certain I would have seen a few other permutations.  CI is at its root an information-based vocation. Information needs people. People need a great many things, you can look to Maslow’s hierarchy or the more recent 10 Demandments from Kelly Mooney to understand people what people need and getting various information brokers together – whether from the intelligence community, the KM community, the Library, Marketing or anywhere else requires a nurturing of those same needs.  Get people engaged and interested by gaining their trust, but giving them the space to control how they contribute at the same time. It’s a fine balance but if you can manage to work to individual strengths in both the hard and soft skills of CI (which ever “C” you choose) the end result will be better than the sum of the parts.  After all, intelligence comes from the interpretation and analysis of information and what better way to analyze a situation than with multiple perspectives, educational backgrounds and strengths attacking the business problem.   

4 – How do I market the CI services within my organizations?

First of all, this is a great question, posed the right way.  Its not asking “do I need to market my service”, or “why do I need to market”, but rather “how”. The question assumes that the person/people asking already understand the need for Marketing, and so the battle is at least half won. 

The easiest and best way to market the CI services within your organization is to do great work, amazing work and then get repeat clients.   I remember an old boss of mine suggesting that I need not hang out a shingle and wait for people to come, because once I started to provide value, it would be a bouncer I needed not a shingle. Three other easy and quick ways to market the function are to:

  1. Tell people about it. Sounds simple enough, but it means that the CI team needs to be visible and participate in organized activities like product launches, social events and just get out of their offices/cubes/ or libraries and walk around to meet the people they are serving.
  2. Prepare and practice your elevator speech so when you get asked what you are up to in the elevator or waiting at the coffee machine, you have a 30 second sound bite ready to roll.  You can talk about a project or the impact you are making and thereby selling your services.  Remind potential clients within your organization that CI is an active for both tracking future engagements and helping to set strategy or plan for the future.
  3. Be consistent with deliverables.  This need not mean a template approach, but make sure that what you deliver to all clients, at any level of the organization is polished, proofed and perfect.  Consistent work product will go a long away to promoting the function and helping it appear as professional and needed service. Once you have a key process for proofing and polishing down among your CI team, you can start to explore the notion of marketing your function with a brand and series of on going reports. But that’s a blog posting for another time.

5 – How can I evolving a competitive intelligence practice to become even more relevant, useful and perhaps add some measurable ROI-type “returns”.

Measureable returns can be hard to define.  Especially if the CI function is removed from the decision making process and your reports/suggestions are taken but results are never returned.  First and foremost, where you can, establish open lines of communications with Partners so that you can ask the difficult questions around whether or not a new file was opened or a new client retained. Then, track the client matter number as it goes through your firm.  While you may not be able to directly attribute that new client directly to the CI that was provided, you can indicate that CI had a role, perhaps a 5% or 20% role in helping to secure that new client.  Use this information as an ROI for the service you provide.  Other forms of measurable ROI come not from new engagements, but from time saved or efficiency increased. Start to think about the CI function in terms of how having a CI team or individual contributor of CI added to the bottom line by taking research and analysis off of someone else’s plate and/or provided a service that wasn’t there before that allows for better use of time, smarter client engagements and a well turned out organization.  It may not be measurable in the truest sense, but certainly it add to the relevance of the function and of the firm in the eyes of its client.  Client surveys time and time again suggest that firms are chosing outside counsel based not on fees or expertise alone, but that clients want to work with firms who understand their buniess, their risks and their challenges. Who better to keep your lawyers and other practitioners informed than a CI?  Relevancy is CI currency.
So that’s my five question, answer and response from the 29th annual SCIP conference & trade show. I encourage anyone else out there who wants to take a stab at answering to please leave a comment.  As I gear up for the Special Libraries Association 2014 Annual Conference & INFO-EXPO June 8-10th in Vancouver, I can’t wait to see what the questions around CI and its role in and with the Library might be. I suspect many of the same themes will be repeated and I welcome the discussion.