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30 November 2007

On the origins of competitive intelligence

We rarely touch directly upon our commercial brethren in the field, for we feel that much of our writings have relevance for this audience in their original form. We do not merely seek to write for a single group within the profession, and are fortunate to count among our readers many from the financial, pharmaceutical, and consulting set. We see their challenges and travails in applying the art and science of intelligence in often untrod territories as not so very different from those faced by a fusion center’s staff, or the senior intelligence officer who must stand up a new account-specific cell.

We have been too often struck however by the insistence of some in the commercial side of the profession that their work is entirely a new creature, divorced utterly from the precedents of the community that came before it. While we are the first to grant them respect for the unique conditions under which they operate, and for the sometimes serious challenges those conditions create, we would beg to differ most strenuously that the history of the community does not matter to them. We can point to the lessons of intelligence / decision-maker relationships or the experiences of communicating inference, evidence, judgment and uncertainty, along with any of a number of other areas in which the history should prove instructive in first principles.

There is nonetheless a too stubborn belief held by many competitive intelligence types that they have to be a “new” field, in order to carve out their place in the world and their relevance in the modern enterprise. And it is this insistence that makes us laugh, and reflect upon the length of the history underlying commercial intelligence activities. After all, most current literature cited by practitioners in the business intelligence world are indeed not that old in comparison to the national security side of the house, although we would question anyone citing what is now nearly 30 year old material as “new”.

Older yet are a few texts which for too long languished undiscovered in the stacks, and rarely cited in the literature – such as the 1966 volume Business Intelligence and Espionage by Richard Green, as explicitly a competitive intelligence work as any we have seen. The book also cites information from a series of business intelligence conferences, held starting in the 1930’s. These together create a timeline nearly equal to that of the better known literature of the foreign intelligence disciplines.

We have also written before of the excellent work being done by a number of the leading information industry firms of the day, in digitizing and disseminating the entire contents of a number of libraries worldwide. Among these millions of texts we have discovered quite a few forgotten gems of late, including works which point to the far older origins of competitive and business intelligence. The oldest volume we have yet uncovered is a series of reports first published in 1913 from commercial intelligence officers who advised the British government. The piece was presented to Parliament and was made available for general sale through the Stationary Office - though the level of interest was not recorded as far as we have yet seen. The text is in the form of correspondence, and is primarily descriptive in nature, providing quantitative information as well as some attempts at analysis. All in all, quite dry, and but for its historic value would not make for very interesting reading.

But it is precisely the historic that offers a glimpse into what we see as an earlier, parallel evolution of the profession. The early commercial and economic intelligence work of governments translated near seamlessly into the business intelligence of industry in its earliest incarnation. However, over time this side of the profession experienced its own wave of privatization. We have no record of the countless business intelligence shops that must have existed from the 1930’s onward – the turmoil of the depression and WWII no doubt radically reducing the number of active shops for a time. But simply because history has been lost does not make its successors “new” or unprecedented. It is thus the old lessons we would seek to have acknowledged – even if they cannot be entirely rediscovered. No doubt however there remain individuals alive who could contribute to the oral history, if nothing else – although we also strongly suspect somewhere in nearly forgotten corporate archives may be buried a few more gems of the early shops; should some young intelligence studies student seek to make his or her thesis through pursuing both the written and verbal remnants of this vanished era.

For those debating the current trend towards the privatization of intelligence in what are considered “inherently governmental” functions, the history is also instructive. At one point, it was deemed entirely a government responsibility to provide commercial and economic intelligence to the leading firms of the nation. Of course, in a globalized world of multinational corporations increasingly removed from industrial age models, that kind of intelligence support is not only infeasible but a questionable public policy. The private sector stepped into the breach to meet these demands through a variety of mechanisms, not all bearing the label of intelligence. In some cases, successful commercial shops have seen the cycle come full circle, as government agencies now purchase their finished intelligence products as the best available source of information and analysis.

We wonder how many of the intelligence functions now deemed the responsibility of government might also shift towards an entirely privatized existence over the course of the 21st century. And for those that protest such a course as unthinkable, we would gently remind them to look to the flowery language and proud signatures of those commercial intelligence officers of a century ago. They too no doubt thought their world forever the domain of government.

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