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27 December 2007

Further to the forgotten history of commercial intelligence

Our previous remarks on the loss of the collective memory about commercial intelligence activities in the early decades of this century apparently struck a nerve with our readership. We received quite a good deal of private communication (as well as more public posts) in response, and are glad to see a vibrant discussion in the competitive and business side of the intelligence blogsphere.

We thought to offer a few more references, then, from the virtual archives. Unfortunately, many of the references cited have not yet been digitized, and indeed may not survive extant. However, should any happen upon them in the more physical types of archival research there are no doubt additional stories worth telling. Even what scant citation is available tantalizes the mind with the volumes of lost history that could be written by modern scholars of the intelligence studies field. Among the items we surfaced with a short afternoon's research are:

  • A reference to “Sell’s Commercial Intelligence” in 1902, out of London.
  • A 1906 reference to the unnamed works printed by Commercial (Manitoba), “Proprietors of Commercial Intelligence”
  • Eurolaw Commercial Intelligence. 1930. A newsletter, apparently published twice per month and in comprehensive semi-annual editions.
  • Hooper , Frank Wilfred. The Functions of a Bank in Relation to the Capital Market. 1936. A more general management text that nonetheless discusses the staffing and functions of an economic intelligence department.
  • Goldstein, Herbert. Competitive Intelligence in the Chemical, Drug, and Process Industries. Scientific Documentation Associations, New York. First identified reference to the text was printed in 1937.
  • Commercial Intelligence Journal, 1938. It is unknown how long publication continued, or in how many issues.
  • Artis, Michael. Foundations of British Monetary Policy. Oxford University. 1945. Discusses the establishment of a “strong and highly qualified Economic Intelligence Department, whose head should be an executive director of the bank” for “intelligence and analysis”.
  • Administration. Institute of Public Administration. 1953. A more general work that does however mention, in connection with marketing, “each area sales organization has its own commercial intelligence service and a comprehensive system of trader contact”.
  • Business History Review. Harvard University. 1954. This volume references the practice of keeping “overseas sources of business intelligence”.
  • Brech, Edward Franz Leopold. Organization, the Framework of Management. 1957. This text makes reference to the organization of an example Economic Intelligence Unit as supporting the Managing Directors of manufacturing concerns.
  • Alden, Burton. Competitive Intelligence: Information, Espionage, and Decision-making. C.I. Associates. 1959. A similar title by the same name was first referenced in 1957 as a publication “from the students of Harvard University.”
  • The Library Association Record. 1957. Discusses the role of librarians, claiming one “Miss Chevis dealt with commercial intelligence in a way which made it look exactly like special reference library work.”
  • Rose, Harold. The Economic Background to Investment. Institute of Actuaries. 1960. The author identified himself as “head of the Economic Intelligence Department of a large assurance company between 1948 and 1950.”
Further, the older literature also contains reference to additional shops in various commercial enterprises, the history of which could no doubt fill an entire thesis. Among these are mention of commercial intelligence offices, including one Dun & Company, with branches in Mexico City, Havana, Rio de Janerio, and Buenos Aires as of 1914. A commercial intelligence system at Lloyd’s of London is identified yet earlier still, with a mention in 1876 citing “the labour of half a century”. Various references are made to the “Economic Research Unit, Business Intelligence Department, Bank of Ceylon, Colombo” in 1931, again in 1947, and lastly in 1960. The Economic Intelligence Unit of Prudential Insurance Company is also mentioned as active between 1948 to 1958.

A number of sources were found which identified specific Economic Intelligence Departments – predominately (but not exclusively) at major financial institutions, including:

  • Barclay’s Bank, whose Department was identified as the author of a number of publications, the earliest of which dates from 1902
  • Bank of France, first mentioned in 1934
  • Bank of England, cited in 1952 and 1960
  • The English Electric Company, identified as active between 1954 and 1960
  • The Swiss Bank Corporation of London, mentioned as late as 1956
  • Westminster Bank, cited in 1952

Interestingly, older volumes also support the increasingly persuasive argument that the term “business intelligence” has been so diluted in common usage as to become entirely meaningless as a useful label for an organization, activity, or product. In most references prior to World War II, the term referred nearly exclusively to the quality of mind that an individual executive possessed – similar to current delineation of emotional intelligence, or other measurements of aptitude. Between this history and its current bastardization for the sale of data warehousing software, we think it high time the term be retired in favour of an alternative of greater utility and value.

No doubt quite a number of other interesting nuggets still lurk in the backroom stacks, awaiting the enterprise of some young intelligence scholar to ferret them out. Rescuing this history is one of the true needs of the intelligence studies field – particularly as we struggle to understand the dynamics of the privatization of intelligence and the growth of non-state intelligence capabilities, which the literature shows to be a much older trend than most now account for.

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