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28 January 2008

Commodities and early commercial intelligence

Our research into the early roles and function of privatized intelligence functions continues to surface more than a few interesting gems. These shed much light on hitherto unexamined complexity and variety in the entities involved in early incarnations of the profession's service to the private sector, particularly for commercial applications.

The British Cotton Growing Association apparently employed individuals in the position of Market Intelligence Officer as early as 1938. One of the duties assigned to this officer was also the "administration of the Trade Mark", suggesting an early emphasis on brand integrity and intellectual capital protection – likely an important consideration for what was the very definition of a commodity product in a time of global economic instability.

We had initially thought this a much earlier reference, based on what appears to be inaccurate metadata in the Google Books database entry on the subject. Had this volume indeed been from 1839, as the transposed figure would suggest, it would have been something remarkable indeed – rivaling the earliest formalized concepts of military intelligence position as a distinct specialty. Yet both the cover and the text itself clearly demonstrate the volume’s true origin from over a century later.

Nonetheless, it remains an interesting piece of the historical puzzle of early competitive intelligence. Other commodities organizations, both individual firms and collective associations, maintained their own capabilities for various markets throughout a contemporaneous time period documented from the 1890’s to the 1940’s. These included coverage of grain, tobacco, fruits, honey, cattle, pigs, dairy, and other agricultural products, as well as shipping markets. Exporter commission houses – often associated with major shipping lines - also played a key role in these collection and reporting systems. The descendants of these entities exist today, including such firms as the Société Générale de Surveillance.

Among the other trades who also apparently enjoyed their own intelligence functions were the foundrymen, with a 1921 issue of The Foundry Trade Journal referencing the appointment of a Mr. M. Cameron as assistant manager, market intelligence and research. (One will note the item also plagued by the same damnable error of dyslexic metadata.) Such services appear to have been available from consultants as well, with a 1924 advertisement referencing a “Market Intelligence Tracking System” that promised to show “how big their budgets really are” - still a key intelligence topic for many competitive intelligence shops.

India again appeared to be a key locus of formalized developments in this area – no doubt to the continued influence of former British military officers engaged in commerce in the region and the Empire’s emphasis on trade advantage. Interestingly, term “private intelligence” appears in a commercial context in an 1863 Marathi / English dictionary. The word referred also to market intelligence, the market itself, and banker’s correspondence (including alternative remittance systems such as hundi) - suggesting a high degree of overlap between these functions in practice if not in English terminology.

While the kind of business information these early market intelligence officers focused on collecting is now far commonly available, at the time its acquisition required a great deal of investment of time, communications costs - and of course, the irreplaceable element of local presence. It also illustrates that the emphasis on collection at the expense of analysis has always been with the field. And in this case, one might speculate that it may have been a contributing factor in the demise of the formal positions as basic data became easier to obtain through other reporting circulated by the larger media bureaus in the post World War II world. Given that their product was largely indistinguishable from business news, and the terminology indistinct, it is little surprise that the functions were discontinued and eventually forgotten from the corporate memory. Modern commercial intelligence professionals would be well advised to heed this lesson.

Despite the too frequently apparent flaws of inaccurate dates (which would be rather less consequential but for the far too legalistic restrictions of limited text viewing imposed by a cumbersome copyright regime that governs even long abandoned texts), the scanning project undertaken by Google continues to demonstrate its value in opening up the archives to exploration in a manner that would frankly be impossible using manual research methods. It is by no means a complete scholarly resource – but it is excellent as a pointer towards materials long buried in the disused acres of the back shelves. This gives us great hope that we might see some of the lost intelligence history – in both its commercial and national incarnations – soon recovered, and by these means also see the literature of intelligence advanced.

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