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30 September 2008

Vacant intelligence posts at the start of the financial crisis

One of the benefits of having become a strange attractor in the highly networked world of privatized intelligence is that our little skunkworks is frequently passed notice of vacancies and tenders. For us, this is largely an academic exercise, and we eventually soon to publish our thoughts regarding the trends that we see from this perspective. However, this does offer other additional benefits. Knowing the landscape helps our students, both those entering the profession and those changing shops (especially since most of the major intel studies academic programs have simply not done well in this area – but that is a discussion for another day.)

But occasionally the items that cross our desks are also more directly of interest to ongoing questions of intelligence import than merely the problem of allocating scarce human capital more efficiently across a complex privatized intelligence market. In this case, it is a vacancy notice from late August 2008 for a competitive intelligence professional to serve the senior management at the now failed Washington Mutual bank. We had asked yesterday what kind of intelligence support was provided to the executives of the institution, and have at least a glimpse into their aspirations – if not their reality.

The position appears to have been offered as part of the card services division, which while at first blush seems separated from the questions of real estate solvency that plagued the house, may indeed have been impacted by higher order effects created by the complex instruments through which the institution’s various debts were packaged.

The position vacancy announcement is very typical of its kind in a number of ways. The level for which the billet was positioned is clearly more senior than the typical competitive intelligence role, but very much in line with the recommendations of most consulting professionals who advocate that internal units have direct access to senior management. (Of course, one must weigh the fact that at many banks, nearly every executive is a vice president of some flavour or another, but we have known a few where intelligence is relegated almost entirely to a support function, removed from the executive level entirely). The candidate requirements are accordingly scoped to a somewhat more senior individual than the run of the mill applicant, although one might question the actual effectiveness of an individual with only two years’ management experience in a ten year career in such a role.

The position’s focus on the regulatory and competitive environment would certainly have lent itself to addressing the underpinnings of the current financial crisis, had the shop’s strategic responsibilities been met. However, it is unclear whether such a shop, structured to meet consumer demand from a variety of internal clients and external business partners, could indeed get beyond the inevitable tactical level demands. Much would depend on senior management, and many at these levels are rarely interested in the views of a “strategic partner” but rather a staffer who can compress complexity and provide insight in support of difficult decisions. One also notes that warning is never explicitly identified as a responsibility for the position or its direct reports.

The full text of the vacancy announcement is reproduced below.

Manager I, Market Research, Vice President. Competitive Intelligence Team

At WMCS, the Competitive Intelligence team works collaboratively with the senior leaders across the organization to support their research needs, monitor changes in the regulatory environment, and determine competitive best practices. This key position will develop, create, and communicate the strategy for the Competitive Intelligence team in key areas of interest to WMCS. This role will partner with senior leadership to identify key competitive intelligence requirements, analyze information from different sources, assess the value of these sources, and merge with insight related to WMCS.

RESPONSIBLITIES: The Manager I is responsible for providing regular updates on the changes in the competitive environment and working closely with other functional areas (e.g., Acquisitions, Customer Marketing, Portfolio Management) to meet their research needs. This person will leverage competitive data to identify industry trends and implications to WMCS’s pricing, product constructs, and creative treatments. This person will be responsible for integrating external data and internal business expertise to determine market trends and their implication on WMCS’s strategy and offers. More specifically, this role will assume the following responsibilities:

* Act as a key contributor to the ongoing monthly investment decision process for both New Accounts Acquisitions and Customer Marketing campaigns by providing information on competitive pricing, mail pressure, and offer constructs across our target customer segments
* Build out the vision for the Competitive Intelligence team and oversee all relevant competitive intelligence activities
* Act as a strategic partner to senior management by fulfilling research requests and by proactively identifying key changes in the regulatory and competitive environment and their implications to WMCS
* Provide regular updates on the changes in competitive strategies, mail pressure, offers, and pricing and identify relevant insights for WMCS’s business practices and marketing strategies
* Partner with the Portfolio Management and Customer Marketing teams to benchmark WaMu’s portfolio performance vs. other leading issuers and identify opportunities for improvement
* Serve as the key source for competitive intelligence information for specific products/lines of business at WMCS
* Partner with the senior management team to create reporting infrastructure and executive level dashboards
* Provide regular updates to senior management and/or business partners on the meaning and application of research findings

The successful candidate will possess the following attributes:

* Candidates must have a minimum of 7 to 10 years professional experience in a marketing, analytical or consultative role at a major Credit Card issuer, or at a major consulting firm supporting a major credit card issuer
* Must have demonstrated ability to insightfully set the vision for projects that require the proper mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods
* Must have 2 or more years experience guiding research – market or competitive -- for a significant business line
* Must be able to thrive in a team environment, by contributing expertise as well as soliciting/integrating input from subject matter experts throughout the company.
* Proven ability to simultaneously manage multiple teams of researchers/analysts
* Proven competency with sharing research results at the Sr. Manager and Executive level
* Must have creativity, tenacity and enthusiasm
* Must possess an analytical mind, strong written and oral communication, the ability to work with individuals at all levels, the ability to manage multiple projects
* Excellent project management, leadership, teamwork, communication, and organizational skills
* A Masters degree or higher is preferred, ideally in a social science or a business field
* Proficiency in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

In short, this billet well represented the current state of thinking in the competitive intelligence field. Such a shop could easily have been part of a distributed warning responsibility, which might have had an impact even at such a late date in the crisis had the billet (and its supporting analytic teams) been fully staffed earlier. The question here appears to be at least in part one of execution. We shall leave it to our counterparts in the business, economics, and history academia for the case study of how intelligence flows actually occurred.

However, such a clear alignment with accepted best practices in the field we believe also points back to the failure of the current paradigm. It is not sufficient to relegate warning to a simply structured occasional effort timed to coincide with some window of management attention, or as a “lesser included” responsibility generally considered under the mandate to “provide update on changes” in areas of interest. Warning has to be baked into the intelligence shop’s most basic foundations, alongside opportunity / action analysis. The very nature of warning's tradecraft must also be re-assessed, to revisit once again the process by which scenarios are created and indicators modeled. This is not to cast aside warning as we know it - but rather to revisit warning's earliest implementations, and rebuild its function for a new era.

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