Companies big and small are starting to take notice of competitive intelligence. There has been a massive amount of investment in our industry, and there are more job posts on LinkedIn that feature the phrase “competitive intelligence'' now than ever before.

But that's competitive intelligence right now. What was competitive intelligence like five to 10 years ago? And what’ll it look like in the next five to 10 years? Those are the big questions that Erik Mansur, VP of Product Marketing at Crayon, has for Steve Hernan, Senior Manager of Strategic Business Intelligence at Thermo Fisher Scientific and a legend in the CI space.

Read on for fascinating insights on…

  • Steve’s journey from psychology to competitive intelligence
  • How competitive intelligence went from cloak and dagger to mainstream
  • The digital revolution in competitive intelligence
  • The future of competitive intelligence

Steve’s journey from psychology to competitive intelligence

Q: Over the past 10 years, you’ve borne witness to the growth of the competitive intelligence industry that has brought it to where it is today. Did you ever think that you’d be doing this stuff almost a decade later?

A: Not really. Competitive intelligence isn't a vocation that you go to school to study; it's usually a role that you end up going into through some other entry point, and then, if you like it, you develop it. It's not like being an accountant.

My background isn't in business. I studied psychology, and then I went back to school and got an MBA because I didn't know anything about finance, marketing, or anything like that. I'm glad I did it; it’s helped me a lot.

After I graduated, I returned to Chicago – this was in the late 1990s – and I wound up doing a series of jobs. I was a conference producer, and then I was involved with a friend's father’s start-up. That went nowhere, unfortunately.

Then I saw a job ad for a market intelligence analyst with a boutique telecom consulting company. I was like, “Yeah, I could do this,” threw my hat in the ring, got a call, and got the job.

It turned out that this small company was the CI collection arm for a major telco – I won't name them – and they were charged with doing all of the primary research on their competitors, specifically, their pricing for the various business bundles and deployments. It was all undercover and nonpublic. So that was my foray into CI – this rugby scrum of covert intelligence collection.

‎Into the Fray - The Competitive Intelligence Podcast: The past, present, and future of competitive intelligence | Steve Hernan, Thermo Fisher Scientific on Apple Podcasts
‎Show Into the Fray - The Competitive Intelligence Podcast, Ep The past, present, and future of competitive intelligence | Steve Hernan, Thermo Fisher Scientific - 9 May 2022

Q: Steve, there's so much to unpack there. Let me start at the beginning. You have a psychology degree – that's fascinating. How much of competitive intelligence now is about reading the tea leaves and ascertaining people's true motivations? There's gotta be a through-line between your degree and competitive intelligence.

A: I could go on for a whole day about this. We’re seeing a whole new dynamic right now in competitive intelligence, where we've got to manage, collate, analyze, and automate huge amounts of data. That process leaves the human intelligence side out, which is where the psychology part goes in.

I've always been of the contention that there's a human being at each end of this equation – a fallible entity, a walking bubble of bias. You've got to realize that's what you're up against when you're trying to do anything in CI, from the collection to the analysis, the dissemination to guiding policy – everything.

Having a psychology degree gives you a huge advantage later on in your career, but early on, especially if it's just an undergrad degree, it's just so general that people are gonna say “Can you do a spreadsheet? No. Okay, I guess you're going to cut your teeth in auto claims,” which is what I did when I first got out of school.

How competitive intelligence went from cloak and dagger to mainstream

Q: It's interesting that when you got into competitive intelligence, it was very cloak and dagger. Nowadays, companies talk about it all the time, but back then, it was considered to be teetering on the edge of unethical. That's a sizable shift. Can you talk about that change?

It all started with governmental bodies using the human intelligence model. How it transferred over into nongovernmental and commercial entities and got to where it is right now is pretty fascinating.

Human intelligence, basically clandestine collection, used to be the only way for various public intelligence agencies like the FBI, CIA, and OSS, to get information. That was the model then; things are different now.

My understanding is that there was a shift away from human intelligence collection in the 70s because of some of the ethical questions and concerns about it, especially around the deception, the misrepresentation, the payments for sources, and things like that.

That's not to say that these concerns put a kibosh on human intelligence at the national security level. However, what it did do was dampen the emphasis on that model as the major part of how we got our information and made our decisions.

What’s interesting is how it translated over into the private sector. My understanding is that people with intelligence skill sets moved out of the government or the military and set up shop. They started to advise and then were actively involved in helping large corporations – mostly because they had the budgets – to collect nonpublic information on their competitors.

They were looking for intel about pricing on bids, big defense contracts, aerospace, and all of that. Having access to that kind of information could give a company a huge advantage when it came to making a sale or winning a big project. These were all-or-nothing moves. There were a handful of clients and it was a big, big deal – literally and figuratively.

What I feel happened is that, because people started to see the potential results, competitive intel became more accepted as an offshoot of market research, but nonpublic market research from primary sources.

It's not primary research in the classic sense where you're doing a focus group and there's complete transparency on both sides, but people are there of their own volition. It's not like they're being plied for information or you're doing it on behalf of a competitor of theirs and you haven't told them.

Once CI had become a little bit more mainstream among large companies, industry clusters started building CI programs. Think about oligopolistic industries dominated by a handful of players, industries like natural resources, telecommunications, defense, pharma, and biotech – they were ripe for CI programs, and companies started to appear that could provide those services.

The digital revolution in competitive intelligence

Q: What other shifts in competitive intelligence have you borne witness to over these past 10 years?

It's undeniable that there’s been a digital revolution just in the amount of data that we have from various sources. It's so recent in terms of human history. It's recent, it's sudden, it’s so expansive. So what has this shift caused? Let’s look at an example.

Think of machines, computers, AI, all of that – just put them into one category, and then put a human being in the other category. What do you have there? You have on one side, an entity that's inexhaustible, unless you run out of power, and can process tons of information almost instantaneously and churn out analysis and insights. A human being can't do that. We just don't have the capacity.

Also, the machine side is not subject to fatigue, and it doesn't deteriorate. When you ask someone in the late stage of their career if they’re as sharp as they were in their 20s, or if they feel like the young turks are snapping at their heels, they’re like, “Yeah, well, you can't swap out what's in your noggin.”

So I think it's great that the CI world has started to embrace these different sources of data as ways to make decisions. But at the same time, the human element will always predominate. Yes, a human will take longer to read the data and make a decision, but they bring good things such as understanding and empathy. Unfortunately, they also bring bad things, such as bias, hunger, and addiction.

At the end of the day, unless we get rid of human beings, you're always going to have to have a human that's doing the analysis and making and living by the decisions.

The future of competitive intelligence

Q: I'm gonna switch gears for a second. I read someplace that after you've got back office and sales roles filled out, the first person you've got to hire is a serious growth marketer that's going to feed that funnel and keep the fires burning.

Do you feel that, somewhere down the road, CI is going to have that same priority level? When does that become such an important position that it's on the list of the first 15 or 20 people you’ve got to hire?

A: That's a great question. I'm going to deconstruct it and say, I don't want to look at CI as a position; I want to look at it as a role that might be full-time or might be part of somebody's existing job. I would go as far as saying that CI should be part of just about everybody's existing job.

If I was head of a company with 100 employees, and somebody asked me, “Who are the CI professionals?” I'd say “All 100 of them because they all know who our competitors are. They're steeped in this mindset that we want to collect whatever information can get.”

Maybe a person or a team would be tasked with collating and processing that data to make some sense out of it and decide our next course of action. However, intel can't be siloed by one egghead analyst and put away in the basement. It's got to be an institutional mindset, separated from a person in a role.

It gives people with CI in their job titles a bit of indigestion when I say this, but I think we need to get more comfortable with the idea of a role that maybe doesn’t say “competitive intelligence” because everything is competitive intelligence these days.

CI has almost lost its uniqueness, and it's a moving target as far as what it means. Competitive intel means something very different to the director of sales than it does to the director of mergers and acquisitions. It means something very different to a medical device startup than it would to a fortune 1000 biotech company.

Even if you go to the big CI conferences, nobody agrees on the definition of competitive intelligence.

Q: So you’re saying that CI means too many things to too many different people, and as a result, the word itself has become bastardized. And you think that not so far down the road, the job of doing competitive intelligence is going to be up-leveled to better reflect how it can help every part of the company, right?

A: Yeah, I think so. Let's just do a quick reality test right now. I’ll just ask you this question: when you talk with people at a family gathering and you say, “Oh, I work in competitive intelligence,” what's their snap judgment?”

Q: Well, I've been telling people that I do product marketing for the past 10 years, and you should see the dumbfounded stares I get when I say that.

But when I talk about competitive intelligence, I say, there is information available everywhere, and all that information can influence various parts of what our company does, whether it be product development, sales, or go-to-market.

I still get some dumb stares from time to time, but I think people recognize that information is power. As long as you can find a good way to collate that and make it actionable, I think that immediately starts to get the wheels turning in people's brains. Does that answer your question?

A: Yeah. But it's a moving target. Before we had this huge explosion of data and all the industry that developed around it, I think if you had said, “I work in competitive intelligence,” people would say, “Oh, you’re in corporate espionage?”

Q: If we don’t call it competitive intelligence in the future, what should this discipline's name be?

A: That's a great question, and this is an ego-driven answer: I would not remove the word “competitive.” I think it connotes that you are looking externally at certain rivals – whether they be direct, indirect, possible substitutes, or disruptors – and you're seeing them as a possible threat.

You're looking at their capabilities, and you're devising a way to best interact with them in the space when you have to go face-to-face, both at a tactical sales level and an executive strategic level.

The reason I say this is an ego-driven answer is – let’s be honest – when you tell people you work in competitive intelligence, even if you're just putting a bunch of crap on a spreadsheet, they think it's cool.

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