Over the years, my experiences have taught me that a successful competitive intelligence process begins and ends with understanding your company’s assumptions and knowledge gaps about its product strategy and tactics. In the competitive intelligence profession, we organize these assumptions and knowledge gaps in key intelligence topics (KITs) and key intelligence questions (KIQs).
Defining Intelligence Requirements
I’ve seen many projects go wrong because intelligence requirements were not defined correctly in the beginning. Requirements-definition is the foundation for the entire CI process. It demands effective stakeholder interaction with an experienced CI professional.
In my view, the successful CI professionals are the ones who can anticipate stakeholder requirements and define those requirements very specifically. (When you ask only general questions, you get general opinions that are not conducive to decision-making.)
When defining the intelligence requirements, the CI professional should also define with the stakeholder a timeline for getting the information and a method of presenting the intelligence (e.g., a report, a presentation, or an executive summary). This process is a negotiation, and the CI professional needs to manage expectations about how much intelligence can be gathered within the agreed-on timeframe. The experienced CI professional will explain to the stakeholders that the difficulty level is a function of time, talent, information sensitivity, and the availability of sources. And the CI Professional must have a strong ethical and legal understanding in order to ensure that the KITs and KIQs do not capture any illegal questions or involve the organization in illegal activities.
Another characteristic of a good CI professional is the ability to ensure that the KITs and KIQs reflect the organization’s future needs, not immediate questions. In other words, competitive intelligence is proactive, not reactive. Furthermore, the CI professional must be able to distinguish “nice-to-know” questions from questions that are necessary to move the organization forward.
Preparing the report will require time, so the CI professional must be clear on what the stakeholder considers highly valuable so that he or she can pass along the intelligence in raw format if necessary. As intelligence is gathered and processed, the intelligence professional should anticipate changes in KITs and KIQs and ensure adequate stakeholder interactions to discuss the changes.
Defining KIT and KIQ Structure
In order to manage a large CI function, you need to organize information into a hierarchical structure.
In my previous role, I had to provide leadership and oversight to more than thirty ongoing CI platforms. Each platform consisted of multiple products, multiple projects, multiple vendors, multiple events and a multi-million-US-dollar budget. We were tracking over one thousand competitor products with both primary and secondary intelligence. We could easily have become overwhelmed with information. A well-defined hierarchical structure is what facilitated our collection tasking, communication, analysis, and reporting.
The hierarchical CI structure has been adapted from the methods of military intelligence. At the top of the hierarchy are the KITs, key intelligence topics. These are big-picture strategic issues, which are broken down into sub-categories as necessary. A key intelligence topic could be (for example) a specific competitor’s product, and the sub-topics could be the product’s development in the EU and development in the US.
Key intelligence topics and key intelligence sub-topics are further broken down into KIQs, key intelligence questions. KIQs are the specific questions that must be answered to address KITs.
Once you have developed the KITs and KIQs, you need to prioritize them. There are different methods to prioritize KITs and KIQs. I used a simple method, labeling them as high, medium, or low priority.
- High Priority: These KITs and KIQs are actively pursued with primary intelligence (human sources)
- Medium Priority: These KITs and KIQs are monitored using secondary (public) sources and followed up with human sources as necessary
- Low Priority: These KITs and KIQs are monitored only with secondary sources and reported when relevant information is received
I have found that using Microsoft Excel is a good way to develop and maintain key intelligence topics and questions, but you’ll often find CI vendors using Word documents.
Reviewing KITs and KIQs: An Ongoing Process
Maintaining an up-to-date list of KITs and KIQs is critical to the success of a competitive intelligence system. Your KITs and KIQs should be updated every time you receive new intelligence or learn that a key event (internal or external) will take place.
To facilitate the KIQs review process, you can develop a KIT and KIQ tracker; this way, the CI analyst keeps track of how much intelligence has been collected regarding a specific KIQ. For example, if a question has not been answered, it can be marked “red”; if partially answered, “yellow”; or if fully answered, “green.”
A cross-functional team (with people from, e.g. development, commercial, and legal departments) should review of all the KITs and KIQs at least on a quarterly basis to re-prioritize needs and add new questions. This process should be done in tandem with the review of the latest intelligence findings.
Also, at least every six months, the key intelligence topics and selected key intelligence questions should be reviewed with the senior management. This will enable you to get buy-in from them, and it will allow senior managers to get a clear view of the knowledge gaps of the organization.
Finally, you should review the KITs and KIQs before key events such as conferences, where great collection opportunities arise. In the upcoming blog posts, we will cover in detail how to gather intelligence at key events. We will expand on topics such as how to use the KITs and KIQs to negotiate budgets, align stakeholders, and start putting your organization in proactive mode.
Our next blog post will cover the competitive intelligence collection plan. This will outline how we go about gathering the information needed to answer the KITs and KIQs.