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How to Use Interrogation to Clear up Competitive Intelligence Ambiguity

Competitive intelligence is constantly trying to develop actionable intelligence from incomplete or highly limited information. To reduce ambiguity and improve clarity, start with the information you have and then interrogate it (analyze it through questioning) to fill in the gaps.

The interrogation technique is part of a deep-dive approach designed to reveal additional details that are relevant to a situation you’re analyzing. Begin by asking the five Ws and one H: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Suppose your intelligence discovers that a competitor has recently added a senior vice- president named Alexis Medina. She’s given the nondescript title of SVP Global Markets. Little else is provided except that she came from a different industry and worked her way up in the consumer-products division of the firm. She has an MBA from a prestigious university and has more than 12 years of experience in her previous field.

To flesh out Alexis’s profile and understand why she has been hired in as SVP Global Markets, interrogate the information you already have by asking the five Ws and one H. (Pay close attention to the motivations of both parties when you get to the why and how questions.)

  • Who is she?

  • What’s her area of expertise? What’s her mission?

  • When was she hired?

  • Where has she served in the past?

  • Why was she hired and why now? Why has she been named SVP Global Markets? Why would she accept this particular position?

  • How has she been successful in the past? How is your competitor likely to use her experience and skills?

On the surface, Alexis’s background may appear to be fairly straightforward, but suppose you discover that she did a stint with a major security agency where she was able to use her mastery of Mandarin Chinese.

You dig deeper and find out that Alexis is the daughter of a former U.S. diplomat and spent eight years of her childhood in Taiwan. You also learn that one of her key accomplishments in a previous job was to develop key outsourcing relationships in China.

This information and your knowledge of the current sourcing strategies in your industry sector alert you to the possibility that your major competitor may use Alexis to move a significant amount of its manufacturing offshore, most likely to China. Such a move, you realize, could drastically alter the industry’s cost structure.

Furthermore, if your key competitor made such a move and was able to surprise you, you’d stand to lose market share and profits.

The first round of questions is only the beginning. Continue to interrogate and scrutinize your answers to challenge your conclusions, identify subordinate issues, and reveal new possibilities. Pretend you’re a child trying to understand the reasons behind your parents’ decision.

After every answer, ask Who? What? When? Where? Why? or How? until you run out of questions and have a clear idea of the strategy that drove your competitor to execute a specific change.

For example, here are some follow-up questions you may want to ask about Alexis and why your competitor hired her:

  • Do any other sources confirm or challenge the initial conclusion that Alexis was hired to outsource production to China?

    Always triangulate information and conclusions to confirm or challenge your initial findings. You must be able to back up your intel with information from at least two other sources.

  • Was Alexis hired to use her consumer products background and language skills to help the company compete in the Taiwan and China markets instead of outsourcing production?

  • Does Alexis know other languages, such as Spanish or Portuguese? If so, is your competitor possibly planning to harness her skills to pursue markets or outsourcing opportunities other than those in Taiwan and China?

Before concluding that you have the right answers to your CI questions, be sure you can answer yes to each of the following questions:

  • Have you followed all the clues that the interrogation process uncovered?

  • Have you been able to investigate to the point that you believe you have the correct answers (or implications) about the subject under study?

  • Have you dug deep enough to be confident in your understanding of the direct and indirect implications of your information?

  • Are you comfortably confident in your conclusions?

After clearing up the ambiguity related to a certain question or issue, you’re in a better position to brief your organization’s decision makers on the intel and its possible implications. If you’re still not completely confident in the intel or your conclusions, you may need to do some additional research.

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