How do I recruit competitive intelligence personnel & what should I look for in candidates?
It depends on what the vacancy is. Different characteristics are needed for different CI roles, and you would be lucky to find one person with everything. You need to be clear on what you want the new recruit to do i.e. what is the job specification? The skills required for secondary or desk research are quite different from those needed for primary research. Often great researchers are not competent analysts or communicators, and not everybody can manage or run a department. At the same time, you may need somebody who can fulfill a number of these functions, and so require a compromise candidate who has a spread of skills but is not outstanding in any particular skill.
There are a number of psychometric tests that have been used to evaluate candidate qualities – Belbin team-types and Myers Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI®) are two of the best known. However although these tests can help, they should not be the deciding factor. In fact, relying totally on tests such as these would actually be quite foolhardy. The tests identify potential but they do not show experience, or fit with your organisation and its culture. Most tests will also not be good at helping you decide on whether the recruit is honest and ethical – crucial for CI recruits. Worse, an unscrupulous but clever candidate can cheat when presented with most standard tests and give the answers wanted.
You should look for a candidate who will fit into your organisation and matches your organisational culture. For example, if you are a multinational and expect people to move around a lot, then somebody who has only ever worked for small organisations in one place may not be the right person. Similarly, if the atmosphere is very formal, a candidate used to working in a more laid-back environment would probably quickly become unhappy. These criteria are over and above any particular skills the candidate possesses.
In a large competitive intelligence department you may have the luxury of searching for candidates who can specialize in one or two areas: secondary research, primary research, project management, financial analysis, etc. However in most cases a compromise is needed – and the objective should be to prioritize the key attributes based on what is currently done and what you would like to be done. So, if most competitive intelligence work carried out in house revolves around desk research then this should be the main role for the new recruit if there are no plans to change this. Similarly, if the expectation is that the new person should be co-ordinating the internal source collection process, then look for somebody with the interpersonal skills required for communicating with a variety of internal contacts.
CI roles – Secondary research
Secondary researchers need to have excellent computer skills and be comfortable accessing a variety of online and offline data sources, as well as the Internet. To access this variety of content efficiently and effectively requires not only logical and analytical skills but the ability to think laterally so as to find hidden nuggets, and an ability to be able to sort out the wheat from the chaff – or in data terms, the whimsical from the critical. Not everybody has these as innate skills – and although training can help, there are also certain personality types that make for better secondary searchers. Secondary searchers are less likely to be “people” people and are more likely to be introverted and task-oriented. They may also have a tendency for not knowing when to stop searching so time-management skills are important if the secondary researcher is expected to work without a lot of supervision. Good secondary researchers are less likely to make great primary researchers, although this is not a hard-and-fast rule.
CI roles – Primary research
Primary research involves speaking to people and so somebody who doesn’t enjoy working with people is unlikely to make a good primary researcher. A good primary researcher needs excellent listening skills, and should be able to empathize with their contacts and making them want to communicate. They will be able to get contacts to talk, teasing out information that may not have been mentioned to most people.
A key aspect is the researcher’s ability to suppress their own ego so that they focus on the person they are speaking to – boosting the contact’s own ego, and encouraging them to divulge what they know.
Women are reputed to make better primary researchers for the simple non-politically correct reason that they are often used to men taking a more dominant role, and so develop more low-key ways of getting what they want. (In addition, again for non-politically correct reasons, many senior managers are heterosexual middle-aged males who may respond positively to a woman who flatters their ego in a way that they would not from a same sex caller. This, of course, also raises an ethical question in that it uses human sexual instincts as a way of tempting contacts to give up information. This could be viewed as unethical – although of course such inter-sex temptation is as old as Adam and Eve!).
Apart from the above, key primary research skills include:
- an ability to mirror the contacts body language or voice;
- quick understanding and an awareness of how to direct a conversation without overtly controlling the conversational flow;
- strong networking skills, allowing the researcher to build a database of potential contacts;
- generally tip-top written communication skills for cases where e-mail contact is required.
The latter is especially important for internal research, which may depend on written regular communication to a greater degree.
CI roles – Analysts
Analysts are similar to secondary researchers except they also possess a level of strategic insight, in that they can interpret results and see patterns, trends and anomalies.
In fact, a strong ability to spot both patterns and anomalies is unusual. Some people are very good at spotting patterns, but less so at noticing the exceptions, and vice versa. Similarly, some people find it easy to work with minutiae but baulk at taking a wider perspective, whereas others find the small details tedious but are excellent at seeing the big picture. There are a number of tests that pick out these tendencies, and unless you have a team of several analysts in the competitive intelligence department, it is generally better to select somebody who is in the middle. You may miss a few hidden patterns or not notice minor oddities, but this is preferable to dwelling on the similarities or differences that those on the extremes excel at.
The main role for a competitive intelligence analyst is to synthesize the data gathered and convert it into something comprehensible by end-users. This requires business savvy – and an awareness of the overall business and industry background – so as to be able to put context around findings. Often competitive intelligence analysts will have a business degree, but they may also come from a technological or science background – depending on the business itself. They should also be excellent written communicators, as the results of their work will feed into the general decision processes of the organisation.
Other CI Roles
There are a number of other roles linked to competitive intelligence. These include managerial roles – requiring skills in motivating staff, leadership, training or project management. There is also often a cross-over between roles – with people adopting several. In fact, it would be unusual to have a department with no such cross-over, and such a department would probably be dysfunctional in that the secondary researchers would not be able to communicate with the analysts and the primary researchers and so on. In fact, communication is crucial and is the bread-and-butter of the effective competitive intelligence department. Each member should have an awareness of the strategic issues and be able to share this awareness with other team members. Moreover, they should also be able to respond to enquiries outside their immediate role, and draw their own conclusions from gathered intelligence.
Filling the vacancy
In reality, the ideal candidate for a competitive intelligence vacancy will not be monolithic – the primary researcher should be able to locate contact names and background intelligence enabling primary interviewing to take place. Secondary researchers should be able to understand the import of data gathered, and communicate this to analysts and end-users, especially for time-critical intelligence, which may not require much formal analysis.
Thus the new recruit should have a mix of the above skills and more – but their core strengths should match the skills required for the role, or be an amalgam of different skills in cases such as the “lone CI manager” where a single candidate is expected to be both primary and secondary researcher as well as analyst, project manager and communicator.
General skills that all CI staff should possess are abilities to look beyond the obvious, and think laterally. Curiosity and nosiness are assets although need to be controlled so that time is not wasted on wild-goose chases. Competitive intelligence personnel also need to be hard-nosed, able to cope with not finding anything – and able to start again and persevere.
Also important are objectivity and honesty, both in competitive intelligence staff’s relationships with others and themselves. Competitive intelligence staff should not be afraid to communicate bad news – even in organisations with a “shoot the messenger” response type or a “Cassandra complex”. (A tendency to disbelieve bad news, as it is preferable to turn a blind eye and hope that the unpleasantness will go away, rather than act to correct it. The term comes from Cassandra the daughter of King Priam of Troy who warned the Trojans about Greeks bearing gifts, but wasn’t believed). In fact, in organisations with these failings it is even more important that competitive intelligence is communicated effectively as the main way of overcoming such problems is presenting a convincing and unassailable case, and suggesting how the “bad news” can be countered. Other skills are imagination – so that what-if scenarios can be considered, and hypotheses thought out and tested.
Finally it is important to remember that nobody will be perfect to start with. People need to grow into the job, and this requires managerial support depending on the job seniority and organisation.
Note: This FAQ was originally published in the Strategic & Competitive Intelligence Professional‘s membership magazine (Competitive Intelligence Magazine – May-Jun 2006. The full article also includes a sidebar box on the different types of organisational cultures)