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Why the Misconception that Computer Information is Competitive Intelligence Will Earn You Last Place

This is the title of the essay by Nita Heeg, the winner of this year’s Jim Mathews Award for Intelligence Excellence! This award is sponsored by  Aurora WDC who specializes in providing global human intelligence (HUMINT) field collection and analysis for the world’s most respected organizations. We are happy to have been given the permission to publish the full essay below:

Essay topic: Many decision makers believe they do not need CI because they can find anything they want by “Googling It”. Describe how you would convince your new “Google-obsessed” boss, that this would not meet their competitive intelligence needs.

The term ‘Googilisationreflects how Google has been deified in our technology and information driven culture as the be-all and end-all of information resources. Many companies, employers, and professionals embrace the do-it-yourself spirit of “Googling It” for their market research and competitive intelligence needs. The appeal is simple. The search engine appears to be free, user-friendly, and convenient, as it offers information “fast and now”, and it continues to gain popularity and credibility (Gorman, 2006, p.97). Increased Google usage is logical. The corporate giant, worth $249.1 billion (Krantz, 2012), is able to invest in product development, digital books, and information resources at a capacity that libraries and other traditional information sources cannot match (Gorman, 2006, p.98).  It has gained credibility through the sheer number of its users, as well as through libraries and educational institutes which have started to teach Google Scholar research skills to meet this changing information demand (Joint, 2010, p.244). And the intoxication caused by this centralized information glut gives rise to the argument that “Googling It” will satisfy a company’s competitive intelligence needs.

In response to the rhetoric of a “Google-obsessed” boss, there are 2 simple yet powerful arguments that demonstrate the inadequacy of using Google for competitive intelligence needs. I would argue: to start, the term competitive means the achievement of “a sustainable winning performance (…)”, which involves surpassing other parties in the accomplishment of business goals (Fleisher, 2008, p.2). Google is not competitive. Each month, Google sites receive $1 billion visitors…all of your competitors included (comScore, 2011). Being on Google earns you a “thanks for coming out” participation ribbon but you would be mistaken to think that you are even in the race.

Next, I would cite the fundamental distinction that has been made betweeninformation and intelligence (Kahaner, p.3). A search engine query is simply a signal that delivers data to the user. At the best of times, the search may produce information, which is defined as factual numbers, statistics, and texts (Kahaner, p.3). The majority of the time, however, you will retrieve fictitious numbers, statistics, and texts that poster as factual information (Lovink, 2011). The lack of differentiation in terms of information quality is because Google algorithms are “based on keywords and an output based on ranking system” that do not interpret or evaluate (Lovink, 2011). And interpretation is a key component of intelligence: “ a collection of information pieces which have been filtered, distilled, and analyzed.” (Kahanar, p.3)  Twitter post: Google is computerized information NOT competitive intelligence.

The basic Google query does not involve any of the interpretation or evaluation skills involved in the competitive intelligence process that would turn data into actionable insight. The “intelligence cycle”, which includes planning, collecting and processing data, analyzing data, disseminating findings, and re-evaluating client needs, describes the process by which information becomes competitive intelligence (Fleisher, p. 8). If we examine just the first 3 steps of the process more closely, we will see how “Googling it” not only fails to meet CI needs, but how it actually impairs businesses. This examination will disprove the rhetoric of ‘Googilisation’ by demonstrating how the use of Google for competitive intelligence will be costly, timely, involved, and inconvenient.

In the planning phase of CI, a business has to define its competitive needs, develop a strategy of where it wants to be/what it needs to know, and plan the steps required to attain its goals. Google cannot make a plan for a company (although it could retrieve a definition of a plan and make a pretty calendar on which one could make plans on). Relying on Google for a plan, or using the search engine without a plan, would be futile. In a basic query, search engines are “optimized to retrieve pre-defined, specific and precise specifications”, which require you to know your specific terminology and cannot “offer exploratory research help” (Scholtes, 2010). If you don’t know what you are looking for on Google, you are unlikely to find insight. You will, however, get lost in a maze of facts and disinformation. In 2010, “information overload cost the U.S. economy almost $1 trillion” (Spira, xiv).  Without a CI plan, a business will get lost in the information deluge, which wastes both time and money and contradicts the popularized notion that Google is fast and cheap.

In the data collection phase, just “Googling It” will similarly stunt a company’s competitive intelligence. The exclusive use of Google as an information resource discounts a multitude of alternative methodologies and potential data sources that may better suit a company’s CI needs. Certain data, such as court records, reports, or specialized/archived information available in library databases, are not available online (Carr, p.231).  Similarly, a business will lose out on insight that could be generated through telephone interviews, in-person focus groups, or observational studies. Having tunnel vision will hurt a company’s CI, especially if their competitors employ a variety of innovative techniques for generating information (Bose, 2008).

In terms of digital data collection, there are other issues with Google as a form of CI. Unreliable information and bias may contaminate a company’s data collection and skew any insights. As Google operates on “link analysis and page rank”, information is disseminated based on popularity and not quality (Levink, 2011). A search retrieves the most common, popular, and sponsored information sources. And Google information is created by millions of regular citizens and includes propaganda, factual mistakes, and uninformed opinions in their content (CQ Researcher, 2008). Besides mistakes in retrievable data, there are also sources that may be censored or buried. Like misinformation, omitted data due to corporate, advertising, and political interests will also skew your research. Google recently won a court case that permits the company to cater their search engine results to their corporate interests (Wyatt, 2013). Furthermore, Google’s content is dominated by English language sources (Levink, 2011). If you are working internationally and/or in multiple languages, the (un)availability of certain languages will affect your intelligence efforts. Using unreliable and biased sources, or neglecting to use the right sources, will result in false confirmation, disinformation, and blowback (Sewlal, 2004, p.5). A business’ analysis and insight can only be as good as the data. If data are unreliable or inappropriate for the research needs then, again, Google will lose a company time and money rather than gain them insight.

In the analysis stage of the “intelligence cycle”, using a basic search engine query will also damage a company’s strategic insight. The analysis stage is considered to be “arguably, the most important process underlying how decision makers make sense of their competitive and strategic environment” (Fleisher, 19). If a company is using a non-analytic technique to retrieve information rather than produce insight, then their employees will be ‘Googling’ new employment opportunities soon enough. Analysis involves skills, techniques, and experience in order to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of information, as well as to produce the insights necessary about competitors, industry, environmental forces, technology, and the decision location and maker (Fleisher, 23-24). There are many evaluative and analytical techniques that can be employed through Google but a basic search engine inquiry is not one of them. Rather, “interactive search tools, text-mining, content-analytics, (…) fast-crawling and indexing” are ways to create insight out of data (Scholtes, 2010). These online analytic techniques require expertise and involve work to learn. If a company wanted to Google how to learn competitive intelligence, it would have at least a 45 million results to sift through (Kaushik, 2006). In this sense, the stereotype of Google as simple, user-friendly, and as a provider of instant information gratification is as inaccurate as many of Google’s sources.

In summary, a brief examination of the planning, data collection, and analysis phases of the competitive intelligence process demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, “Googling It” is a costly, timely, involved, and limited strategy. At this point, I would suggest that my bosses employ their just “Google It” mentality to run a simple search for reputable strategic insight firms, CI firms that are trained and qualified to manage their CI needs and guide their decision-making.