By Alessandro Comai, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer
When it comes to discussing ethics, you are diving into a very subjective field. For instance, if I were to ask what people think about collecting information about a competitor’s facility using observations from open sources, I will probably get different answers. Different opinions can be found not only between people from different groups, industries and countries but from the same organization or even family. Ethical behavior can also vary depending on the time and the situation a company is dealing with. For instance, it is not the same when you have to find some evidence of possible fraud or when you are interested in discovering the strategic plan of your direct competitor. Ethics is fundamentally whether people believe conduct is right or wrong.
Since the beginning of the 2000’s, business ethics was a very common practice in the corporate responsibility field. Specifically, some companies took ethics very seriously and dedicated full time people to build corporate and business codes. For instance, one of the most sensible industries, where ethics is treated very carefully, is the pharmaceutical industry. Similarly, ethics became an important topic in competitive intelligence (CI). I remember many presentations about CIat SCIP conferences covering what is and isn’t CI. One of the main concerns of CI consultants and vendors was avoiding positioning intelligence as a spying activity.
Now, although several cases suddenly mislead the nature of business and competitive intelligence by confusing it with spying or any other illegitimate activity, the practice is a trustful, respectful and professional one. This is simply because CI practitioners use environmental data and information as many other professionals in other fields do. For instance, the R&D, Marketing, HR or Financial fields. Perhaps, the more sensible activity is when firms engage in the collection activity directly or by subcontracting it to external research firms. Indeed, it is not surprising when a company hires a market research firm and has it agree to ethical conduct by including it in the contract. In my experience, good CI vendors also propose a code that they believe beforehand. The SCIP code in this case can be a good reference and it has been widely used in the past by many practitioners and professionals.
As discussed, ethics has been and still is used by many companies. Having a corporate social responsibility protocol helps:
A) Keep the firm out of trouble
B) Educate employees in understanding where the limits are
C) Keeping the CI practice healthy
D) Building a better society
In Spain, ethics in CI is not very commonly discussed. In my opinion, it is not because ethics is not important, but because CI in Spain is still in its infancy. Although CI was introduced more than 20 years ago, decision makers do not perceive CI as a avalue-adding activity. Additionally, a good number of firms still employ mainly secondary data information and therefore do not use interviews and other primary research techniques. Thus, ethics becomes a less relevant topic and probably even less understood. Similarly, this situation can be found in Latin American countries were CI is less far developed.
I believe that Spain is not very different from other Mediterranean based European countries such as Portugal, Italy or Greece. The culture and the style adopted in the decision process may differ quite significantly from northern European countries. One indicator we can use to see how far a profession is developed in Europe, is the CI job offering. Countries like the Netherlands, lead in the “Intelligence” job offering. In contrast, very few jobs about CI appear in the Spanish press or specialized webs. This may allow us to think that decisions are not data-driven or based on hard facts, but instead are based on beliefs and/or unchallenged assumptions. Thus, ethics and other topics are not at the top of the priority list.
Finally, when ethics get closed to the legal border, then things change. For instance, as EU was a front runner in data privacy, any European firm needed to apply this policy. Keeping or storing private data, without expressed permission, can be a serious trouble. This example shows how a particular ethical issue can evolve into a legal issue.
Alessandro Comai is the Chief Executive Officer of MINIERA, a Competitive Intelligence firm which develops technological tool such as Mira Intelligence (www.miniera.es) and Mira Analytics (www.mira-analytics.com). Mira Analytics uses advanced and interactive network graph visualizations to bring data into actionable insights.
Alessandro has a Ph.D.(ESADEl), M.B.A. and BSc (Honors) in Engineering. He was an Associate Professor at the University of PompeuFabra, (Barcelona, Spain) and a Visiting Professor at Tampere University of Technology (Tampere, Finland) were he researched and taught competitive intelligence (CI). He is currently doing research in Competitive Technology Intelligence, Open Innovation and Digital Marketing.
Alessandro Comai will be speaking at the 22nd Annual SCIP European Summit this November.