The HUMINT Side of Competitive Intelligence


One of the oldest documented professions in the world is not only considered a profession but is considered an art as well. The art of espionage has been documented in the Bible, manuscripts of the Byzantine Empire, and the Art of War by Sun Tzu. This profession has developed over centuries, ranging from a myriad of clandestine collection, subtle debriefings through skillful elicitation, and internet based spy-tech. Collection activities focused on both tactical and strategic operations providing the world renowned chess game of cloak and dagger activities pitting one intelligence service against another. Yet as capitalism began to flourish, there was no surprise that intelligence collection had begun to intermingle amongst the corporate world. As corporate espionage became a taboo term, the suggestion of competitive intelligence, competitor intelligence and business intelligence began to find mild acceptance throughout the battlefields of the boardrooms, industrial complexes, and social networking events.

Before exploring the true essence of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) in correlation to Competitive Intelligence (CI), one must gain an understanding of the various forms of business related information collection and how each may be related. The most widely referred explanation of competitive intelligence, is the acquisition of publicly available information of the competitors of an individuals company to gain a distinct advantage in business. The acquisition of a competitors critical information such as strategic decisions, financial performance, and productivity to name a few, is referred to as competitor intelligence. Additional information acquired which is not considered competitive in nature is referred to as business intelligence. The information acquired, no matter the title given, has strategic implications in the business environment and is considered a strategic necessity in the corporate world.

The acquisition of the information in the realm of competitive intelligence is often acquired from publicly available resources. Often, many individuals believe that competitive intelligence is collected solely from journals, articles, employment notices, internet pages, and other written publications which may provide data points for analysis. What many fail to realize, is that although collection from written publications may occur, this collection may only equal 10%-20% of the information which exists. The other 80%-90% is acquired through spoken communication. From interviews, lectures, webinars, and even conversations at the local coffee shop. Yes, the local coffee shop near the company headquarters is a prime collection opportunity for the HUMINT Competitive Intelligence collector. Whether the information is derived from written publication or HUMINT collection, the data points or information acquired is only one piece of the larger puzzle.

The analysis of the information collected and that which is unknown, may often be deduced in an effort to develop an overall picture of the situation. But to understand truly how competitive intelligence works, and how HUMINT may be interwoven, one must recognize the elements of the intelligence cycle. Though controversy may exist in some circles regarding how many steps or elements may exist in the intelligence cycle, for this article we will use the following five as our accepted measure:

1. Planning

2. Data Collection

3. Analysis

4. Communication

5. Decision/Feedback

No matter the type of collection, the initial Planning stage must be developed to guide the collection emphasis to place one ahead of his or her competition. During the planning phase, a business or organization must identify the intelligence needs and requirements one directly has of his or her competition. These intelligence gaps an organization has, in turn develops the collection emphasis which will assist in guiding the remaining elements of the intelligence cycle. To ensure success, one may desire to outline the specific requirement in detail to ensure the collection effort has the potential for success.

As the planning stage is the initial development of requirements, the data collection element is often considered the most interesting and challenging of the group. Often an individual who is collecting the information, will find the necessary information in print or through electronic media. These collectors may range from professional researchers, executives, sales, and independent information research specialists. All individuals who have a vested interest in collecting the competition’s information and using the information to surpass their competition. As society becomes more technological dependent, collectors are able to explore the vulnerabilities of technology and collect raw data needed for the next element of analysis.

The collection of raw information may develop piece meal, therefore, the element of analysis is essential in understanding how the information may benefit one’s business or organization. The analysis phase is able to disect information in to financial, economic, trend, risk, pattern, event, and opportunity analysis which will assist in the strategic decision-making process. Once the information is analyzed, the information is shared with the appropriate decision makers which will allow one to move ahead of his or her competition.

The communication of the processed or analyzed information must be packaged in a clear and concise manner which will allow the decision makers to process the data quickly. The flow of information, the manner to which it may be presented, and the intended audience all must be considering factors while communicating the competition’s information. This information will then allow the appropriate decision makers to determine the next step an organization or business must take to remain one step ahead of the competition. But one question may still remain, one question which may be asked by those in the corporate world, the tactical battlefield, or the strategic political realms. The question remaining, is how does one know the information or the analysis of the information is truly accurate. This question, opens the door for the element of HUMINT collection of competitive intelligence.

When one begins to think of competitive intelligence, an individual first thinks to rush out and attempt to acquire as much information as they can about their rival or competition. This is the first true misconception many managers have regarding the purpose of competitive intelligence. Competitive intelligence requires the collector to know their sources and to develop accurate assessments of both the sources and the information shared. Interesting enough is the fact that those two requirements are the same that exists for HUMINT collectors when dealing with tactical and strategic collection to support the actions and polices of a country. Just as a true intelligence professional considers two specific factors, so must a HUMINT competitive intelligence collector consider the same two factors.

In intelligence collection, time and focus are two key ingredients which must be considered before conducting or even accepting any collection operation. True intelligence officers do not appear as the cinema may portray. Intelligence officers use time honed techniques to develop and acquire sources who will provide the desired raw data which becomes analyzed and eventually turns into intelligence. In competitive intelligence one must determine how much time they are willing to spend on a project. When considering the time, a collector must identify how they will spend their time collecting raw data, how much time will be spent developing an assessment of the source and data, and how they will justify their time to the appropriate managers. In order for an individual to effectively use their time appropriately, the collector must develop a focused approach to the operation. While developing focus, the collector identifies exactly what they desire to collect. The focus allows the collector to ask the right questions while attempting to collect the raw data. The focus further allows an individual to focus on the correct sources, so that the time is used appropriately. Information collected remains raw data until the information is analyzed and is validated by another means or source. The validation of the information collected and analyzed may be reverified through the careful art of elicitation of individuals who have either direct or indirect access to the desired information.

HUMINT Collector

Once question which develops when discussing the collection of information from another individual or from an organization, is the difference between a HUMINT collector and a spy. The misnomer exists that an individual engaged in competitive intelligence is spying. This concept happens to be extremely far from the truth. In the world of HUMINT collection, a HUMINT collector is an individual who acquires information by locating an individual who has or has access to the desired information a collector may desire. The collector establishes rapport, and through a pre-planned agenda develops a series of suggestions and questions which allows an individual to answer with little to concern to what has been said. Millions of books have been written about conducting this activity in the sales industry, in personal relationships, dating, and management. Though the skill set has been identified time again, the idea often appears new to many individuals once identified in the appropriate manner. The question soon develops if the skills of HUMINT collection are readily available and easy to learn, where does the trench coats and the cloak and dagger mysticism exist. The majority of the mysticism may be found in the old spy novels and movies which has attempted to glamorize the art of collection. This coupled with the modern day action figures found in the cinema who jump from twenty story buildings unscathed, romance beautiful women, and have the most lavish of accessories and accommodations at their disposal. These cinematic hero’s are often referred or classified by the term of spy. Interesting is the fact that those who engage in the art of intelligence collection are really known by the term of HUMINT Collector, Case Officer, or even the illustrious Spy Master; but never do they refer to themselves as a spy. The spy is the individual whom the collector has recruited and has tasked to collect a specific amount of information from their country, company, or organization. When an individual whom the collector meets intentionally returns to his or her place of business, and removes data with the intention of selling or providing the material under malicious intent, the individual may be considered a spy. The ethical HUMINT competitive collector does not task their source; but rather acquires the information through the well-crafted conversation using basic and advanced elicitation techniques.

Those who are or have been involved in HUMINT collection, may have recently discovered the advances of technology have opened vast opportunities for the HUMINT collector. Just as the aforementioned intelligence cycle had a number of elements which explain the intelligence process, the HUMINT cycle has similar elements.

1. Spot

2. Assess

3. Develop

4. Recruit

5. Manage

6. Dismiss

To best describe these steps, one must look at why this is the greatest time for the HUMINT collector. On any given day, one may find a secretary, personal assistant, office manager, or information technology professional who may go the majority of the day with little to no true human interaction. Individuals in today’s society find that communication through e-mail, internet chat, internet dating, text messaging, and even the telephone have replaced previous face-to-face personal communication. These individuals could go to the gas pump and never have to interact with another human being, they can go to the grocery store and use self-checkout to avoid interaction with a sales associate, and they can either do their banking online or through the automatic teller machine. The avoidance of the personal interaction leaves an unrealized psychological desire which allows the HUMINT collector an advantage against their unwitting subject.

Previously mentioned was the fact that the majority of information to be collected was accessible through spoken communication. At every exchange of information, or every transaction which occurs some type of information is exchanged. Although one may not consider to acquire information during this specific time, the HUMINT collector realizes that this will soon be the environment which he or she has been patiently waiting. The HUMINT Collector will latch on every word stated, and each networking opportunity as an opportunity to acquire additional sources. As the HUMINTer begins adding names and numbers to his or her rolodex, this individual must return to identify the precise requirements to choose the correct source to invest time.

The HUMINTer begins by identifying the intelligence requirements which an organization may be lacking against their competition. As with the planning phase, the individual must plan and identify the specific individual whom may have the placement and access to the obtain the desired information. Once an individual is identified as to having the proper placement and access, the HUMINTer may now use a myriad of techniques to meet and elicit a desired response from the intended target. Those involved with HUMINT understand that most individuals have a unique desire for human interaction, especially when the individual is able to speak about themselves or able to speak about a subject which they have a distinct interest. As the relationship develops, so does the freedom of information through skillful elicitation of conversational gates which lead the individual into sharing information either wittingly or unwittingly. Often people consider this a form of treachery, especially because true elicitation is a serious activity that is considered a professional activity by those who understand how to employ this activity in their occupational duties. Many unsuspecting individuals find talking about themselves is self gratifying as they feel a sense of pride or accomplishment. Others feel they are subject matter experts in their respected fields and wish to impart their knowledge onto others. And yet, there are still those who find the necessity to share information with others and gossip about situations they may not be actively involved.

Once the HUMINTer is able to engage a person in conversation, the HUMINTer is able to begin developing an assessment to what makes the individual tick. This assessment explores the motivations and vulnerabilities of an individual, as well as further exploring their placement and access to the desired information which one is attempting to acquire. Though many desire to place a specific profile or scientific equation to how long or what measures should be used to develop assessment, the time honored tradition of developing a friendship has continued to work throughout the world. Other techniques such as bribery or coercion push the collector into the realms of corporate espionage, and should avoid the use of those particular techniques.

The use of human intelligence techniques to acquire information is considered a fine line to walk by those who misinterpret the actions as corporate espionage. Corporate espionage crosses both the legal and ethical boundaries which exist in the world of competitive intelligence. For this reason, many individuals believe that HUMINT collection is the same as corporate espionage. Corporate or industrial espionage refers to the stealing of trade secrets or information, blackmail activities, bribery, and even surveillance of equipment and computer media through various technological surveillance and collection activities. As one can obviously identify, the differences between industrial espionage and HUMINT collection are often misconstrued since a well defined line exists between these two disciplines. As a result of the blurred lanes in the road and the misinterpreted definition, many collectors have steered clear from the HUMINT collection in Competitive Intelligence. What one must remember is that a collector is only having what some may consider as an innocent conversation, and is not asking the individual to do any activity which may be construed as illegal.

As corporate espionage has become a taboo term amongst the business community, the suggestion of competitive intelligence, competitor intelligence and business intelligence has found acceptance throughout the battlefields of the boardrooms, industrial complexes, and social networking events. This acceptance has further led to a path of Human Intelligence collection of Competitive Intelligence amongst our modern technologically advanced society. The time has arrived again for HUMINT collectors to use their distinct skills, their art, their unique trade to answer the intelligence gaps and or requirements which are unknown and will place their organization ahead of their competition.

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Source by Wayne Taylor