Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE.
A former CIA officer, now CEO of the International Spy Museum, reveals how associations can borrow from the spy's playbook to gather intelligence on their competition. Tip number one: The tradeshow floor is an intelligence gold mine. Read what he and two highly competitive associations advise about putting an intel system in place—and, pssst, pass it on.
His name is Earnest—Peter Earnest. He doesn't have a pocket full of cool gadgets that smoke, shoot, or explode—those are all downstairs in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, where he serves as CEO—and he looks like your grandfather, but that normal-guy disguise has to be one secret to his success. Let's just say that you'd never pick him in a lineup as a decorated covert officer (in civilian-speak, a spy) for the Central Intelligence Agency, but that's what he was for 20 years.
Clearly, Earnest has street cred in the information-into-intelligence department, so when he retires and writes a book on business intelligence gathering, Business Confidential: Lessons for Corporate Success From Inside the CIA, you read it and try not to blanch when you see that you're in it. Not personally, maybe, but your association tradeshow, your competitors, your after-meeting bar chats with members and others in your network.
Indeed, Earnest pays tribute in the book to the intelligence riches that can be gained by active engagement in associations—no secret there. Information exchanges. Hints. Gossip. Hypothesizing. Development of trusting relationships. Even recognition at times of hard facts—about your association's strengths and weaknesses, competitive practices within your industry or profession, and holes in your own knowledge.
The case is clear: Association work is tough business. And the hardest part of it may well be sheer information management—identifying, finding, analyzing, and acting on it to accomplish your mission.
Which is where Earnest comes in. He recognized years ago the many parallels between the information-gathering and analytical needs of the CIA and those of nonclandestine organizations competing more than ever for members, money, and mojo.
Now seemed the perfect time to dead-drop him an SOS for insights specific to associations, namely how association leaders can both tap their inner James Bond and strategically organize a system that ensures delivery of the right information at the right time to the right person.
The associating part of associations, such as tradeshows, seemed a good starting point.
"Two interrelated things that business professionals should keep in mind as they enter new environments inhabited by competitors and prospects: First, nobody in the world is unimportant. You don't network only with the people you think are important, but with everyone who has a role in the grand scheme," Earnest says. "Second, you look for both the positives and the negatives, evidence of both success and decay."
"Looking" also means bug-free listening. In Business Confidential, Earnest shares "casual eavesdropping" tips for industry conference attendees that may give some readers pause:
Eat breakfast at competitors' hotels to "listen to how your competitors are planning to spend their day."
Post-tradeshow, go early to airport lounges to hear potential cellphone conversations by competitors.
Wearing no logo shirt, visit a competitor's booth to witness its customer pitches.
If these sound extreme, maybe you're willing to try something less covert, like procrastinating in a restroom stall to overhear unfiltered feedback on a speaker's session, or overhearing in the buffet line that a competitor's CEO is celebrating a 65th birthday. (Is retirement imminent?)
The Intelligence Cycle
Professional intelligence analysts follow a standard cycle to reach their conclusions, but any organization in any industry can do the same. Jenny Johnstone, a tactical analyst with the Federal and Serious Organized Crime Unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and president of the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts, outlines the steps:
1. Identify the problem and available resources. If you're the boss, be clear about what information you want—especially the question you're trying to answer—and when you need it. Indicate if money can be spent getting the answer, such as using commercial databases or temporary research help.
2. Collect data. Identify where you would collect the required information, then go get it.
3. Collate the information. "It's one thing to amass all this information, but you have to be able to give it some context and find it later," Johnstone says. "Luckily, today you have all sorts of computer programs to help with collation."
4. Analyze the data. "That's where we're looking at all the information pieces we have and turning it into something that's actionable, something meaningful. We're answering the question as best we can based on all the data in front of us," she says.
5. Disseminate the results. "You can create this absolutely fabulous report that's extensive and clear, but unless you give it to the right people as fast as possible, it's useless."
6. Debrief. Look back to ensure no one missed any sources, that the question is answered, and that no personal biases influenced the analysis.
"Everybody gathers and uses intelligence, but intelligence is not facts," Earnest says. "If you have facts, you don't need intelligence for a decision—you just do it. Intelligence is about making estimates: 'What's the value of X probably going to be?' or 'What is the payoff if we take this action?' "
While the CIA has "The Farm" to train its covert officers, many associations take an ad hoc approach to intelligence gathering, leaving key information projects to senior staff or keeping critical questions under wraps in executive sessions. That's a mistake.
"We're learning this more and more, that it's not all about hierarchy," says Earnest. "That doesn't mean each [staffer] has to become a secret agent, assume a cover, and hide under restaurant tables. The CEO could just say, 'As you go about your business, we, the organization, are very interested in what's happening in, say, the Southeast development area.' "
And intel can't just be randomly accumulated and left scattered about like yesterday's newspapers. "What happens is individual [staffers] may hear things, but they don't do anything with it," he says. "They may mention it in water-cooler conversation. They may pass it up to their boss. But intelligence consists of trying to be organized about it. If information is coming to you, at least try to put it in a central place and ask, 'Does this add to what we already know?' "
Jenny Johnstone, president of the 2,000-member International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts (IALEIA), agrees. Her 25-year career as an analyst and her position as head of the field's professional organization have taught her a few things about the trash-and-keep of intelligence development.
She has found, for example, that simple face-to-face interviews, especially with people inside your organization, are frequently overlooked but generally worthwhile. "You don't necessarily get the best information from an email," Johnstone says. "You need to go talk to people. Ask their opinions. Ask about trends or data."
And although she's an avid internet user, she warns that the web is not the be-all-end-all tool for the information hunt. "You have to keep on top of it, because the sources of information constantly change. They're going from one place to another or shifting to a different domain," she says.
Digital-everything millennials especially need to view web content more skeptically. "Quality is a big problem," Johnstone says. Professional analysts "try to make sure the quality of the information is corroborated somewhere or at least that we can find it in one other place to make us feel a little better."
Johnstone develops much of her own and her organization's intelligence via open sources such as industry press releases; more-sensitive data comes from sources like LinkedIn groups and her own wide network of contacts. Her nine board members also travel to conferences with the expectation that they will later draft a short report of observations for Johnstone and board colleagues. IALEIA is not alone in activating board members that way, either.
The idea that intelligence gathering is everyone's business has infiltrated every staff level at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), whose members thrive on aggressive competitive behavior and create their own gadgets for gathering and gauging information. The culture was purposefully put in place by CEO Gary Shapiro, who has created what may be one of the most organized, robust internal intelligence-gathering and analysis systems within the association community.
"If we're investing in having one of our employees travel, for instance, they know they're expected to go way beyond whatever their single purpose in going is," Shapiro says. "They always have a dual purpose—to gather intelligence on behalf of the association, to see how [something] is done elsewhere and come back and report on it." Sales staff in particular must share comprehensive written reports about what they've seen and heard, which CEA summarizes and circulates widely across departments.
Other efforts are even more extensive. CEA has a 15-member research department that conducts three areas of research. First, they look at what products and services have sold in hundreds of consumer electronics categories. Second, they compile results of 20-plus annual consumer surveys to reveal what customers want. Third, they forecast what they think will emerge as the most important products.
"Past, present, and future intelligence is what our members really are looking for," Shapiro says.
Shapiro uses another, more unusual, tactic as well. For at least 16 years, CEA has paid a consultant to attend six to 10 industry events and report back on takeaways, innovations, and ideas. The investment pays off: "We have identified opportunities in new areas, and it provides us with information on what we should consider doing that others are doing," he says. "In the association conference, exhibitions, and tradeshow world, things are always changing rapidly, so it's very important to know what's state-of-the-art."
Shapiro also gets into the field himself, making a point of attending events outside of his own industry. "It's really important that you look at disparate information. That way you can become creative in how you use it," he says. "What shocks me is that so many associations are run by people who don't have much experience outside of their association. Opportunities are lost because they're not thinking outside of the box."
In addition to systematically and centrally compiling intelligence, CEOs are challenged with how and when to pull the trigger and take action.
Actionable intelligence "tips that balance [between pros and cons] of a decision, but it will likely never be in stark terms," says Earnest. That tipping point can sometimes be accelerated by watching for peripheral information that "is not directly bearing on a certain important decision but may suggest where [a competitor or donor is] leaning," he says.
For example, have any senior leaders near the main decision maker at a foundation been shuffled around? With which vendors is a competitor spending money lately? Has a well-known digital media guru keynoted a competing event?
"It's simply being alert to things that may have some bearing on your own organization," Earnest says. "The person hearing or seeing something has to make a judgment call, or, if he's not sure, he could ask someone at his organization, 'I hear so-and-so is leaving. Do you think that means anything?' "
Those types of questions and observations can be as vital as black-and-white spreadsheets in mapping a route through a foggy future. "Here at the Spy Museum, we look at numbers and what's affecting them, but every responsible organization has to do that without being carried away," says Earnest. "You want to run your data and not let your data run you."
Now that sounds like Mission Possible.
Kristin Clarke (code name: Hedwig) is books editor for Associations Now and a longtime ASAE business editor and journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Intelligence by Design."]