CI, is it ethical?

Competitive Intelligence, is it ethical or is it spying? After all, the results of a CI search are supposed to give the searcher and the organization some advantage over their competitors. Does this mean you’re spying and finding out their secrets? [Should you be wearing a trenchcoat while you research?] For us, as I’ve said before, CI is basically business development to help us gain new clients (and sometimes keep existing ones). We’re not trying to learn another organization’s trade secrets. So there’s no reason to cheat, or be unethical, when you’re looking for information.

CI does involve digging into an organization, or an individual, to find information about them. But it does not mean taking and using proprietary/private information. Researchers can use subscription (fee) based resources to find information, but those resources aren’t going to provide information that isn’t available to the public. These services make the information more easily available, but they don’t provide proprietary information.

There’s nothing wrong with using subscription services rather than solely relying on free, available information. It’s all in what information you obtain, and, to some extent, how you use the information. The fee-based services just package primarily public information into one report, or into specific databases, so you don’t have to go out and search for it. Sometimes they may add information that you can’t get, but it’s not going to be proprietary or personal information. Yes, there are services where you can locate some personal information not otherwise available, but you are bound by your contract as to how you use that information. And you don’t need that information for a client pitch, and it shouldn’t be included in a CI report.

With CI, or business development, we’re looking for a way to get an advantage over a competitor. For a law firm, we’re looking at something that will differentiate us from another law firm – something other than our fees. If I have an attorney making a pitch to an prospective client, I’m looking for something that will let him connect to that client in a way that an attorney at another firm might not be able to do. I’m looking for a “talking point”. Toward that end, in addition to looking at the company information, I’ll look into the individual with whom they’ll be meeting. In addition to the professional information, I’ll look for some personal information. But, only the information that is publicly and readily available. You can’t friend someone on social media just to get access to their personal information – it’s not ethical, and, if you’re an attorney, it violates ethics rules. But you can see what they make publicly available, and there might be a nugget of information that gives your firm an edge – maybe it’s a shared sport, maybe kids that go to the same school, or love of opera.

We have to use ethical means to gather information. And we have to be ethical in how we use that information. In our case, we’re using the information to gain knowledge about a prospective client and the information is only shared with the appropriate attorney, or the team making the pitch. It’s giving my team a competitive advantage. It’s in-depth research for a interview, and you use the information in the same manner. Granted, it’s probably a really big interview, but it’s an interview. It’s not much different from preparing for a job interview, you want to show them why they should hire you, and to do that, you have to learn something about how you can help them and why you’re the right fit to work with them.

Editor’s Note – This article is republished with the author’s permission with first publication on RIPS Law Librarian Blog.

Posted in: Business Research, Competitive Intelligence, KM, Legal Research