Trend Spotting or Why I Hired a CI Librarian

Co-authored by Anh Huynh, the Competitive Intelligence Manager at Davis LLP

There are fads and good ideas: distinguishing between the two is not easy, but that does not mean we should not be willing to try something new. By informing ourselves, reading the pulse of our institution and using our own good judgement, we are more than prepared to identify an unmet need in our information services and how to fill it.

A number of years ago I kept hearing about CI (Competitive Intelligence). I read articles, went to sessions at conferences and was generally finding that CI was moving from novel innovation to accepted practice. I realised that there would be a place at my law firm for a CI Analyst/ Librarian, they just didn’t know it just yet. The requests coming from our Marketing Department were for filtered information results. They knew we could do information dumps, but no one had the time to deal with massive quantities of data. When they asked for information, they didn’t want everything. That especially applied to the CMO who had a busy schedule and was looking to us to give her only what she needed.

Knowing that the marketing function department at my firm was developed and sophisticated meant that they were ready for CI. If they were willing to ask us to use our judgement to pull the best information from that big dump, maybe theyre were ready for even more from the Library. They did not know to come to me and say that we should hire a CI Analyst/ Librarian, but they also did not have anyone in their own group who could do the research and analysis they required. When we had an opening for a Reference Librarian we looked for someone who had the skill to support Marketing and that future CI role. When we hired our new Librarian it was decided that she would spend 50% of her time doing “regular” reference and research and 50% of her time working with the Marketing group. I knew that if we got the right person with the right skills CI would grow, and it did. That is how I got to know Anh Huynh, who is the co-author of this article; she was theat CI Analyst/ Librarian that filled the niche.

To further understand the role Ahn played, let’s let Anh explain, as a librarian talking to librarians, but I am sure others will find this interesting too.

First the basics: What is Competitive Intelligence (CI)?

In general, CI can be defined as the systematic process of collecting, gathering and analyzing external information that will help a company be more competitive. Notice the key word ‘external’ – which covers the wide range of information that exists outside your firm including information on your suppliers, customers, regulators, economies, technologies, etc. and not just your firm’s competitors. Hence, the discipline is known as competitive intelligence not competitor intelligence. In addition, beware of the clear distinction between Business Intelligence (BI) and CI. While both processes aim to help a company to be more competitive, BI focuses on using internal information while CI focuses on external.

The goal of CI is to provide actionable intelligence that will provide a competitive edge. In other words, “The purpose of information is not knowledge, but the ability to take the right action” . Again, the key word here is ‘actionable’. If the provided intelligence cannot be acted upon, then it is simply information. This is the foundation that differentiates information from intelligence.

What CI is not 

As “cool” as it may sound, CI does not engage in the fantastical activities of industrial espionage. No Treadstone project, no Bourne Supremacy, no bribery, phone tapping, dumpster diving, illegal or unethical activities of any kind. The rule of thumb is if you have to pause and ponder, then it is probably not ethical. And above all, it is not a crystal ball that can foresee or predict the future, and not to be confused with forecast which is a predictive model/process that provides explanations of the pathways to an outcome.

Help is on the way

This article aims to provide practical information to librarians with interests in crossing over to the CI field: which skills are transferable (research) and what new skills (analysis) will you need to develop. In order to acquire those skills, it helps to know the type of CI applications or projects that are most commonly used by law firms and known senior partners, middle management, and/or executives.

CI applications/projects at a law firm

At a high level, a law firm can use CI to gain intelligence on their external environment:

• Their competitors (other law firms)

• Their strategic (existing) clients and prospective clients

• The industries/sectors that they serve, for example banking, mining, M&A, energy, oil & gas, etc.

• Factors that influence/impact the legal industry including economy, politics, regulations, government, innovations, technologies, etc.

Gained intelligence can then be used to support either tactic or strategic decision making; where tactic focuses on the short-term, most often used by mid-management, and strategic is more long-term and is used by top-management. As an example, tactical initiatives may include identifying lateral partners for recruiting purposes, pitching to prospective clients, business development efforts such as cross-selling or up-selling, or identifying potential clients. Strategic initiatives may include merging with another firm (which is a hot topic lately), office expansion in one of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and China and South Africa) countries, general growth, alliances and partnerships, just to name a few.

Given the choice, which of the above projects would you prefer to work on? Which would be most suitable to the skills already in your toolbox? What type of research would you do to provide the necessary intelligence (or is it information?) to help your firm with its growth strategy?

Information vs. Intelligence

Information vs. intelligence has been a contentious issue with some librarians. Indeed, I have been approached a number of times to nail down the difference. How does one create intelligence from information? The key is through analysis rather than research. CI pros will be quick to tell you that intelligence is created, never found.

Research, the gathering and assessment of data, information, or facts for the advancement of knowledge, by and of itself, does not equal decision-making intelligence. We often use the term “research & analysis” as one-connected-word, and for some of us the distinction blurs, especially when we’re involved in complex and intricate research that seems like analysis. Regardless, they are two different steps in the CI process, where one precedes the other, and requires different knowledge and skill-sets.

As a case in point, let’s do a high level walk-through of a typical request for information. A lawyer asks: “Find out everything you can on company x”. Sound familiar? As librarians, your instinct might be to do exactly as requested, while some might refine the question with a further reference interview. And if you did, what type of questions would you pose? Also, what type of response would you anticipate receiving from the lawyer, if any? My humble experience began in the trenches, so I’m familiar with lawyers ignoring requests for clarification from librarians -but that’s a topic outside the scope of this article. For the purpose of this paper, let’s say you plunge into the research as requested. You would collect, organize, and if time permits, synthesize and summarize your findings into a concise executive summary. How many of you would actually write an executive summary? Regardless, you’d spend a fair amount of time on due diligence, making sure any questionable facts are authenticated, and that only the best sources are selected via rigorous evaluation methods. The information package that you provide is logically organized, easy to follow via a table of contents, the information is timely, and flows from the best and most authoritative sources. And yes, you give the lawyer what he asked for: every thing you can find on the company. But, is the package useful? Perhaps not. Is the information you provide actionable? Most likely not. Ultimately, the lawyer is left to his own devices to figure out what to do with the information. Not only that, you would probably gave him more information than needed, because you were trained to err on the side of caution. This is not intelligence.

Given the same scenario, as a CI professional, how would your process differ? To get the answer to this gripping question you will have to wait for part 2 of this series. Anh Huynh, Competitive Intelligence Manager at LLP will answer that question.


  1. At SCIP (Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals) we’re seeing an increase in membership from law firms. Many of the reasons noted is the increase in competition brought about by the changes in the client/firm relationship.