The Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals Code of Ethics was established by practitioners to set a high standard of conduct for the competitive intelligence profession.
- To continually strive to increase the recognition and respect of the profession.
- To comply with all applicable laws, domestic and international.
- To accurately disclose all relevant information, including one’s identity and organization, prior to all interviews.
- To avoid conflicts of interest in fulfilling one’s duties.
- To provide honest and realistic recommendations and conclusions in the execution of one’s duties.
- To promote this code of ethics within one’s company, with third-party contractors and within the entire profession.
- To faithfully adhere to and abide by one’s company policies, objectives and guidelines.
After 20 years in the business of competitive intelligence collection and analysis, Competitive Futures has its own reflections on the Code of Ethics, what it means, and how it is applied in practice.
How the SCIP code of ethics works in practice
There’s an old joke that goes: “That’s the difference between theory and practice. In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice – there is.” After two decades in the industry, we can say that the SCIP Code of Ethics is one of those rare sets of theoretical guidelines that represents accurately the kinds of conundrums an intelligence professional might encounter in the field.
We certainly have, and moreover we can attest that following these guidelines are positive for practitioners, clients, and the economy as a whole. Here’s why the Code of Ethics isn’t a constraint, but a guide for how to avoid mistakes and succeed on behalf of decision makers.
1. Strive to increase the recognition and respect of the profession
This initial element of the Code of Ethics starts with the notion that, first, competitive intelligence is a profession. To become effective as a collector, analyst, and adviser to executives takes many years to master.
The second element of note here is respect. In addition to our personal codes of honor, there is a collective need to approach our discipline respectfully, so that others may benefit from its practice. To behave disrespectfully would besmirch the profession, and make executive hesitant about its use.
Achieving professional behavior and respectful conduct, only then can we increase the recognition of our success in public.
2. Comply with all applicable laws, at home and abroad
It should go without saying that to achieve the ethical practice of competitive intelligence, one must first begin by not committing crimes. As we have explained in the past, staying on the right side of the law is both easy and effective. In the United States, for example, there are two sets of statutes which guide competitive intelligence: The Economic Espionage Act of 1995, and the regular old criminal code.
First, the criminal bits: Breaking and entering? Illegal. Theft of property? Illegal. Hacking into computer systems to that don’t belong to you? Illegal. Bribery? Illegal. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that these activities are off-limits in the ethical collection of intelligence.
Note that the above crimes refer to statutes common in North America and Europe. It should be pointed out that in many countries, sure, those activities are also against laws on the books…but the reality on the ground might be that they are more commonly practiced than one would like. Intelligence practitioners should remember that even if they – or their subcontractors – are in another country, all practitioners are held to laws at home simultaneously. So even if there foreign corrupt practices that require “expedience,” in the United States, one is still held to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The ethical practice is ultimately the easiest, with the least risk.
Otherwise, there is the Economic Espionage Act, but our experience is that you have to try very hard to break this one – and you’re way beyond anything that looks like ethics. Check out the list of bad acts you would need to commit to breach the EEA:
- There is competitively sensitive material about a company
- The company has taken active measures to protect it
- You intentionally breach those measures using deception
- You smuggle the information out of the company
- The information is employed at a competitor’s firm
- The information causes the violated company to be harmed financially
- You can connect the breach competitively sensitive information to the harm
- And it can be proven in court
These laws are mostly to catch nation-state actors, full on spies. If you’re remotely within that territory, you’ve long since abandoned ethics.
3. Disclose all relevant information, including one’s identity and organization, prior to all interviews
Lying about who you are is strictly verboten. Also, in the Internet era, this kind of lie can be discovered in seconds, exposing the collector, firm, and client to liability. It’s also creepy.
4. Avoid conflicts of interest in fulfilling one’s duties
Interesting, over the last twenty years, this element has gotten trickier. The basics still apply: you should not be working for Coke and Pepsi simultaneously on intelligence projects. But the recent attitude toward antitrust (“Antitrust? What’s that?”) has led to sprawling conglomerates with business units in a variety of industries. Most vendors on intelligence services will therefore be likely, if they have more than a couple clients total, to have some client with some business unit that competes against another’s.
A practical way to maintain the appropriate ethical behavior is to make sure that no projects from the past or present could be used to enhance another, discrete project with another client. If there are oblique conflicts between clients that are conglomerates, then appropriate measures can be enacted (“Chinese Wall”) so that no information ever ends up in the wrong hands.
Common sense applies here.
5. Provide honest and realistic recommendations and conclusions
This should seem quite logical, but if you work in the professional services industry long enough, you will discover that some vendors have found a unique competitive edge. Instead of telling their clients the truth, they deliver a tastier concoction of hopes dressed up as observations.
Ethical behavior in the field of intelligence means that when the client’s baby is ugly, you say that their baby is ugly.
It’s not always easy, but it’s always the ethical thing to do. Tell the truth. It’s why they hired you, whether they are comfortable with your observations or not.
6. Promote this code of ethics within one’s company, with third-party contractors and within the entire profession
Simply put, if you’re ethical, but you outsource creepy tasks to creepy vendors…you’re not actually ethical.
As far as promotion of ethics with the profession, our observation is that gossip about professionals getting caught for dirty tactics spreads very, very quickly. Dumpster diving, boneheaded “operations,” and other peccadilloes are quickly held up as examples of what not to do. There is also laughing and pointing at conferences.
7. Faithfully adhere to and abide by one’s company policies, objectives and guidelines
This last one is pretty simple: follow your own rules as well. If we could add anything, it would be: Make sure your own company’s ethical guidelines are even stricter than those outlined above. (Ours are.)
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