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“Business Darwinism: CI an essential adaptation for survival”

Sarah Bratt recounts parts of UNYSLA’s spring conference: “Not the CIA: Competitive Intelligence and Analysis in the Real World.” Sarah attended the conference as a student shadow and has since graduated from Syracuse University with a Master’s in Library and Information Science.

“Business Darwinism: CI an essential adaptation for survival”
Tim Kindler, director of CI in the Americas Ernst & Young

When Tim Kindler left Kodak to work at E&Y, his co-workers sent him off with a secret decoder ring and dark glasses—competitive intelligence tools of the trade. Competitive intelligence often gets that rep, frequently thought of as an under-the radar method of conducting research. In reality, CI addresses the all-too-common situations when “at the point we need it the most we often know the least.” In his introductory presentation and joint talk with Janis Whritenor (Paychex, Inc.), Kindler introduced CI for beginners and detangled misguided ideas about the role of CI in organizations today. He argued that because CI is a function of innovation, understanding your competitor is central to business success, progress, and ultimately survival.

What is CI?

Kindler explained that the planning and execution of CI is a hierarchical relationship:

Strategic, Operational, Tactical


The key aim of CI is to reduce “F.U.D.” For those of us who don’t speak business mantras, F.U.D. stands for fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Kindler argued that CI is the best way to approach a decision because it provides a landscape view of your business or organization (via customer profiles, community economics, etc.). The purpose of CI is eliminating degrees of uncertainty: “It is pardonable to be defeated, but never to be surprised,” Kindler contended. By mitigating risk through CI, teams can move forward. Assessments are not rear-view judgments but projecting possibilities through “decision-informing practice.” Reducing uncertainty helps a business evolve through adaptation.

Where businesses go to die

We can either confront uncertainty or ignore it. The classic example is Kodak’s reaction to disruptive technology in photography-namely the digital camera which Kodak itself created. Kodak perceived the emerging technology as a threat rather than embracing it. Eventually, the market for digital cameras outgrew and replaced film cameras and Kodak went bankrupt in 2012. Kindler said that without a strong mission and vision, Kodak recoiled from “putting the sacred cow on the BBQ.” Competitive Intelligence is absolutely necessary for the survival of a business. It is the adaptive feature in Business Darwinism that accounts for the success or failure of a business. Products and demand change over time. If practices stagnate, a company gets left behind like Kodak. If, like GE, you are nimble, adaptive, and unafraid of change, you are better suited for survival.

Business Darwinism

Darwin’s principle “Survival of the Fittest” applies to the business world–“Survival of the Fast-Failers.” The natural law that guides business success is the practice of iterating quickly through failure. In business today, CI is not a periphery function that augments day-to-day decisions. Rather, aim to cultivate vulnerability and a culture that accepts failure. Only then is a company open to emerging trends, technology, and markets.


Kindler recommended “identify[ing] the thing that keeps you up at night.” Leveraging the unknown variable in your organization is necessary to compete in a dynamic and changing environment. It’s also a source of untapped potential. GE reinvented itself and succeeded because it’s not what the company makes, but why. Alignment with the company’s values can herald a new start for a company, especially in the face of new market threats. What happens to Kodak in a world of iPhones and digital cameras? If Kodak is essentially about film, their core company identity is aligned with a transient product, a product that is quickly replaced by the next generation of image capture. A strong company has an enduring core of human resources, strategic mission, and durable values.

Libraries and Business Darwinism

Libraries are a business. Insofar as libraries concerned with core business functions like budgeting, marketing, publishing, resource circulation, and assessment, libraries are concerned with and subject to the laws of Business Darwinism. Let’s perform assessments without another survey. Many public librarians quickly become somber at the prospect of bookstores closing. But the library is more than a bookstore, and must be in order to survive. Kindler explained that E&Y sells brands and services: “Our products are people—which don’t come in a box.” In the same way, libraries are hubs are community connectivity. We are a service-based industry powered by information professional. That sounds like E&Y. Though Kindler argued: “The bigger the company, the more important the CI,” a non-corporate library’s community benefits from dedicated research.

Tim’s Recommended Reading

“The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen.


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