No Stone Unturned: Leveraging HUMINT Insights

As you sip your shaken-not-stirred martini at the bar, you recognize “As Time Goes By” on the piano.  You sigh impatiently as you look at your Rolex again – your contact is late.  You have very urgent questions only they can answer and you are starting to worry.  Are they having trouble finding parking?   Or is their Aston Martin lying in a ditch, nudged off the road by shadowy figures hidden in the fog?

A very glamorous scenario to be sure, but that type of intelligence imagery belongs to the fictional world of movies.  Competitive (Strategic) Intelligence (CI/SI) certainly does have military roots and practiced by national security agencies and police departments. However, the business world adapted those original techniques with an aim to “leverage insights, best practices, and unimpeachable ethics to drive growth and reduce risk in strategic choice” in their respective industries.  (Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP)).

Leveraging Insights

CI/SI particularly emphasizes “leveraging insights”.  While gathering, evaluating, and synthesizing information is important, this data analysis is only the very beginning of the process.  Success for intelligence strategists looks like the Managing Partners debating your next-step recommendations with you – then deciding on the best way forward based on what you provided.

What is HUMINT?

One of those branches of CI/SI technique is Human Intelligence (HUMINT), which Zena Applebaum, a CI expert in the legal industry, calls the “ability to elicit the right information at the right time.”

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The CALL Grant Committee gave me the opportunity to learn about HUMINT when they awarded me funding to take a Special Library Association Competitive Intelligence Certificate course on that topic.  It included lectures, readings, discussions, and a final project to demonstrate my skill at incorporating what I’d learned.

Key Intelligence

I discovered there are many ways to “elicit the right information”.  Many are very familiar processes, including the first step of uncovering your Key Intelligence Topics (KIT).  Information professionals uncover the right information during reference interviews/needs assessments discovering what your decision makers must know and why it’s mission critical.

The Key Intelligence Questions (KIQ) are those penetrating queries guiding your search towards fulfilling those information needs.  A source map of your internal and external, primary and secondary sources organizes your research paths for maximum efficiency.

Once you have a solid search framework, you can feel confident your personal interviews with expert sources or on-the-ground explorations at event and trade shows will make the best use of your time.  Using ethical elicitation techniques ensures your network is happy to continuing working with you rather than screening your calls.

Legal Profession & HUMINT

The law profession already practices HUMINT.  Some examples, do you remind Summer Associates, to keep absolutely silent when leaving the court house with their colleagues, no matter how the case is going?  Has your firm ever employed corporate investigation firms like Axium and FTI  to provide due diligence and background checks?

Those practitioners provide valuable information that can sometimes be found nowhere else but through human beings.  You may even have the opportunity to do some internal networking.  Your firm’s friendly real estate lawyer might be free for coffee to connect the dots with you as you navigate a project for the finance practice.

HUMINT & Search

What are some ways you can build HUMINT more strategically into your current search practices?  Remember, you don’t have to become a martini connoisseur.  One approach might be to take small strategic steps.  When creating a source map, can you add a few human resources to test the results of your Lexis Nexis search strings?

When you go to AALL, would it make sense to make a special effort to ask vendors or other attendees about what trends they’re seeing in industries of special interest to your firm?  On a broader scale, is there any interest within CALL to create a CI/SI interest group or roundtable similar to AALL’s CI Committee to learn from each other?

Perhaps, all these small steps grow into a walk to a Managing Partner’s office where she’s eager to hear your recommendations on whether to expand into a new practice area – the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Additional Resources

What is HUMINT – Interview with Christina Lekati, (30:51 min.)


SCIP Ask Me Anything with Zena Applebaum of Thomson Reuters:  Women in Competitive Intelligence

Competitive intelligence in law firms:  Takeaways from ARK Group CI conference (2019)  The last conference was in 2019, keep an eye out for the next one.