Central & Eastern Europe, both paradise and hell for CI professionals: Some special considerations for those on the outside looking in
Contributed by Central & East European Business Intelligence & Knowledge Management Community
So you are seeking to expand your CI capabilities in Central & Eastern Europe (CEE), eh? Perhaps the best advice in a nutshell, applicable to anyone not yet initiated (i.e., less than a few years on the inside, no local language, and culturally illiterate), is as follows: expect the unexpected, not forgetting that Central and East Europeans, like you and me, are also members of the big family of Homo sapiens (humans will be humans wherever you go). While CEE folks traditionally tend not to trust one another very much, the grapevine has roots deeper and more expansive than almost anywhere else on earth, and not many people here have ever even heard of CI. This adds up to fabulous opportunities for tapping into multitudes of human sources, with success proportionate to your ability to establish trust and some special, even romantic, relationships.
What advice might be most important? Be in for the long haul: Don’t wait for big disasters to happen before you deploy your own internal or external CI professionals to focus on these countries. CEE is a nut that must be cracked from the inside out. Lots of weird things — and at least a few major disasters — will happen, so be prepared for them: You don’t want to be one of the many foreigners who, after their short, exciting ventures went sour, left CEE with their tails tucked between their legs in total shame.
CI professionals worth the gold in their teeth are very scarce in CEE. What is needed is international experience, in-depth multi-cultural involvement, well-developed language and interpersonal communications skills, special ability to build trust and elicit information, plus all the other skills needed to excel in the fast-paced, modern, business-oriented world of today which were not learned in school, at home or through real-world experience by the bulk of CEE folks. And remember that there are lots of “security” people around, but not many know how to protect companies’ assets against modern day CI or economic espionage efforts.
While the price of a loaf of bread in CEE may still be much lower than back home, don’t expect that your CI efforts will be less expensive here. The cost of doing business in CEE is rising continually; many things indeed cost a lot more here; it can take more time here to get “publicly unavailable” data; issues of nationality can be important; and if your project may put the future of locally-based CI professionals at special risk, be prepared to pay more than you would like to.
Each CEE country is unique, and conditions for the practice of CI differ within each country, but there are many common characteristics in terms of behavior, ways of doing things, and the pathways of transformation into new modern entities, all of which are sufficiently similar to draw useful parallels. (The CEE countries referred to in this article are the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary. Largely beyond the scope of this article are Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, other points further east, and the former Yugoslavia to the south.)
CEE as CI hell
How might the CEE countries be “hell on earth” for CI professionals?
Well, first, here in CEE it is pretty tough to earn your CI stripes sitting in front of a PC all day and surfing through online databases. While very few CI efforts today, no matter where focused on this planet, can claim true success without intense human source collection activities conducted in the real (non-cyber) world, the problem is further compounded in CEE due to several factors which require lower expectations from “published” sources such as databases, online public records, aggregators, etc. For the most part, court records are not yet entered in electronic information systems (let alone online); credit reports are non-existent;, and investigative, objective media reporting, while not totally absent, leaves much to be desired.
But let’s get past the “level playing field” stuff. Other factors which make CI tough to execute in CEE:
• There are too many snobbish, under-qualified, overpaid foreign consultants and investment concerns running around, and many of them operate with low ethical standards.
• Local (and foreign) investigative sources, detectives, and the like won’t hesitate to use illegal means and eavesdropping devices.
• Only a small portion of the population use the Internet (some 5% in the relatively sophisticated Czech Republic, for example).
• Language, cultural, and mind barriers: You don’t know what’s being said, and even if you have the best interpreter, much of what is said is far beyond your understanding due to cultural and thinking barriers. Things ARE done differently in CEE. People DO have different habits, different values, different morals, different priorities, different ways of seeing things.
• Distractions: Beautiful touristic sights, ancient castles, enticing girls, good (and cheap) beer. Everybody seems so lazy — why not me too….
• Poor telecommunications infrastructure.
• Low level of customer service.
• You can spend lots of time talking to people who are interesting, but don’t know very much.
• You don’t know who, if anyone, you can trust, when the going gets tough. Loyalty to a company, organization, etc. is even scarcer here than back home.
• New personal data protection laws may mean that the police can come knocking on your door with a warrant to search your database.
• You want results, fast, but things do not happen so fast in CEE.
• You lack a realistic, long-term CI strategy in CEE: It hasn’t been amongst your top priorities.
CEE as CI paradise
On the other hand, CEE is also a CI paradise due to factors including (but not limited to) the following:
• People are not CI-aware. The vast majority are naive and unsuspecting with regard to CI agendas (They will share all kinds of information with you, and don’t even require your identification.). Don’t get me wrong: For historical reasons CEE people are in many respects less trusting of authorities, other “big guys,” and neighbors than their western counterparts, but they, in general, lack much knowledge of the ways of the modern business world. They assume that sophisticated collection efforts aimed at the normal everyday Joe died back in 1989 with the fall of communism. They don’t realize that business is war. Next to their dogs (“a dog is man’s best friend” really hits home here), they tend to trust nobody more than the skilled CI agent, who gains as much trust as a dog by telling them what they want to hear.
• Human contact and interaction is highly facilitated, largely due to the closer proximity of people in more crowded public places, extensive public transportation systems, streets made for people not cars, and the social nature of the people. Shadowing and surveillance can be easy in the bowels of a big city with streets built for walking as opposed to a typical western grid of streets.
• There is an abundance of attractive, single (or otherwise available) young women, who may serve as anything from helpful companions to focused collection partners.
• There is a tendency to share information without much forethought or hesitation. In a society where the truth was discovered for many decades mainly through informal, human communications (official sources such as government and media not trusted), great volumes of useful information not to be found otherwise moves in audible form between human beings. It is easy for a talented CI professional to assume a non-threatening role here.
• People have been conditioned to living in a “normal,” predictable world. They do not want to be seen as abnormal, and are not well prepared to deal with the unexpected (although it entertains them).
• People exhibit a tendency towards comfortable survival. Laziness and preoccupation with the self characterize vulnerable targets.
• “Partners in crime” situations can be discovered and exploited. Much of the wealth of business persons in CEE today is built through some “partners in crime” relationship, where some favors/advantages have been exchanged between parties. These often involve unethical, criminal, or other questionable activities which the parties wish to keep secret — or at least want to keep out of the public eye These parties each possess potentially-damaging information regarding the other party and, more often than not, goodwill between confidential parties dissolves, or is at least weakened over time or in the face of difficulties. By following cues from third parties, and the public silence that exists between partners in crime, the CI professional can home in on potentially valuable information, and take appropriate measures to obtain it.
• Information technology, the internet, and mobile communications infrastructure and culture is advancing by leaps and bounds. You won’t look weird walking around talking into your mobile telephone or with a earphone hanging out of your ear.
• People think that technology will solve their problems, so they throw lots of money at it, yet remain vulnerable to more human-focused approaches.
Connections to the past
Local business leaders often place themselves in ivory towers, basking in the light of their relative power (in relation to the poor masses), and are vulnerable targets for skilled CI professionals. What makes them weak is also your weakness: Human source CI professionals are scarce (lack of threat) and in high demand.
Almost everybody who was established as a business leader in the early nineties has and/or still has connections to a communist past. The questions to ask are many: Has this person been involved with the typical corrupt privatization practices of state companies? How much of this person’s success is rooted in hard work as opposed to manipulating power of connections? What connections does the person have which are most relevant to this person’s success and what are their pasts? Has this person been through any unusual personal/professional transformation, such as that gained through studying or working abroad? How does this person react to situations of conflict? Does this person have any modern concept of customer service? How does this person relate to the media and the public?
In the Czech Republic, the database of former secret police operatives — part of which is available at the time of this article at http://www.cibulka.cz/ (it may soon be banned due to new personal data protection laws so get Cibulka’s CD today) — may give some basic indications of strong connections with the communist past. The business register at http://www.justice.cz/ may reveal some basic business connections. And various Czech media archives may produce a few good leads. Court records are not anywhere near as accessible as in the US, and don’t assume that police and other officials are all the “good guys!”
“Communist” is no longer a good label to place on anybody here today simply because times have changed, but human change comes slow. The tendency towards “comfortable survival” characterizes the masses. You can use a different label on the same product if you will: “hard headed,” “lazy jerk,” “stupid idiot,” “rude waitress,” “unapologetic imbecile,” “shameless gold digger,” “hyena,” “shark,” “lousy salesman,” “bad customer service representative” … or whatever, but perhaps it’s better not to use labels in a verbal sense, and rather focus on analysis featuring different models of describing personalities and predicting behaviors that will enhance your CI results. Face it, anybody who was here lacks the kind of skills which are essential for survival in the West. Invest massively in the education of your own people, and exploit the advantage over others who learn too slowly.
And don’t forget you cannot understand the present without delving, often deeply, into the past!
A quirky observation regarding local trust
Building trust with human sources is key to opening them up and learning from them, and this often needs to happen within a short period of time.
Ironically enough, in many cases a non-Czech investigator is able to elicit information much better from a Czech than a Czech investigator. Everything boils down to the special capabilities of the elicitor, including sufficient local language skills, deep understanding of the Czech mind, adequate planning, and adaptability to the specific source’s personality and situation. An older man in a small Czech town told this investigator recently that he would not trust and share the information that he shared with me with any German or any Czech. Being American does provide some powerful clout with a majority of the people. But again, it always boils down to the individual, and nobody should abuse their status by engaging in unethical and/or illegal practices. The ability to be perceived by sources as a person who can be trusted is an art. Just as the professional lover succeeds in building trust with many partners, so does the CI professional find success in establishing trust with his or her sources.
Small and Medium Enterprises are vulnerable targets but big companies are not much better off
SME managers are too busy trying to get basic business functions operational. A “competitive intelligence unit” is as common as a chocolatecoated asteroid landing in your backyard. Even the biggest companies are quite CI illiterate: There are other “more important” things to do than train local managers. There are scores of big investment funds, venture capital sources, etc. who repeatedly fail with their investments, and it’s all due to lack of real CI capabilities based upon experienced local professionals.
Susceptibility to elicitation
The things that people in CEE will tell me within the first few minutes of our initial meeting never cease to amaze me. Sincere effort to elicit information with minimum risk to the source for providing the information is divinely rewarded time and time again in CEE. Consider some basic elicitation techniques such as those ingeniously presented in the recently published book Confidential by John Nolan of Phoenix Consulting Group: provocative statement, quid pro quo, simple flattery, exploiting the instinct to complain, word repetition / reflective listening, quotation of reported facts, naiveté, oblique reference, criticism, bracketing techniques, feigned or real disbelief, and the infamous purposely erroneous statement.
Why do most of these techniques work so well in CEE? Well, for starters, CEE folks are simply very human and, second, most of them have never heard of anything such as “elicitation techniques!” These techniques work like a dream, over and over again in CEE, and certainly much better than in the increasingly wary West. CEE, in many respects, is indeed a paradise for human source CI collection activities, but an expert in elicitation coming from one country to another needs an intensive readjustment period.
Many CEE folks will look at these techniques and then say something like “It’s not practical enough. I’m looking for some new software for searching through….” and then scratch their heads like monkeys when their businesses fail due to elicitation techniques used against them, and their own total lack of active usage of such techniques.
Criminal society perception
Sitting back in the USA or some other far-away, exotic, land, the images of CEE presented by the media may result in the perception that CEE is overrun by criminals, mafiosos, whores, ethnic cleansers, hit men, bandits, and the like. First, the CEE countries which are the focus of this article do not include former Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, Russia, Chechnya, etc., where crime and terror often assume much higher profile (contract killings are quite rare and mass graves are almost nil in the target countries of this article). In fact, these countries to the east and south are sources of many of the criminals who are increasingly spreading like the plague in the CEE countries upon which this article is focused.
Second, the CEE countries which are the focus of this article are, in many ways, much safer than a long list of western countries, with many of the people on many levels better behaved, more trustworthy, and more respectable. These people have a tolerance and a social wisdom which is to be admired. There is much, on a human level, that the West can learn from the East. So, while your CI operations should be very keen to discover any criminal connections, and be prepared to pay more when CI specialists endure larger risks in such situations, the bulk of the real issues here are going to be noncriminal. Something that is announced as a crime is often exposed as to a pre-meditated smear campaign to influence public opinion.
The substance abuse factor
Knowing whether your target smokes and/or drinks is not important. On the light side, taking a source out for a beer or two, or perhaps a candlelit dinner and a bottle of wine, can really help to open communication pathways. Getting heavier, targets with chronic smoking and/or drinking habits are in many ways predictable and suckers for various forms of exploitation. And if you want to establish your business here, do you want a manager who gets nervous and has to light up a cigarette every 10 minutes and can’t get through a day without his dose of Black Death vodka?
The sexual element
The best CEE human source intelligence professionals are keenly aware of the differences between the sexual landscape in CEE and western countries. What’s different about females here? Everything: Genetics, the importance of public appearance (dress, makeup, etc.), nonverbal/verbal ways of communication, expectations, games played, attitudes towards work and responsibility, hard-to-please cat-like behavior. With over one-half of the population female, and with most males having close relations with one or more females, you had better bet your bottom dollar that in-depth understanding of the nuances of such relationships are important to your CI efforts. There are many documented cases of entire businesses failing in CEE due to poor treatment of such relationships.
Don’t underestimate or overexploit the Central & East Europeans
While you may be convinced that doing business in CEE is too tough and/or hopeless for you, and decide not to risk it, don’t take the easy way out and blame it all on the people of CEE. While there are many thieves and scoundrels, whores, and mafiosos, back-stabbers, and lazy idiots in CEE, there are many wonderful, trustworthy and highly capable people in CEE (lots of untapped talent), and don’t forget that you have, in some form or another, just as dirty — if not dirtier — scum back home. Don’t blame the failure of your business in CEE on the people and conditions, when the true blame should be placed on your failure to adopt and nurture proper CI at an early stage.
It is highly recommended that you do not take the fast and hard “quickie” approach, where you thrust some CI people in on a whim and then pull them out (or let them die off) when the going gets hot. Bad impressions gained by locals as a result of “dirty tricks” performed by US, English, Canadian, German, or whatever nationals tend to spread to the entire nationalities of these countries.
Patience and tolerance in addition to strong personal as well as professional desire to build a future for CEE and its people are essential indicators of a CI professional with true capabilities.
Again, when shopping for CI capabilities, real value will be found with foreign nationals who have behind them the larger count of years on the inside and/or locals who have deeper experience and more extensive training on the outside.
The NEM connection
CI in Central & Eastern Europe requires extra emphasis on intensive longhaul development of human sources, and there is a new emerging class of source called “Niche Electronic Media (NEM)” which seeks to provide such solutions even to the relatively new and less established. While beyond the scope of this article, these non-commissioned NEM sources (which this author will discuss in greater detail in an upcoming issue of the e-Journal) focus on providing you with in-depth answers to critical questions through the use of “anonymous soft-tasking” and multimedia (video, audio, imagery) reporting.
If your resources are limited and you can only afford one-half a person on the inside, you’d be better served forgetting about doing business in a CEE country. If you can afford one entire person, however, make that person a CI professional, or use the equivalent finances to invest in a capable CI service provider before deciding whether or not you want to invest more in your presence in the country with your own people.
Will your CI operations in Central and Eastern Europe be paradise or hell? You will most certainly get a taste of both, but as to which way the scales tip is entirely up to you.
Central & East European Business Intelligence & Knowledge Management Community (CEE BI & KM Community) http://www.bikm.com/