Analysis & Opinions - Harvard Business Review

How to Vet a Corporate Intelligence Vendor

Imagine you’re the CEO of a major technology firm and your chief operations officer is conducting a site visit in Asia to scope out a potential new investment. Your company needs: 1) an on-the-ground security provider to protect your COO during the trip, 2) an assessment of the country, including security and geopolitical conditions that could facilitate or jeopardize business, and 3) better understanding of your potential partners.

To understand geopolitical and security operating conditions, multinational companies rely on intelligence vendors who complement or substitute for in-house teams. “Vendor relationships augment a team’s headcount and can provide real-time support and intelligence,” explains Angela Lewis, who worked in corporate intelligence at Salesforce and The Walt Disney Company and whose PhD focused on corporate intelligence.

Demand for intelligence vendors is substantial and increasing. In 2022, global cyber threat intelligence was estimated to be a $4.93 billion industry, and U.S. security services was a whopping $48.1 billion. Geopolitical and security risk intelligence is an unquantified but essential and rapidly growing part of the story.

But how do you know whether an intelligence vendor aligns with your company’s needs, risk tolerance, and ethics? What happens when a provider turns into a headline-making horror story, such as when a vendor doing background checks for Bill Gates’ private office allegedly asked job candidates inappropriate sexual questions, or when a British firm collected private data on millions of Facebook users?

At Harvard University’s Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project, we’ve developed a database of 70 vendors that corporate intelligence professionals identified as informing their work. These firms operate in more than 170 countries and offer 265 geopolitical and security services. Our systematic analysis of this dynamic ecosystem revealed four key questions for corporate decision makers to ask in order to maximize their return on vendors.

Note: The authors have compiled a checklist accompanying this article, which can be viewed and downloaded from the Belfer Center’s website here.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Robson-Morrow, Maria, Katherine Tucker and Paul Kolbe.“How to Vet a Corporate Intelligence Vendor.” Harvard Business Review, January 19, 2024.