Of competitive intelligence, letters and tea

We live really interesting times.

Thanks to the Internet I can chat with people from all over the world about tea or any other topic I might be interested in.

I can also find a lot of surprises while looking for other things (which is probably my favourite part of the Internet) and I can also have access to a whole set of data and figures on tea trade, tea consumption, tea whatever you might think of.

Now, you are probably wondering if I have lost my mind somewhere over the rainbow or if the Mad Hatter took it to make one of his special teas.

The answer is none of the above.

When I read a book on trade or spying in the old times, I am always amazed by how they informed themselves about prices, products, competitors…

The whole process might surprise a few people that think that we (those of the modern era) invented everything but let’s look more closely at a modern concept: competitive intelligence.

What is it?

According to Wikipedia, “a broad definition of competitive intelligence is the action of defining, gathering, analyzing, and distributing intelligence about products, customers, competitors and any aspect of the environment needed to support executives and managers in making strategic decisions for an organization.”

Now, let’s go for a few lines in the mind of one of the tea merchants from earlier and see if this definition would fit.

Let’s say you belong to a big company, perhaps the East India Company and you want to know if you can still sell tea, how, to whom and at what price (you know that you want to sell tea, don’t you?).

Surprise, you just defined your intelligence needs about your customers, competitions, needs that will allow you or more likely the board of directors to decide what is the best sales strategy for tea.

The next step is to decide who are the people able to answer your questions.

First, accountants to let you know how much it costs, where you make a profit, how much tea you sale each year and other mundane things.

But then, comes the tricky questions regarding competitors, foreign markets.

What do you do?

Today, you would probably look all over the Internet for raw data, chat with people for qualitative information, give a few phone calls, look at the press… But apart from the press, none of these tools were available during the time of the East India Company.

So the only option would be to take your most beautiful feather and write letters (or make others write them after all you are the boss here) to selected consuls and gentlemen to ask them to collect data on the local/national market (depending if there is a thing like a centralised state or if it is more a balkanised one).

You would probably ask the same questions to several people so as to be able to double or triple check their answers (you never know).

Now, gathering and analysis are likely to be done (it was not done as quickly or easily as I might make it sound but still) and this is when distribution of the collected and analysed data would be useful.

If you were in the Middle Ages, you would probably write it down in some obscure language but now in the 19th century, you are civilized, so you probably print it since His Majesty ordered the East India Company to do so.

And guess what? Years later, the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek made a copy of it and put it on the Internet, so enjoy the Papers relating to the trade with India and China including information and prices of tea, in foreign countries.

To help you to read through it, I gathered every tea related information I could find in this book and put it under Google Docs (file here)

Just to show you how serious these people (you know them, they are you) were with tea and competitive intelligence, I must tell you that each file has something like 18 tabs filled with data.


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