Chapter 1/Competitive Intelligence Handbook


An Overview of Competitive Intelligence

Competitive intelligence has undergone a groundswell of interest in recent years, an interest in part fueled by an increasing availability of information itself (the much-touted information explosion) and an increase reflected in the proliferation of commercial databases world-wide. What else is driving this growth?

In purely competitive terms, no time before ours has presented so many opportunities or dangers. The recent changes in Eastern Bloc nations and the dawning of a unified Europe call for American corporations that can compete that operate at the edge of their knowledge and capabilities. European and Japanese companies have grown to hold a dominant position in U.S. patents over the past twenty years. Japanese firms are using our universities as a competitive tool by funding programs and research. In 1989 West Germany's world exports exceeded ours, as well as those of other developed nations. Even with its inevitable social and economic dislocations, a united Germany will be force to be reckoned with.

Given this changing scene, competitive intelligence is an activity of increasing importance. Whether the need is for knowledge of an industry, a market, a product or a competitor, reliable global information is central to our national success. As Frederick the Great said, "It is pardonable to be defeated, but never to be surprised. With today's information resources, and a CI program that reflects the needs of the corporation, surprises can be minimized.

But this is a book about the process and resources of competitive intelligence, not about the electronic transformation of information itself. It may well be that the electronic manipulation and storage of information will have the effect on our times that the invention of the movable-type printing press exerted on fifteenth-century Europe. For the first time in history, books and the literate population needed to read them came together. In much the same way, access to an increasing world of information empowers the modern corporation to understand itself and its markets more completely than ever before.

Competitive Intelligence Definitions

We like to think of competitive intelligence as the selection, collection, interpretation and distribution of publicly-held information that has strategic importance. Needless to say, there are other definitions of competitive intelligence. Here is a sampling.

Business intelligence [an alternate term for competitive intelligence] is the activity of monitoring the environment external to the firm for information that is relevant for the decision-making process of the company. [2]

Competitor intelligence is the analytical process that transforms disaggregated competitor intelligence into relevant, accurate and usable strategic knowledge about competitors, position, performance, capabilities and intentions. [3]

Competitive intelligence is a way of thinking. [4]

CI uses public sources to locate and develop information on competition and competitors. [5]

Competitor intelligence is "highly specific and timely information about a corporation. [6]

The objective of competitor intelligence is not to steal a competitor,s trade secrets or other proprietary property, but rather to gather in a systematic, overt (i.e., legal) manner a wide range of information that when collated and analyzed provides a fuller understanding of a competitor firm's structure, culture, behavior, capabilities and weaknesses. [7]

But definitions, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, are like watches and none is ever exactly correct. True, we do competitive intelligence openly, but we would rather the target company be kept in the dark. (Surprise is no small thing in competition.) True, we usually digest, analyze and arrange the materials in our reports, but sometimes, as in a database search that lays out production figures for ten years in report format on a certain product, analysis and digestion may simply be gilding the lily. The heart of the matter is sometimes just in the raw numbers or facts. True, we may sometimes need a wide range of material on a broad span of corporate functions, but sometimes a very focused and narrow bit of information is what is required. (What kind of machinery are they using in that plant?) And it is true that we only use publicly-accessible information, but sometimes our client would like to know the color of the CEO's shorts, and forgive us, but we'd like to answer that question for our client too. Sometimes, somehow, the color of those shorts becomes known.

Does corporate competitive intelligence bear any resemblance to the intelligence work done by the CIA, or in John le Carré novels? It is ridiculous to deny that there are similarities. To the extent that both require probing the environment for information that could hurt or help the client organization, yes, they are alike. In both cases, whether working for a corporation or for the government, the chase for information is interesting and exciting, as is getting "the goods for the client. Both require the selection, collection, interpretation and distribution of information. But beyond this, similarities fade. Projects in CI can sometimes feel as if they were life-and-death matters, but they are not. Not really. The CIA and other government intelligence agencies have been known to work outside of the law. Corporate competitive- or business-intelligence does not operate this way.

Competitive intelligence has nothing to do with espionage!

CI, as we will discuss it here, does not use illicit or illegal methods to accomplish its goals.

Some common goals of competitive intelligence:

Competitive intelligence has such a broad scope it can use information related to almost any product or activity, or information on recent industry trends or issues (packaging companies track changes in environmental regulations constantly), or word about geopolitical trends (e. g., today 30% of all business aircraft are sold to Pacific Basin companies). CI can be driven by something as seemingly mundane as the need for a biographical profile of a newly appointed corporate executive, or something as important as the news that a steel competitor is making major investments on R&D in ceramics and electronics. It might even be the suspicion that a future competitor in an unrelated industry will soon threaten the corporation through new technology.

A future competitor of the Royal Typewriter Company was introduced by a couple of young men, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, ingeniously soldering a collection of micro-chips, wires and a cathode-ray-tube into a sort of jungle-gym computer in their California garage. What came of this homely tinkering was the Apple Computer. Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak's work on the home computer started an industry, an industry that was to reshape the typewriter business, and a lot of other businesses as well, in profound ways over the years that followed. (Later, when IBM decided that Apple had defined a market for their PC, following Apple's lead definitively changed IBM's business.) A future technological threat to the vacuum tube was the micro-chip, and a future competitor to the buggy-whip business was Henry Ford's automobile. One question is, if they are in unrelated industries, how do you find them before it's too late?

Some of these future competitors will bob to the surface, where good management with sound competitive analysis can spot them in time, and steer around them; others will ride in like an iceberg, silent, with 90% of their mass below the waterline where it can do the most damage. In some cases, vision and the ability to see what is coming are of little use. "Let's not worry about it, those little cars aren't what Americans want to buy," is an instance of Detroit's sighting the competitive iceberg back in the 1960s and not reacting for thirty years. It is quite possible that Detroit auto manufacturers will never be able to compete with the quality being built into Japanese and European cars. One commentator observed that the institutional personality of the Detroit auto manufacturers is so pervasive and strong that the only way it may be able to change its ways is to move to another part of the country. "Send a bright young person full of new ideas to Detroit and within six months he or she will be thinking and talking the party line. These are good American cars, and just what our customer wants."

Japanese camera manufacturers have recently introduced cameras using magnetic media, rather than photosensitive film. (Photographs captured digitally are viewed on video monitors (TV), a factor slide projector manufacturers should have identified some time ago, and should have included in their systematic competitor scans, along with the products of competing slide-projector producers.) Eastman Kodak will easily be able to provide magnetic storage disks for these cameras, as will Fuji, 3M and a host of other manufacturers, but may eventually ship its slide projectors primarily to the Smithsonian, where they will be viewed only as curiosities. Eastman Kodak may or may not want to compete in video monitors (the replacement technology for the slide viewer and slide projector) against Sony, Panasonic and a host of other foreign entrenched electronics manufacturers. Much of the technology and production capacity for home electronics appears to have been lost to Japan and the Pacific Basin. Such capacity may have been permanently lost to the U.S., unless current research on digital HD (High Definition) TV provides us with new access to the consumer electronics marketplace.

Not every company, no matter how large and powerful, properly understands the nature of its own business, or its customer base. Nor does every company or division always understand or act in its own best interests. Without the vision empowered by such an understanding, no amount of CI will help forestall the inevitable. Without such an understanding, threats cannot be seen for what they are, if they can be seen at all. In important ways competitive intelligence is about exactly this; about perceiving threats, and ways of getting at the information you need once the threat is somehow perceived.

Who Does Competitive Intelligence?

Those working in CI range from public, legal or corporate librarians and information center analysts to management personnel, specialists in financial data, business-development people and strategic planners to ex-CIA operatives and retired military intelligence personnel, information specialists and academicians. (One of the authors of this book, John Moorhead, is a former U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer.) Many corporate practitioners, according to a survey done by the Conference Board, are marketing directors or marketing research managers. It seems that at this point in CI's evolutionary progress, to quote Lawrence of Arabia, "nothing is written."

Outside agencies that perform competitor intelligence work run the gamut from certain public relations firms and the consulting arms of CPA firms to young companies devoted to competitor analysis and industrial research.

Competitive intelligence has only recently emerged as a distinctive field of endeavor. Only one association, the recently-formed Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, now exists to serve this field directly, but a number of others, such as the Information Industry Association, the Planning Forum and perhaps even the American Marketing Association and the Special Library Association serve some related interests and over-lapping information needs.

Every discipline, no matter how ancient or recent, has schools of thought, gurus, cherished beliefs, taboos, and so forth. Newer ones simply have less baggage. Gurus, or authors of key works, will be covered in a later chapter. The taboo against using non-legitimate information resources we've already talked about. There is also a commandment to be ethical in the pursuit of information. At the practitioner, or "schools-of-thought level", three recognizable groups of CI specialists stand out.

The first group holds that interpretation and analysis are the essential activities in CI. "It is clearly possible", as a professor of statistical measurement once said, "to lie with numbers, but it is much easier to lie without them." The question here is, do our tools of analysis have validity and reliability, and what is the device or matrix that will most easily communicate the complexities of an industry or a corporate position relative to its peer corporations?

The second group holds that the hunting, gathering and location of reliable information is the essential activity. The question here is how to keep abreast of the proliferation of databases, hardcopy resources (books, magazines and reports), and how to keep abreast of the procedures to get at non-published information. (Locating and requesting a document or a government filing record requires some finesse, even when one is being open and ethical.)

A third group believes that the gathering of valid/reliable information and the analyzing of it are equally important. If one of these two activities is weak or impaired, the other will probably be flawed.

It's understood that raw information or data dumps have limited usefulness, and are not usually a product that is given to the client. Data and nearly any type of information usually needs to be integrated and analyzed into a document that is well organized and that can easily be read and interpreted. Graphs, tables and charts are often useful communication aids.

At the same time, if one does not know the kinds of information than can be found during the hunting and gathering process (either electronically or in hard copy) one cannot ask the right questions. For example, PIERS, a Journal of Commerce database (begun over 100 years ago) with import/export data now available on the DIALOG database gateway service, allows the researcher to track the movement of export/import materials from one company location to another company location abroad. Only knowing about this resource would lead a manager to ask, (in a legitimate, legal world) "what products or materials have been shipped to X company in the past year?"

If management can't be expected to ask the right questions about the competitive environment without understanding the forms of information that shape that environment, what does this mean to CI?

It means campaigns and programs to inform and educate management... a corporate management that has taken the right first step in setting up a CI function, but who now need to understand what kinds of information can be found. Without such proselytizing, at minimum, competitive intelligence will be underutilized; at worst the CI program will die an untimely and unwarranted death.


[2] Back Benjamin and Tamar Gilad
The Business Intelligence System
New York, AMACOM, 1988, p. viii

[3] Back Seminar guide
The Competitor Intelligence Group
division of Kirk Tyson Associates, Ltd., 1986, p. III-11

[4] Back William Rothschild
How to Gain (and Maintain) the Competitive Advantage in Business
New York, McGraw Hill, 1984, p. 179

[5] Back John J. McGonagle, Jr. and Carolyn M. Vella
Outsmarting the Competition
Naperville, IL, Sourcebooks, 1990, p. viii

[6] Back Leonard Fuld
Competitor Intelligence: How to Get It; How to Use It
New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1985, p.5

[7] Back William L. Sammon, et al.
Business Competitor Intelligence
New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1985, p. 62

Reach us at:

voice 312.944.4020 fax 312.642.7770
snail mail One East Superior Street, Suite 608, Chicago, IL 60611

Home Page / Combs World Trade / Latin America Telecom / Competitive Intelligence Handbook / Due Diligence Checklist / Who We Are / Top Ten Projects