Chapter 3/Competitive Intelligence Handbook


Public Information

"Lo! I had made a public thoroughfare of the sanctuary of my mind."
St. Thomas Deciduous, 604-656 A.D.

We've said that competitive intelligence uses public information. Public in this sense simply means information that can be somehow be gotten legitimately. This distinction is near to being a core concept within CI, because it helps define what is ethical or permissible behavior.

Publish: to make generally known, to make public announcement of, to place before the public, to produce or release for publication

Public: accessible to or shared by all members of the community

Webster's 7th New Collegiate Dictionary

This does not mean that public information is something a company might want to have known to outsiders. It's just that corporations leave a paper trail as they go about their business. Corporations take some pains to insure that their strategic planning and product-release agenda remains confidential. In almost every case, the timing of a particular strategic action is important, and the foreknowledge of this action by competitors is undesirable. In more volatile industries, timing may be critical to the success of the product. A me-too product can often be introduced quickly, stealing precious market-share, or worse yet, a competitor's superior product may be released before yours is rolled out, if your planning becomes public knowledge.

Ideally, any time you can dramatically improve an existing technology, you should have a breakthrough product that makes you the dominant force in the marketplace. But a fast-moving competitor with a better understanding of the market and an ability to match your technological ingenuity may succeed in paving the path to his door more quickly. (footnote this refers to?)

Sony was there first with a VCR in its proprietary Beta format. But a smaller competitor, JVC, came up with a similar technology a few months later with a different format of its own invention called VHS, and solicited the cooperation of a number of other Japanese electronics firms to help in its manufacture and marketing. As we know, JVC now rules the market-place, and with a quality of video output somewhat less exacting than Sony's.

Corporations are not always internally consistent or coordinated in their efforts to keep their perceived secrets to themselves.

The Dutch electronics company Philips is one of the last companies in Europe to continue fighting the Japanese in the mass market for home electronics... Philips' video factory in Vienna is as modern and automated as most in Japan. When asked for information about production techniques, Philips corporate public relations office in London refused, saying this was "strategic information." Later, when showing visitors around the factory, Philips, managers proudly revealed everything that the British office had wanted to keep secret.

The varieties of publicly-available information are too numerous to detail. But as we've mentioned, some 80-90% of the information a project requires can usually be found through publicly available channels, and the rest often can be deduced or estimated. The trick is in knowing which channels are likely to be productive, and which might have only limited information. Given the realities of time and financial constraints, it is important to spend finite project resources on the most productive areas.

We said at the outset that CI involves locating and analyzing public information. But we shouldn't confuse public information with published information. A great deal of the public but unpublished information in the world exists as filings, hearings and documents with governmental agencies and regulatory bodies. These agencies are behind every imaginable institutional doorway, ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) branch in a state capital, and the local labor union division, to the city manager's office or the building permit office in a small town about to host a competitor's new production facility.

If a competitor's new plant is being built near or on wetlands, every agency from the EPA to the Army Corps of Engineers will have to pass on the acceptability of the site. (Even new construction built on a conventional site requires applications to a score of local, state and federal agencies.) To approve or disapprove the site each agency will require from the manufacturer such documents as blueprints, projections of vehicle/truck traffic, plans to handle waste disposal, descriptions of materials to be used in manufacturing, employment projections, electrical energy use projections, descriptions of equipment to be used in the manufacturing process, and the building budget and building program. Each of these agencies, with all of its documents, is a potential information resource through something as formal as a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act (which makes government documents available under certain conditions), or through something as simple as a business-like but pleasant verbal request.

Company directories are good sources of basic information about location, sales, number of employees, management, and other core facts. Examples include Dun's Million Dollar Directory and Standard & Poor's Register of Corporations, Directors and Executives. Dun's also has a directory of overseas corporations. The Directory of Corporate Affiliations is a good source for tracking who owns whom.

Other kinds of directories are useful, too. The Encyclopedia of Associations is invaluable in finding knowledgeable trade sources, for example.

Government filings come in all shapes and sizes, from an exhaustively detailed 10K to a state corporate registration with only the name, address and registered agent of the company. But these filings hold much usually reliable information. Some commercial databases specialize in government filings, such as Information America which provides Secretary of State and UCC information on line. In California, real estate transactions are available online.

Of course, all information on commercial databases and gateways or vendors one searches such as DIALOG, DOW JONES, NEWSNET, NEXIS and DATASTAR will be public/ published by definition. Full-text databases of local or regional newspapers, such as VU/TEXT or DATATIMES, can be extremely useful.

Now and then, when no local newspaper is available online, we have gone to a local newspaper publisher or to a local public library. In a recent project we got the name of a distributor we'd been looking for this way. And we learned that a new facility was built to allow the company to double its output without further construction, that the company would be expanding into new product lines, that a generic product carried a trade name we did not know about, and a few other choice tidbits. All this came from two small articles rounded up for us by a public librarian who kept a clipping file about local businesses. He mailed them to us, along with a modest bill for the copying charges.

Individual types of public information (government documents, database retrieval, corporate directories, interviews and other sources) are discussed more fully in later chapters.

The world is filled with other legitimate public information that is available, but simply less accessible than published material.

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