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Dec 27 / heathgross

Are You Driving Blindfolded?

driving blind

illustration by Cat Scott


I have read various reports that estimate that about 30% of companies worldwide have a formal process for gathering competitive intelligence (CI). My own informal research leads me to believe that less than a third of these companies are actually using PRIMARY research.

Primary Research is the process of gathering information directly from individuals who have access to it. Unlike secondary research, primary research does not focus on published information. Primary research sources could include competitor employees and former employees, competitor vendors and suppliers, competitor clients and customers, etc. While primary research can address questions about past and current activity, the primary goal is to learn about what the competitor is going to do; ‘what are the intentions and plans of the company?’ This is why Primary Research CI is the only way to really know what your competitor, and therefore the market, is going to do next. It is the only way to drive your business without a blindfold!

What’s the difference? Competitive Intelligence can be broken down into four, very distinct, disciplines:

  • Secondary Research CI
  • CI Technology
  • CI Consulting
  • Primary Research CI

One could easily make the argument that all four disciplines, working together in concert, are required for an effective competitive intelligence program. However, I would argue that only one of these disciples, Primary Research CI, can truly provide you with accurate, forward looking, intelligence.

Read The Four Disciplines of Competitive Intelligence for more on this.

I will say it again: Primary CI research is the only business discipline that can provide a company with accurate, forward-looking intelligence. All other disciplines – market research, secondary research, tactical and strategic analysis (consulting) – rely on gathering and analyzing data about what has already happened. Using a number of fancy tools, models, and technologies, this historical data can be used to try and predict what a competitor will do next. The methodology and techniques behind this practice are sound; the results can be both insightful and beneficial to a company. However, they still fall short in that they are merely projections; predictions of what could happen based on what has happened.

What this means is that if you are relying on market research, secondary CI research or CI software alone, you can’t accurately see what is in the road in front of you. Would you drive down a road blindfolded, making decisions on when to turn, or break or accelerate, based on the road behind you? Of course not! Yet that is exactly what most companies do every day. They are making tactical and strategic business decisions without really knowing what their competitors, and therefore the market, are going to do next. They are driving their business blindfolded!

What if you could just call up a competitor and ask them what they plan to do? What if you could ask their head of sales what market they plan to expand into? What if you could ask a product manager what the new product will look like and how it will function? What if you could ask the senior scientist how the new product testing is going? Well, you can. It’s called primary research competitive intelligence. The only way to really know what a competitor plans to do is to pick up the phone and ask them.

WARNING: Consult a professional before attempting to conduct primary research competitive intelligence.

I should point out here that there are both legal and ethical rules regarding how primary research is conducted. We have all seen the disclaimers on television that warn viewers that the activities were conducted by professionals and should not be attempted at home. The same could be said of primary research CI. Check back for my post Amateur CI: Pros and Cons for more on this.

3 responses to “Are You Driving Blindfolded?”

  1. Stuart says:

    Great stuff! Let’s assume everyone picks up this practice and there is a 100% possibility that your competitor does this as well. What will the CI industry become? Seems like you’d need to create sectors within the industry targeting specific aspects of CI. In other words, why not develope a company that can implement a defensive CI practice and maintain it as the industry evolves. This might not be practical now, but in the future?

  2. Provocative, to say the least. Titillating, to use an euphemism for bold and daring. I am an evangelist for direct conversation, direct questioning and going to the source. It is a strategy I learned while I worked in health, in the throes of a deadly epidemic (it was often a question of life or death) and it carries through to my work in strategic development for entrepreneurs, business and organizations. A question that comes to mind is: if people rely on primary research CI, are they tempted to ignore key steps in their strategic plan to reach their objectives? Do people tend to shape their business according to the information gathered instead of shaping and strengthening the content/product/service that they excel at? I’m intrigued at how this nourishes the mission of a project which I hold forth in a Joan of Arc-like thrust of the flag… Thanks for the articles and the extra fabulous artwork.

  3. […] research vendor to fill in as many of the knowledge gaps as possible BEFORE the war game.  See ‘Are You Driving Blindfold?’ for more on […]