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Jan 3 / heathgross

The Four Disciplines of Competitive Intelligence

Four Disciplines of Competitive Intelligence

illustration by Cat Scott


When I first got involved in the competitive intelligence (CI) industry, I assumed that competitive intelligence was synonymous with primary research.

It was not until I attended my first SCIP conference that I learned that there was more to competitive intelligence that just primary research; there were in fact a number of disciplines that fell within CI that I knew very little about. Of course, that was a long time ago. Since then I have developed an understanding and appreciation for all of the disciplines that make up the competitive intelligence industry. What’s more, I believe that all four disciplines, working together in concert, are required for an effective competitive intelligence program.

Let’s take a brief look at the four disciplines.

  1. Secondary Research CI is a discipline that uses a number of methodologies to sift through various published sources in order gather information (data) about a competitor or industry. These sources include online search engines, company financial reports, public records, periodicals, job boards, social media sites, syndicated reports, etc. Secondary Research is valuable in that it enables a company to gather large volumes of data very quickly. When used properly it can also provide a tool for monitoring an industry or competitor’s activity on an ongoing basis (though it is limited to monitoring activity that has been made public).
  2. Technology CI generally refers to software developed by third party vendors, or in-house solutions, that are designed to help store, process, and analyze competitive intelligence information. Some of these systems are designed specifically for CI, while others are designed for broader applications but can be used to support the competitive intelligence process (SharePoint is a good example of this). While these systems can be very beneficial in supporting the competitive intelligence process, the software itself does not conduct research, it merely helps store, process and analyze information.
  3. Competitive Intelligence Consulting is more of a general term that I use to describe all of the soft services that help a client utilize competitive intelligence. Consulting services could include war games, scenario planning, product launch strategies, etc. Essentially, CI consulting is about taking the intelligence that has been gathered and figuring out how it impacts the company’s business decision or objectives. It also includes operational elements of competitive intelligence such as CI Program Audits, Counter-CI Evaluation, and Training and Best Practices Assessments. Like CI Technology, CI Consulting does not gather information, though it can be used to transform raw data into intelligence. Good CI Consulting can help paint a picture of what a competitor is likely to do based on analytical projections.
  4. That leaves us with Primary Research Competitive Intelligence. Primary Research is the process of gathering information directly from individuals who have access to the information one needs. Unlike secondary research, primary research does not focus on published information. Primary research sources could include competitor employees, competitor vendors and suppliers, competitor 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?’

The four competitive intelligence disciplines together can provide a company with an accurate and detailed view of the competitive landscape, enabling one to better understand the past, current, and future activities of competitors. Primary research should be the cornerstone of any competitive intelligence program. Without primary research, you may know what your competitors have done, but you have no real way of knowing what they will do next.

For more on this, read Are You Driving Your Business Blindfolded?, and check back for Primary Research: Seeing the Future.

Dec 30 / heathgross

Is Competitive Intelligence The Same As Spying?

Is Competitive Intelligence the same as Spying?

illustration by Cat Scott

When I am at a dinner party and someone asks me, “What do you do for a living?” I often find myself hesitating, searching for an easy and understandable explanation of exactly what it is that I do. I have had this conversation literally a thousand times:

“So what do you do?”

“I run a global competitive intelligence consulting firm.” I throw “consulting” in there because in fact that is what we do…and because it sounds credible.

“Um, I see. So what is ‘Competitive Intelligence’?”

This part I have rehearsed over the years so it comes very naturally, maybe a little to mechanical sometimes, “Well, basically, if a company wants to find out what their competitors are working on, they hire us to find out.”

At this point I can actually begin a silent countdown in my head as I watch them processing this information.

3…

The response is always the same.

2…

Here it comes.

1…

A smile, then a flash in their eyes as the false realization sinks in, “Oh, so you’re a corporate spy!”

Boo. Wrong. Not at all, you dummy. That is what I think but not what I say, of course. What I say is much kinder but perhaps a little over simplified, “Well, sort of, except that we have strict laws and ethics that we have to follow.”

Okay, so I won’t be given any awards for the most concise and accurate definition of competitive intelligence, but keep in mind, this is a dinner party conversation we are talking about. If given more time, and under the right circumstances, I would say this:


Competitive Intelligence (CI), as an industry, is not that unlike market research. In fact, in many companies the CI function falls under the market research budget and organizational structure. However, most of these companies limit their competitive intelligence activity to secondary research (find out more on this in The Four Disciplines of Competitive Intelligence.) Secondary research relies on leveraging published data via the internet, periodicals, public records or syndicated reports, in order to construct a profile of a competitor. This type of research is very benign and few people would have any qualms with the ethics or legality of Googling information on your competitor in order to gain some insight.

The rub usually occurs with primary research competitive intelligence. Primary research competitive intelligence refers to research that involves direct contact (in person, on the phone or via email) with individuals for the purpose of gathering intelligence about a company, product, or an industry. Generally, this direct contact is focused on individuals with first-hand access to the information the researcher wants to know. Unlike qualitative market research, the purpose is not to gather opinions about a topic from a thought leader, but instead, to gather facts from key stakeholders and decision makers.

There are two potential ethical and legal pitfalls here:

  1. That often the best sources for this kind of information are actual competitor employees, and there are legal and ethical guidelines on what a researcher can say or do in order to get this information. I won’t go into all the details here, but in simplest terms, a researcher must use his or her real name and they may not falsify their place of employment. In other words, a researcher cannot call a company and claim to work for IBM or Techtrend unless of course they actually work for IBM or Techtrend.
  2. That legally they cannot gather information that has been clearly designated as confidential, even if the information was collected inadvertently.

Early in my competitive intelligence career I had a colleague and mentor tell me, “Getting the information is easy if you cheat, but we don’t cheat. We do it the right way because we are professionals.” I use this statement often when training new competitive intelligence analysts. If you are willing to lie and make false statements then it is not hard to get whatever kind of information you want – but at what risk? Competitive intelligence professionals understand that the risk is not worth it. By gathering information unethically or illegally you put yourself and your client at great risk, a risk far greater than any benefit they may gain from the information you gathered inappropriately.

To avoid these pitfalls, primary research competitive intelligence professionals use techniques that enable us to gather information directly from stakeholders without breaking the rules. It is harder, and it takes longer, but in the end the intelligence is reliable and risk free. Sometimes it means that we have to make a hundred phone calls in order to talk to ten people, and seldom will any one of those people tell us everything we need to know. However, each person can provide a piece of the puzzle that when assembled gives us the whole picture.

Competitive Intelligence is not spying. Yes, there are those unscrupulous individuals that break the rules; every industry has those. Competitive intelligence professionals are consultants that have developed techniques that enable us to ethically and legally provide a client with detailed and accurate insight into a competitor’s activity, plans and motives. We can do this legally, ethically and… without spying.

You can see why I keep it short at dinner parties.

Dec 27 / heathgross

Are You Driving Blindfolded?

driving blind

illustration by Cat Scott


IF YOUR COMPANY IS NOT DOING PRIMARY COMPETITIVE INTELLIGENCE RESEARCH THEN YOU ARE DRIVING YOUR BUSINESS BLINDFOLDED!!!

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.

Dec 23 / heathgross

Competitive Landscape

Generally, a competitive landscape refers to a product produced through competitive intelligence collection and analysis. A competitive landscape is a comprehensive view of an industry or industry segment, with particular focus being placed on the competitors in the space. A competitive landscape usually includes competitor profiles as well as an in-depth analysis of the trends impacting the industry. At times Competitive Landscape and Environmental Scan are mistakenly used synonymously; whereas a competitive landscape is a comprehensive study of a competitive set, an environmental scan is a high level overview of an industry, competitor, or product or service.

Dec 22 / heathgross

Secondary Research

Secondary Research Competitive Intelligence is a discipline that uses a number of methodologies to sift through various published sources in order gather information (data) about a competitor or industry. These sources include online search engines, company financial reports, public records, periodicals, job boards, social media sites, syndicated reports, etc. Secondary Research is valuable in that it enables a company to gather large volumes of data very quickly and efficiently. When used properly it can also provide a tool for monitoring an industry or competitor’s activity on an ongoing basis (though it is limited to monitoring activity that has been made public).

Dec 21 / heathgross

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 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.

Dec 20 / heathgross

Competitive Intelligence

Wikipedia Definition
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.

A more focused definition of CI regards it as the organizational function responsible for the early identification of risks and opportunities in the market before they become obvious. Experts also call this process the early signal analysis. This definition focuses attention on the difference between dissemination of widely available factual information (such as market statistics, financial reports, newspaper clippings) performed by functions such as libraries and information centers, and competitive intelligence which is a perspective on developments and events aimed at yielding a competitive edge.

My Definition
Competitive Intelligence (CI) is intelligence that is specifically adapted to the commercial world. It is a systematic, ongoing business process to ethically and legally gather intelligence on targets such as customers, competitors, personnel, technologies, and the total business environment. (I can’t claim total credit for this definition, I have used it for some time and modified it over the years. I like it because it is concise and to the point)