Are you wise to the signals?

There can be little doubt that the world is entering a new era of competition and competitive rivalry. Given the turbulence of the current business environment, it is surprising to note how few Swiss companies have embraced competitive intelligence (CI) – the collection, analysis, management and dissemination of competitive data for strategic and operational advantage, or to identify and manage risks. This situation is more surprising given how common intelligence gathering is in the political and sporting arenas.

The role of intelligence as an aid to decision making remains wedded to its military origins. Sun Tzu, China’s most celebrated military theorist, was no stranger to the value of information. He  noted that “With advanced information, costly mistakes can be avoided, destruction averted and the way to lasting victory made clear”.  More recently, our notion of intelligence has been informed by the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War – “Cold” because the US and Soviet Union managed to avoided direct confrontation, preferring proxy wars and political subterfuge instead, much of which was driven by their respective intelligence agencies. Whether the West’s victory over the Soviet Union was due to superior intelligence and the strategic advantage that information provided remains a matter of debate. Nevertheless, governments of all sizes – and not just their intelligence services – continue to depend on ever more torrents of data to maintain a competitive advantage over their political or economic rivals.

Knowledge and foreknowledge of one’s competitors is equally valued in sports. What would a professional ice hockey coach do without video analysis these days? Collecting, analysing and reporting strategic and tactical information on the opposition is competitive intelligence of another sort. The objective is not just to provide early warning of a team’s disposition (its star players, preferred line-up, attacking style etc.). One must also monitor the competition during the match. Take for example sailing or Formula 1 racing. In both of these sports a good number of people are only concerned with observing and analysing the opposition, trying to anticipate their next move, providing feedback to the racing director and from there to the skipper or the driver. This is seen and accepted as absolutely necessary in order to compete successfully.

But if we turn to the private sector, the evidence suggests that most companies do not engage in the systematic collection and analysis of data on their competitors or markets. Fewer still have an early warning or foresight capability in place, even though the logic of today’s business environment would tell you this is exactly what they should do to stay one step ahead of the competition.

For i-intelligence, awareness of what we do is one of our biggest challenges. In this regard, we’re not unlike any other CI consultancy we’ve encountered or collaborated with. The CEOs, company directors and senior managers we talk to are often skeptical of competitive intelligence or the vale of open source information. But once they’ve seen how much valuable data can be collected and analysed through perfectly legal means, they always invite us back to find out more.

We can only speculate as to the lack of CI awareness among managers, or the biases that prevent its effective implementation. Here are some of the most common assumptions. As noted earlier, the practice of intelligence is seen as being exclusive to governments. Most intelligence-related news stories refer to failed operations or activities of an illegal nature. This feeds the perception that intelligence is something bad and best avoided. It also overshadows the fact that genuine success can come from the rigorous collection of open source information, and that that good can also accrue to the private sector.

Elsewhere, managers forego the collection and analysis of competitive data on the grounds that the boss knows best. Others operate in bureaucracies that actively prevent the practice of CI. Others still are unaware of the competitive benefits and possibilities provided by CI tools and techniques. It’s interesting to note that CI is rarely taught on MBA programs, not even as part of the mandatory elective on strategy. Consequently, decision makers are obliged to operate in a 21st century business environment with a 20th century toolkit. Finally, there is also the assumption that, until now, the of competition did not require warning of, or strategic information on, one’s competitors.

Be that as it may, one thing is for sure. The time when we could compete comfortably on ignorance is long gone.

Peter Kaithan