This continues a series of columns from practitioners I respect. The category "Real Deal" describes them well. This time it is Jim Fowler, director of competitive market intelligence for Software AG, based in Reston, VA.
When Vinnie invited me to write a guest post on the topic of competitive intelligence (CI), I was faced with a dilemma: how do I shed light on my profession without divulging information that could put my employer at a disadvantage? My solution is to cover a few essential principles of CI that might be helpful to someone just entering the field, or to a vendor that has decided it’s finally time to stand up a CI function within the company.
Competitive intelligence is not corporate espionage. When people learn that my job is CI (and that I am located about 15 miles from CIA headquarters in Langley, VA), some immediately envision me as a cloak-and-dagger spook, tapping phones by day and dumpster diving by night. In fact, CI is a recognized profession, with a formal society called Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) dedicated to working within applicable laws and well-established ethical guidelines. For example, when I attend an industry event, I am not allowed to use a fake ID, pocket my badge or use any other means of deception to elicit information. And I insist that any vendors I hire to help me abide by the same guidelines. This makes the task of data gathering much more difficult, but it also helps keep my profession within the realm of legitimacy and respectability.
Context is king. The basic principles of competitive intelligence are fairly straightforward, and intensive courses are available from groups such as Academy of Competitive Intelligence to teach them. However, the craft of CI takes decades to master. And it is not only about sophisticated data gathering and analysis techniques. The practitioner must have significant industry knowledge in order to know which information is relevant, and which patterns are truly meaningful. I suppose there are many CI professionals with masters’ degrees still job hunting in part because they lack vertical industry knowledge.
Intelligence is not action. One of the biggest temptations in CI is to collect and analyze a bunch of interesting data without having a clear purpose in mind. To avoid this problem, I and many others in the CI field use a method called Key Intelligence Topic (KIT). With this approach, every research project starts with a question or topic that needs to be answered. But more importantly, the project cannot proceed until two critical questions are answered: 1) What decision will be made or action taken based on this information? 2) Which individual owns the action or decision? The individual identified must typically sign-off on the KIT project before it starts. The KIT approach is a very effective filter, and it is interesting how many potential-time-waster CI projects never materialize once this filter is applied.
Secondary research is nice; primary research is essential. With so many free online tools available such as Google, LinkedIN, Facebook, etc., it might be easy to imagine doing data collection with nothing more than a notebook or tablet and a cup of coffee. This is called secondary research. But in fact the most valuable data comes from primary research – having a phone conversation or face-to-face meeting with a specific individual. Primary data collection is the true “black art” of CI, and all the best online research tools in the world are no substitute. If you don’t personally have this skill, you need to work alongside someone who does.
I personally find competitive intelligence a very rewarding and interesting job. However, to my potential competitors thinking of establishing a CI function, I would say that it is a complete waste of time, and they should invest their resources elsewhere :)
Jim can be reached at jim DOT fowler AT softwareag DOT com