While there are skilled third-party experts that offer advanced research and analysis services to help your company's decision-making, plenty of competitive intelligence tools, from basic to comprehensive, exist online for firms that want to gather strategic information themselves.
Competitive intelligence helps organizations find out about business risks and opportunities and allow them to quickly respond to competitors' moves in the marketplace.
The information can help executives in making short- and long-term strategic decisions, and it can be an effective tool for manufacturers.
"When it is used correctly, it becomes an integral part of the company's strategic planning activity," said Leonard Fuld, president of Boston-based Fuld & Co., a competitive intelligence consultancy. "Competitive intelligence is not one tool; it is an approach."
Fuld points to Pergo, the Swedish flooring company that swept through the U.S. marketplace in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as one company that used a highly successful competitive intelligence (CI ) program.
According to him, Pergo recruited a few hundred volunteers from all types of positions from around the company for the program, and one product manager became the part-time competitive intelligence leader. With his list of contacts within the company and around the flooring industry, he kept poking questions at the purchasing managers for large big-box retailers, spoke with his salespeople, and generally stayed in touch with the market through purchasing people and distributors while keeping close tabs on Pergo's competitors.
Al Sagarese, president of Princeton, N.J.-based Forrestal Consultants International, a business intelligence firm, says there is a role for do-it-yourself competitive intelligence alongside hiring an outside expert. "For example, an executive can conduct secondary data searches, review internal sales call reports, talk to company front-line managers, visit trade shows, and belong to trade associations," he said.
A 2013 Fuld & Co. global survey found that the pharmaceutical and biotech sector accounted for more than a quarter (27 percent) of all competitive intelligence spend, amounting to over $2 million per company program each year. In North America, CI programs of more than $1 million per year increased from approximately 5 percent to nearly 10 percent of all budgets.
The Fuld & Co. survey found that competitive intelligence programs have increased in corporate influence. All regions showed about a 5 percent increase in CI programs that report directly to the chief executive's office. More than 28 percent of professional services firms report their CI to the CEO, commanding a great deal of executive access. Consumer firms and technology and telecom companies followed, with each having over 22 percent of firms reporting to the CEO, CFO, or COO.
CI Legwork: Get on the Horn and the Web
Many times, competitive intelligence starts with a phone call, according to Amelia Kassel, manager of Sebastopol, Calif.-based MarketingBase. "In-depth telephone interviews with competitors or their prior employees, suppliers, and customers" represent an important CI information source, she said. "At times, such interviews are the only way to uncover specific answers to key questions, confirm information from various sources, and ultimately gain a better understanding of a competitor's business goals, plans, activities, relationships, and more."
MarketingBase also provides business and market intelligence through researching thousands of databases, many of which are only available through commercial accounts that it maintains.
Kassel says CI research requires asking the right questions first and then delving deeply into multiple resources to find answers. While "some answers can, indeed, be uncovered through basic searches," there are skilled experts that can help businesses find what they need to know.
"CI research professionals are trained in both the art and skill of research and analysis, and devote entire careers to learning and using advanced Internet search techniques and proprietary/subscription-based databases that contain information not readily available from the Internet," Kassel said.
One organization that can help manufacturers find CI consulting experts is SCIP- Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals. SCIP is a global association that offers support tools in making competitive intelligence decisions. The group offers among its resources CI training webinars, publications, and conferences - including its 30th annual in Atlanta from May 11 to 14.
Nan Bulger, CEO of the San Antonio-based group, says manufacturers are an integral part of the association's membership. "Our manufacturing base includes supply chain executives, finance managers, and strategists."
Other organizations that offer competitive intelligence resources include AIIP, the Institute of Management Consultants, and the CI division of the Special Libraries Association.
Ivana Taylor, CEO of Third Force Marketing and publisher of the website DIYMarketers, says a CI program needs to be "firmly rooted in the only thing that matters -- getting your customer to choose your firm." Taylor, who managed the CI department at a pharmaceutical packaging company, and whose site helps small businesses and entrepreneurs with marketing automation tools, says what the competition is doing "is only relevant to the extent that they have something that your customer values more than what you have."
Lisa Anderson, president of Claremont, Calif.-based LMA Consulting Group Inc., which helps businesses achieve supply chain excellence and improve service levels, says industry trade associations are good places to start competitive intelligence projects, as they have trade data and insights into industry best practices.
"Using social media and your end-to-end supply chain is another value-added approach to gaining valuable insights," she added, saying that manufacturers can get valuable information by leveraging their supply chain partners.
Is do-it-yourself (DIY) CI an option? It depends, says Anderson.
"Certainly, with the increasing popularity of online tools and social media, it is becoming easier and more practical to use DIY CI research; however, complex research should be left to experts," Anderson noted. "One of the keys is whether the person performing the research asks the correct questions. This is where an expert is preferred, as the research will provide little value if it doesn't address the right questions."
Sagarese at Forrestal Consultants adds that an in-house CI program needs to be cognizant of legalities. "For legal reasons, most companies have a policy of not meeting with or discussing competitive issues with competition," Sagarese said. "Thus, this legal issue is one of the key reasons that companies use outside consultants or third parties."
Daniel Draz, principal at Fraud Solutions, a Chicago-based global fraud consultancy, also urges businesses to use caution in their CI activities. "There's a fine line between competitive intelligence and industrial espionage, theft of trade secrets, and intellectual property violations," he pointed out. "Given the fine line, executives and companies may think they're operating under the auspices of gathering competitive intelligence but find themselves running afoul of the law, and that's pretty easy to do. It's easy for CI to turn into theft of a trade secret."
CI Tools: Sites Enable One-Stop-Shop Research
For companies that want to perform CI research themselves, there are other tools available to them. Nexis Analyzer, for example, provides an end-to-end CI workflow solution that integrates research, monitoring, analytics, and visualization.
The tool leverages LexisNexis' vast collection of content of news; company intelligence reports; industry, country, and market intelligence; regulatory and legislative filings and actions; legal/case materials; public records; and intellectual property records. CI sleuths can conduct holistic research, identify market/competitor obstacles and opportunities, and find assets, connections, distress and investors.
Another LexisNexis CI resource is the LN Dossier library, which houses basic to detailed business information on more than 20 million global companies.
One more useful CI tool, from Thomson Reuters, is the Cortellis Competitive Intelligence product aimed at life-science professionals. Thomson Reuters offers benchmarking tools that can help executives at science enterprises compare their organizations with others.Benchmarking allows users to evaluate performance and trends in their organizations in relation to others.
Top photo courtesy winnond at FreeDigitalPhotos.netMichael Keating is senior editor for Government Product News and a contributing editor for American City and County, both published by Penton Media. Read his mid-year 2014 government budget and spending forecast at the Government Product News site. Go here for his report on how to land government business. Read his latest ThomasNet News installment on disaster planning here. Keating has written articles on the government market for more than 100 publications, including USA Today, Sanitary Maintenance, IndustryWeek, and the Costco Connection. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.