Competitive Intelligence Defined
In the very broadest sense, intelligence is anything that informs your ability to make decisions. Not merely hard facts and data, but also observations, guesses and all the other forms of human sensory, analytical and intuitive experience. Annual reports, website information, satellite imagery, overheard conversations, survey results, focus group discussions, store visits, speculation and hunches are all forms of intelligence.
Competitive intelligence then, is the harnessing of all forms of intelligence you can use to make decisions, with the overall goal of gaining sustainable strategic advantage.
In short, if you can get even one percent ahead of the competition through your intelligence activities, you may be able to gain a sustainable competitive edge that cannot be overcome. If you can do this quickly, affordably and ethically, you’ll become a better and more nimble strategist than your competition.
CI Past, Present and Future
The ideal use of CI is to predict future actions, yet of the firms that do CI, the vast majority focus on the past which provides little of predictive value. In the pre-Internet era, CI often consisted of gathering the competitors’ annual reports and sifting through them to see “how they did.” There is no doubt some value in examining a competitor’s past performance, especially in terms of financial indicators, cost structures and stated goals and plans, but this type of backward-looking CI should only be the starting point. Predicting the future actions of competitors is where the ultimate strategic advantage can be realized.
The next level up in sophistication is tracking what the competition is doing currently. The Internet makes this fairly easy and most smart companies are tracking changes in competitors’ website information, scanning for news headlines and staying alert to job postings that can be mined for future plans. Most companies also make use of surveys and focus groups to gain insight into consumer perceptions about their company and the competition. Some companies also undertake formal or informal mystery shopping activities to keep track of pricing, service levels and other competitive variables.
This information is critical to effective decision making, and when combined with historical CI, provides a potent tool for gaining strategic advantage. The problem is that you are still only dealing with what has happened in the past and what is happening in the present moment. The decisions that led to the competitor’s current behavior were made long ago. What if you could have predicted these decisions? What if you could have predicted them before the competitor made them? Here lies true strategic advantage and this is the highest goal that CI can aspire to.
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