Action Item: Improve Your Intelligence
Still not convinced that tracking the competition is more important than ever? Then track down the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals. This nonprofit group, based in Alexandria, Virginia, has more than 6,000 members in 44 countries.
You don't have to be a professional snoop to like SCIP. Most of its members work in marketing, strategy, and finance. Its Web site is a crash course in improving your business intelligence. You can order a thorough collection of why-to and how-to books by leading gurus. Want to follow up with an author? Just search the SCIP database of 350 experts. And if you're looking for "human intelligence," this is the place to start: The site lists events, conferences, and seminars around the world.
But don't even joke that business intelligence means "spying" on the competition. SCIP just hates that word. Competitive intelligence "is not spying," the Web site insists. "SCIP's code of ethics forbids breaching an employer's guidelines, breaking the law, or misrepresenting oneself."
At $155 per year, SCIP's dues are a bargain. Members get a directory as thick as a big-city Yellow Pages, discounts on SCIP events, and subscriptions to Competitive Intelligence Review and Actionable Intelligence.
Coordinates: Call SCIP (703-739-0696) or visit the Web http://www.scip.org .
Smart Books on Business Intelligence
If you read all the books about monitoring the competition, you'd have no time left to follow their advice. Take our advice: Here are the three smartest books on competitive intelligence.
Competitive Intelligence: From Black Ops to Boardrooms - How Businesses Gather, Analyze, and Use Information to Succeed in the Global Marketplace. By Larry Kahaner (Simon & Schuster, 1996, $24). Kahaner is a former Washington correspondent for Business Week and the founder of KANE Associates International, a firm that deals with intelligence matters for corporate clients. Maybe that's why this book is both smart and fun.
Trade Secret: "One of the basic . . . forms of analysis is something called SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. SWOT gives a basic way of analyzing a competitor by filling in a matrix of the company's characteristics."
Corporate Espionage: What It Is, Why It's Happening in Your Company, What You Must Do About It. By Ira Winkler (Prima Publishing, 1997, $26). The spooky side of competitive intelligence - by a former spook.
Trade Secret: "Many people don't realize that [screen savers] almost always include a password protection feature. . . . [activating it] means that when people leave their desks . . . their computers are automatically locked."
The New Competitor Intelligence: The Complete Resource for Finding, Analyzing, and Using Information About Your Competitors. By Leonard M. Fuld (John Wiley & Sons, 1995, $35). The bible of competitive intelligence. Consult it for guidance on a wide range of problems.
Trade Secret: "Wherever money is exchanged, so is information."
He's Got Some Counterintelligence
Jan P. Herring, 60, has compiled a thick dossier on tracking the competition. he spent 20 years with the CIA. But he left the Company in 1983 to join a company - Motorola, where he established the first business-intelligence system based on national-security principles. In 1996, he started his own firm, Herring & Associates, based in Hartford, Connecticut.
Herring isn't very enthusiastic about the Web as a medium for tracking the competition. "People's expectations about what they can find on the Internet are too high," he insists. He shared his counterintelligence with Fast Company.
1. The best things in life aren't free.
"Free information is usually secondary information. And the problem with secondary information is that everyone else has access to it. It doesn't give you an advantage. You won't gain an advantage over other people unless you spend more time and money than they do. That means subscribing to syndicated services and databases - and, in some cases, paying people to work those databases. But ultimately, you want information that can't be found in any database."
2. Human intelligence beats machine intelligence.
"Most information never gets written down - it's just floating in people's heads. The only way to access that information is to talk to people. That's why the most valuable network is the human network. If you find an interesting paper on the Web, don't just download it - call the author after you read it. Attending conferences is still the best way to make connections and gather intelligence. You'll hear things that never make it onto the Net. And remember: The best information on your competitors comes from your customers."
3. Group intelligence beats individual intelligence.
"Tracking the competition is everyone's job. The more closely people work together, the better they do. For example, companies often send 15 or 20 people to a big trade show. But how often do those people bother to compare notes? Companies should do what's called 'quarterbacking.' At several points during the show, get into a huddle and ask: What have we learned? What else do we need to know? Eventually that quarterbacking mentality becomes an everyday thing."
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.