Competitive Intelligence (CI) has yet to occupy a more strategic role in business, with its goals being more far-reaching than in recent years. A growing number of firms have begun to take a closer look at the benefits of implementing a CI programme. However, it will take a while because those firms still don’t really have a sense of what’s really all about and how to go about it.

Central to any business is its ability to sell products or services in a competitive environment, even in highly regulated industries. Business professionals work hard to be competitive, not only on behalf of the whole company but also within their own department or other capacity. Companies that have ruled their markets for years are especially at risk for overlooking ‘peripheral’ forces that change the familiar landscape.

CI is the deliberate practice of managing information to track and understand specific elements of the competitive environment that affect your ability to succeed. It’s important to note the distinction between CI and corporate espionage. A company CI Unit won’t steel other’s secrets; it will gather legally available information and organise it, analyse it, and distribute it to those in the company that can use it. The primary purpose of CI is to serve the day-to-day information needs of many departments.

Senior management of a firm that is currently considering to set up a CI Unit must answer these three questions first and preferably come to an agreement before any time or money spent.

FocusWhat do we want to achieve and how to approach the assignment?
Money - How much is that going to cost us?
ProcessesHow are we going to do it?

The “What” question covers Attitude, Objectives and the course of Action.

Attitude is the way of approaching a CI project. The best route is to establish performance indicators which will include financial measures that can be compared with total project cost and to express this by using ROI as widely accepted standard. If your board fails to identify positive ROI from this exercise upfront then, they will always be reluctant to commit resources and funds when needed and keep seeing CI Unit as a doubtful cost centre i.e. first in a row for the next ‘cost-cutting’.

The most common objectives to be achieved by the CI Unit can be listed as follows:
• Identify threats,
• Protect profits,
• Retain key customers,
• Identify opportunities and win new customers,
• Attach competitors’ relative weaknesses,
• Improve key business processes,
• Monitor competitors’ moves and provide early warnings,
• Identify competitors’ strategies and improve responses to competitors’ actions.

The company can set up the action by using one of the following CI Models or a ‘cocktail’ of both: Radar (wide focus area – sometimes 360 degree) vs. Target (narrow focus e.g. key competitors only, key market, etc).

As soon as you set up the expectation for your CI Unit’s ROI you can decide on its resources and budget and start operating on ‘make – buy’ principle. In the beginning, it will be useful to break CI Unit’s actions in to mini projects and measure ROI for each one. Early successes will provide much needed ‘buy-in’ for the future.

As for any new project the board must find and appoint a ‘champion’ – senior executive to lead the CI Unit and to be responsible and accountable for its actions and results. This person must comply with the company’s ‘code of ethics’ as well as with any legal framework that may apply.

Finally, the CI Unit has to identify and decide on the processes it wants to apply. These should include:

• Build a collection plan. Collecting information is about gleaning insights from competitors’ Web sites and public filings. It’s about chatting with industry peers at trade shows. You can search newspapers, industry publications and newsletters or use paid-for information. As soon as you decide on methods you must agree on best practice e.g. (a) person to person collection skills, (b) telephonic interview skills, (c) trade shows, etc.
Analysis of raw data;
Storage of information;
Dissemination of information.

Good database about competitors will probably include the following fields: Organisation, Location, Businesses, Mission, Customer Base, CEO, Employees, Annual Sales, Differentiation, Region, Ownership, Structure and Analytic Summary.

Somewhere down the line you can expect the following key stumbling blocks: (1) organisational culture preventing open knowledge sharing and feedback, (2) insufficient funding, (3) intelligence team lacks sufficient clout, and (4) executives do not recognize the value of CI. Likewise, the use of technology is identified as a key enabler, allowing transparency and rapid transfer of intelligence across the organisation thereby facilitating a knowledge-sharing culture.

Certainly the benefits of competitive intelligence aren't limited to corporations. From nations to nonprofits, organisations of all types experience competition that can be identified, understood, monitored, and anticipated. CI provides an efficient and effective process and framework for developing those capabilities, and it produces deliverables that help organisations formulate and test their strategies and tactics.

CI has to stay focused on delivering actionable (and correct) results to willing customers, developing deeper penetration in the most important decisions their companies face, and ensuring that people are adhering to the basic principles that keep companies safe from litigious distractions.