Monday, January 01, 2007

Competitive Intelligence

In between watching the 7 p.m. fireworks (from the front steps), and the midnight fireworks (on TV), I spent New Year's Eve curled up with a good book, The Secret Language of Competitive Intelligence by Leonard Fuld.

The book is chocked with insightful, interesting anecdotes about successful practitioners of CI (as well as some cautionary tales), and is also full of good reminders about corporate strategy and business in general.

What I found most useful was the overall reminder that CI is not (just) about what your competitors are doing in the here and now, but where your competitors, your markets, and your customers are going, too.

Okay, this last sentence is no doubt drawing a big "Well, duh," from a lot of readers, but the point is that - especially in small companies, where I tend to hang my hat - if you devote any time to competitive analysis at all it's typically aimed at helping sales and/or figuring out what features you should add to your product. (Make that should have already added to your product.) You tell yourself you're doing CI because you look at "their" positioning, their feature list, their partner announcements - and then you spend a lot of time coming up with "here's what you should say when" documents to give to your sales guys. As Fuld points out, this data gathering is not really CI at all. In fact, it doesn't really count for all that much since it's information that's easily available to everyone else in the world, in the same way, shape, form, and time.

In Leonard Fuld's world, CI practitioners - who, he points out, should and can be pretty much anybody in the company - look for nuggets of information that not everyone will bother to think about. He cites an anecdote in which T. Boone Pickens figured out what his competitors were up to during his wild-catting days. Here's an excerpt from Fuld's interview with Pickens:
We would have someone who would watch [the rival's] drilling floor from a half mile away with field glasses...Our spotters would watch the joints and drill pipe. They would count them; each [drill] joint was thirty feet long. By adding up all the joints, you would be able to tally the depth of the well.
Alright, this may not have any direct applicability to the software world I live in, but it does tell me that by going a little out of your way you may be able to find things about your competitor that go beyond what you can read on their web site. (In the Pickens' case, deeper drilling = higher costs- a useful thing to know about a product that's coming downstream.)

Fuld also talks about staying ever on the alert for information gems that, one piece at a time may not be that meaningful, but when looked at together can start to tell a story. He writes about the usefulness of war games in which you assume the role of your competitors and start thinking through how they might be thinking. He offers tips on not getting yourself bogged down in endless, fruitless Internet searches.

I know that I'm not giving the book justice, and I'm sure that I'll be back at some point with more on this topic. Having just finished the book, I did want to "get it out there," and encourage others to take a look at it as well.

Especially for those of us who work in small companies where a department charged with Competitive Intelligence is a luxury good, where the focus is always on the here and now - how do we get this product out, how do we close this sale - it's useful to be reminded that sometimes you need to take a deep breath. Really thinking through where your competitors, your market, and your customers are going is not easy, and it's not without cost and risk. It's scary to think that if you took a really good hard look at "it", you might need to shift your focus, shift your priorities, shift your way of thinking.

That product that you just want to shove out the door and into the market may do just fine in the short term, but if you're not also looking at where things might be headed after next quarter, you're doing yourself and your company a longer term disservice.


Cahill said...

Insightful as always...

To my mind, most businesses make the mistake of aiming at the competition where they are now - but like the moving target they are, they have got to aim well ahead of the target. You've got to plan to head them off at the pass if you're going to get a leg up.

I also find that understanding how the competition views the industry and where it's headed to be very valuable - it can point to opportunities they might miss due to a particular bias or perception.

Leonard Fuld said...

I applaud your comment that even small businesses need competitive intelligence. That was my hope when I wrote this book. Fortune 500's, which represent a large portion of my clients, realize its value. Yes, they may have more "bodies" to throw at the problem, just not as many as you may think considering their size. All I can recommend to you and your readers is that by the time you read the so-called intelligence found in newspapers and CNBC, it's too late; everyone else knows the same item you know. You have little or no competitive advantage as a result. Competitive intelligence is found on the street, in the market, not through your Internet browser. Keep your eyes on the horizon and your ears on the rail. Competitive intelligence is an everyday job, not a once-a-year lark. Thank you passing this message along.