How to Gather and Organize Valuable Competitive Intelligence Information
Without good information, the organization can have no information advantage in its search for competitive intelligence, but what constitutes good information? The following benchmarks enable you to answer that question for yourself.
The volume of information required varies according to the question you’re trying to answer or the problem you’re trying to solve. You can’t measure it in megabytes or gigabytes or pages worth of documentation. The only real gauge is subjective: Are you confident that you have enough information to move forward?
The volume of available information is often determined by scope — how narrow or broad the question or problem is. If your scope is global, the volume of information needed is obviously much larger than if you’re focusing on a local or regional issue.
You really can’t have too much information, as long as the information can be sorted by date and other criteria. An overabundance of information becomes a problem only when the database is polluted with outdated, irrelevant content that can’t be filtered out.
If you’re looking back at what a competitor did in the past or at what customers are shopping for right now, you’re missing future opportunities. You must think three or four moves ahead, and to do that, you need information that helps you predict your competitors’ decisions, your customers’ needs, and market conditions months or years down the road.
A great way to think about this is to assume you’re in the notebook computer business for a moment. You already know what your competition is doing today, but that really doesn’t help you prepare a strategy for tomorrow. You need to assess the future needs of your users and consider processor speed, new software, internal memory requirements, social-media demands, new wireless technologies, and numerous other factors.
Steer clear of the common and most serious trap of focusing on information that merely provides insight into the present. Information that focuses on the present or the past is a tempting target because so much of it is readily available, but information that serves as a window to the future is much more valuable.
Not all information is relevant or even accurate. When you’re collecting information, part of your job is to filter out what’s useless, incorrect, misleading, or obtained illegally or unethically.
Source ranking: Certain sources are more reliable than others; for example, a newspaper or magazine article is more likely to contain accurate information than something you heard through the grapevine.
Triangulation: Checking a source against other sources can help validate the information or call it into question.
Ethical queries: Questioning whether the information was obtained legally and ethically is essential in determining whether you can use the information. For example, if the information is publicly available, it’s fair game. On the other hand, if it was obtained from an inside source during a private conversation, it can’t be used without the organization’s approval.
Competitors who are wise to CI may try to use deception against you by leaking false information and tempting you to squander resources in pursuit of phantom opportunities. Always cross-check your intel against information from other reliable sources.
Quality of intelligence is measured in depth and clarity:
Depth: Depth comes from understanding motives, leader tendencies, mission, and even an organization’s research focus so you can understand the information in context. To achieve depth of intelligence, ask plenty of open-ended questions, such as who, what, when, where, why, and how.
For example, if you happen upon an intriguing observation or insight, try to identify the individual who shared it and question the person’s motives for sharing it in the context in which it was shared. If you discover that the original source of the information was a competitor bragging about his business in a trade journal in which he advertises, some of the claims may be exaggerated.
However, if that same information came from an unbiased analyst, you may have greater reason to trust it. Having as much depth as economically feasible is always important.
Clarity: The most valuable information usually applies to the future, which is often fuzzy. Information that facilitates future-focused analysis tends to be vague or fragmented, so use cross-checks, ask questions, and consult additional sources to fill in the gaps.
Collecting high-quality information not only results in superior CI but also improves efficiency. One competent analyst is more valuable than 19 clueless ones.
Value is a metric that’s tough to pin down. It relies heavily on time relevance. Generally, the value of information rises as its relevance moves along the time continuum from past to future focused:
Historical information has very little value.
Information that provides insight into current conditions has limited value.
Information that sheds light on a potential threat or opportunity in the future has a very high value.
But value goes beyond time relevance. Value is really measured by the opportunities that the information has the potential to reveal or the pitfalls it helps you avoid. When evaluating your information’s value, ask the question, “Does our information enhance our ability to achieve our strategic goal or avoid a potentially costly mistake?” If you can honestly answer yes to that question, you have high-value information.
Organizing information is the key to using it and maximizing its value. In this age of technology, organization calls for storing information electronically and cataloging it so you can extract information selectively according to your intelligence needs.
You may consider indexing information by competitor, technology, product, geographical market, customer, strategic sector, and date. If you need to analyze some aspect of a competitor’s strategic goals, you can then extract information related to competitors without having to pick through information on products or customers.
As you gather and store information, your CI team needs to ensure that the information is organized and indexed in a manner that facilitates analysis.