On November 2nd, a dozen or so MLIS students (Day, Evening, and Distance students) attended an event on competitive intelligence sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Chapter of SLA. …You say you’re still not quite sure what competitive intelligence is? Well you’re not alone! When panel speaker Nick Abbott took the mic and asked the audience who could define CI, nary a person in the roomful of information professionals raised their hand or spoke up in reply. Thankfully, Abbott (in Biotech Research at Lehman Brothers) and co-speaker Steve Storms (Director of CI for Weyerhauser), took the opportunity to share some very accessible stories about their professional experiences with competitive intelligence – highlighting how they got involved in CI, and how they have used CI.
But just in case you feel you can go no further without a formal definition of CI, the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) defines CI as "the legal and ethical collection and analysis of information regarding the capabilities, vulnerabilities, and intentions of business competitors." (Also check out the local Puget Sound chapter of SCIP.)
SCIP was created in 1986, a timeframe which seems to mark the coinage of the phrase “competitive intelligence.” It was around this time that Steve Storms first started using CI at Weyerhauser. At this time, Storms explained, CI was “very secretive. It was cloak and dagger kind of stuff- you weren’t even supposed to tell people in your own company what you were doing.” But oddly enough, while the internal corporate atmosphere toward CI may have been close-mouthed at that time, the atmosphere within the paper industry as a whole was still very open: Storms explained that if his team wanted to learn what was going on at competitors’ plants, they would just…go check them out: “We used to go visit their mills, they would come visit ours – no problems. Things have changed!” As the climate and tolerance for this sort of openness changed, the industry was also growing rapidly. And so, Storms explained, Weyerhauser’s CI strategy had to change to accommodate this growth: “We had to develop methodologies to change our approach. We used to go to all the mills, but when 10 turned into 20 turned into 30, it became impossible.”
Having worked to advance Weyerhauser’s CI project over two decades, Storms is now uniquely qualified to talk about what makes CI valuable to a company. One time in particular, Storms recounted, a product consultant who had been brought in to evaluate a particular product line said to Storms: “You have a million dollar database there, you’d never be able to do that now.” To which Storms replied: “I know, it took twenty years to do it.” However, Storms emphasized that effective CI is not just about keeping a database of competitors and industry information. Rather it’s about facilitating communication and information flow, and staying central to the dynamics and needs of the organization:
“The goal is to figure out – all the information that we’ve collected, how to use it. I collected all this information, now I want to share it. Being central is very important. Most companies are very top-down, and by the time you get down to the bottom there’s not a lot of communication sideways. Unless you break that top-down line of communication, and can communicate directly…In one lunch conversation I was able to help one of our mills keep from shutting down and in the process steal some customers from a competitor! There’s absolutely no way that this information could have traveled top-down.
…So I make a special effort to go up and wander around management, to go jogging with them or whatever it takes, make sure that you keep in front of them. …You have the information, you’ve got to share it. It doesn’t do you any good to keep it! …80-90% of the info that you need to know is already within your organization. You feel like the ombudsmen – the information is there, and you’re making connections and cross ties. These people don’t talk to each other! The communication can make a big difference to the profitability of your company.”
In a similar vein, Nick Abbott (talking about his prior experiences in CI at Immunex, now Amgen) described using incentives to pull employees in on CI:
“We relied on having people help us. We had a ‘CI champion of the month’ award. …It mostly went out to people in the field; they’re out there all the time getting information. …And we would also send a letter to their boss, saying ‘so-and-so really helped us out this month.’”
Of course, there’s also the issue of acceptance – how do you get people on board with CI? In addition to incentives, Abbott talked about two other methods – building interest, and building familiarity. First, he explained, the CI team “aimed to be as provocative as we could be.” Next, they developed an internal branding strategy: “We developed a logo and brand, we had someone in marketing do it, all colored and nice. Then people [within the company] made a binary decision – they either recycled it or trusted us.”
But though Abbott cited the “90% of what you need to know is in your own organization” adage, he also emphasized the importance in the Biotech industry of crossing over into “the academy” (i.e. the teaching/research community):
“A lot of the people who really have finger on the pulse of the industry work in the academy, not in your company. Sit down next to people at networking events, talk to them, and pick up on body language.” But with regard to cross-industry and competitor monitoring, Abbott also stressed the significance of ethical behavior. After all, he said, “you want to become famous for doing something good, not infamous.”
Finally, Abbott made two other important recommendations:
- Provide actionable intelligence. (“You can say ‘here are 50 pages, go away and figure it out for yourself’, or you can say ‘here’s the 1-page synthesis’. If they’re not going to get the picture in 3 bullets, they’re not going to get the picture. Here’s what we found, here’s what we think it means, here’s what we think we should do. It has to be actionable.”)
- Focus on decisions that have high impact for the organization. (“When the CFO stands up and waves your white paper around and says ‘this is the kind of thing we should be doing’, you know you had an impact.”)