Get Smart About The Other Guy

Do your homework. It's amazing how many companies don't. Lazy, complacent, or simply unaware, thousands of corporate executives routinely make critical business decisions--from whether to build a plant to whether to start producing a new product--based on incomplete information about the competition. What they should be doing is systematically gathering "competitive intelligence". Best guesses are that only 10% of all U.S. companies do so today.

Competitive intelligence isn't industrial espionage, and while it may sound cloak-and-dagger, it isn't. Competitive intelligence (CI) is, quite simply, the gathering of every bit of legally obtainable information that will help a company do better than its rivals. More than anything else, it requires persistence and ingenuity. Depending on your business, the sources of useful information can be both unusual and bountiful. Some corporations, such as Monsanto and Eastman Kodak, have formalized this process through CI departments, and not a few have even employed former Central Intelligence Agency analysts to conduct competitive intelligence.

Outside the U.S., of course, tough players have long pursued every avenue--sometimes illegal--in their attempt to outsmart the competition. In the U.S., industrial espionage and theft are crimes that now carry heavy penalties, and rightly so. But if executives at American companies were more assiduous about legally ferreting out intelligence on their competitors--information that very likely is right before their noses, on the Web or in obscure uniform commercial code filings, for instance--they'd go a long way toward putting their companies on a stronger footing globally. They'd be more efficient in their spending and investing. Ultimately, consumers would profit, too.

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