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John Steckel, vice president of Business Development (BD) with AMERICAN SYSTEMS recently spoke with ArchIntel regarding the structure of competitive intelligence within AMERICAN SYSTEMS, a private company, how technology has evolved the standards of analysis, how to measure success within competitive intelligence (CI), as well as the ways to create and manage a CI effective team. 

“We do not have a dedicated competitive intelligence team as we believe that the success of our CI program is deeply ingrained in our culture of accountability.  Philosophically, everyone is a part of the AMERICAN SYSTEMS competitive intelligence team. Being a 100% employee-owned company with an associated culture of accountability around sustained profitable growth puts everyone in the mindset of shared responsibility. 

In this sense, everyone understands the importance of competitive intelligence and sharing it across the company is second nature.  To me, the success of a CI program is at the opportunity level. How often does the CI help us win new business and grow the company?  Our competitive win rate suggests that our culture-based approach is right for us.” 

ArchIntel: What are the benefits and challenges of sharing responsibility for competitive intelligence and company success across the entirety of AMERICAN SYSTEMS?

“An important aspect of our accountability culture is owning your responsibility.  No one is going to figure things out for you…it’s you, you gotta own it.  Since we are all accountable for growth, we all own it and that includes all the aspects of making sustainable growth happen. Figuring out the competitive intelligence is part of that responsibility. Checking in with each other and sharing the CI from recent pursuits against the same competition, filling in the holes, and shaping the landscape for each other comes naturally, again.    

With respect to CI specifically, one of the challenges I’ve seen over the years in other companies is ownership, or rather a lack of ownership, of the responsibility to gather the intel. When organizations, or individuals within an organization, don’t take ownership. They may become victims of a lack of information, or just ignore it. They can also become victims of misinformation, poorly-sourced information, or gaps in information. When you have ownership of the responsibility, you’re more accountable to getting it done right. You have to know it’s the best you can get and then you use it in your decision-making process.  You look for multiple points of view and data points to either support a hypothesis or provide a new analysis.

ArchIntel: What makes AMERICAN SYSTEMS’ CI team different?

“At AMERICAN SYSTEMS, our BD Managers and Capture Managers are accountable for understanding their customers, competitors, and markets. They own it…someone else doesn’t own it for them.  And that’s one of the benefits that I see with AMERICAN SYSTEMS—the culture of accountability. Here we have people more engaged with customers and working to understand what’s happening in their environment. They become more of an expert. 

The program managers and other people in operations understand this accountability and how it can improve competitiveness. They freely share their information, knowledge, and experience. That responsibility and accountability enables a joint and balanced understanding and immersion in the customer and competitive environment.”

ArchIntel: How do you make bids and approach new markets with shared responsibility CI over specific leadership?

“We make bid decisions and approach new markets just like any other company.  We have formal processes to review opportunities in a cross-functional environment.  The big difference we have is rather than have a CI specialist presenting intel and analysis about the opportunity, our BD Managers and Capture Managers do it. They are the ones who collect the CI, analyze it, and make recommendations on bids and new markets.”  

ArchIntel: How does not having a dedicated CI Team affect things like Price-to-Win?

“We do have price to win specialists at AMERICAN SYSTEMS. They are just like other Price-to-Win specialists in our industry and have the responsibility of running the models to develop price to win recommendations. The BD team helps the PTW team analyze the CI needed to run the PTW models. I want my entire team to understand what price to win is and the models used to develop it. This allows the team to understand what types of information the PTW team needs and help ensure that it’s relevant, actionable and appropriate.”

ArchIntel: How do you balance your team’s workload to fill all of the information gaps?

“Our BD Managers are accountable for their own segments. They’re responsible for coordinating the activities on the front end, such as developing and executing a strategy. They work across the delivery teams to coordinate activities that put us in a better position to win. Part of this is developing the Key Intelligence Topics and coordinating the collection of CI across the company.”

ArchIntel: In 1982, John Naisbitt said, “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.” Do you still find this theory applicable and how do you address that challenge?

“Yes, I think that’s even more of a challenge today. To address this challenge, you have to go back to the fundamentals of competitive intelligence. That is key. You have to understand the question, then go find the information to help you develop an answer. Otherwise, you may get lost in the data. You have to take the time to plan out what questions you’re looking to answer, create the Key Intelligence Topics, and prioritize them to drive your research. 

It revolves around your focus. It’s understanding exactly what information you need to either support or not support the hypothesis you have as a business when it comes to your position.” 

ArchIntel: How do you manage data across your business?

“We use a CRM database to store information by account and by customer.  It’s a database that anyone who works the BD process can access. Within that system, we have information on past performance, lessons learned, and information on opportunities and customers.  The goal is to create a data pool that we can leverage throughout our new business processes.”

ArchIntel: How do you measure success within competitive intelligence?

“Our goals with CI are similar to those of public companies: to have a solid understanding of what the customers are wanting to do, to get an understanding of what competitors are doing, and to understand what can help us make decisions that put us in a competitive position.  

The challenge with all competitive intelligence is you have to figure out how to distill the data into actionable information. We teach basic analysis techniques that help us with that data distillation, so everyone understands how to do it.  The key is keeping our focus on helping us make decisions that put us in a good competitive position.”

ArchIntel: How is competitive intelligence unique for the government contracting (GovCon) sector? 

“What really makes CI in the government market unique is that the government is very transparent. Yes, there are things that happen behind the customer’s “acquisition curtains.” In general, it’s incredibly transparent and provides you with so much information. 

When I worked in the Business-to-Business and Business-to-Consumer industries, we were always challenged to gain a good understanding of a customer’s ‘requirements.’ We did focus groups, conducted surveys, did market tests—you name it—to get information on what the customer wanted.  Or at least what they thought they wanted.   But the majority of the time, even with all that primary research on what the customer wants, you never really got the right information.  So, it’s kind of nice to work in the Business-to-Government world where customers are way more open about stating their requirements.” 

ArchIntel: How do you determine which information is actionable?

“To determine if something is actionable, you have to determine if it helps you to make a decision that somehow affects the outcome or potentially affects the outcome that you’re looking for. 

When you develop a strategy, you set a goal or desired end-state.  Your strategy is about taking the right actions to help you get to that goal.  Actionable competitive intelligence helps you frame those actions and make the decisions to help reach your goal.”

ArchIntel: How has competitive intelligence technology advanced?

“I’ve been in this industry for over 18 years. And before that over a decade as a marketing manager in the commercial world.  When I first entered the space, we didn’t have the technology like we do today. A lot of CI was based on personal relationships, analyzing the government budget by hand, looking for opportunities from FedBizOps publications, things like that.  Now we have tremendous online tools from a variety of data aggregators that not only provide information on opportunities, but some very good analysis of opportunities, budgets, market trends, you name it. 

Although most of these tools are subscription based, many are now accessible through APIs that can link into your CRM and automatically feed information directly into your opportunity records.  When you take that capability and add in collaboration tools like SharePoint and OneNote, you can make some very advanced CI technology available to those who need it.”

ArchIntel: How has COVID-19 transformed competitive intelligence moving forward?

“This is another area where our culture of accountability has served us well. As I mentioned above, our delivery teams understand they have a role to play in developing CI.  They are the ones that are closest to the action.  They freely share what they hear, and we build it into our strategy.  I think the impact COVID-19 has had on how we work will dramatically impact CI moving forward. Before COVID-19, the focus of CI was developing customer affinity and leveraging it to gather information for deeper customer understanding.  

The challenge in the world of COVID-19 is that the one-on-one, in-person customer interface has been replaced by ZOOM or TEAMS calls. If teleworking continues to gain momentum, both in industry and in the government, it’s going to be harder to establish the relationships and levels of trust needed to make a virtual customer interface work. In the future, our program teams may actually become more of a resource for competitive intelligence.”

ArchIntel: How useful is Porter’s Model for building an effective strategy?

“Porter’s Model is a very effective model for building a strategy.  We used to use Porter’s Model as a basis for strategy at FedEx. I continued to use it throughout my career.  It’s always been a very strong model to work from. It gives you a great set of parameters to help define what drives your marketplace. It helps you realize factors and threats that may impact your business. The challenge is determining how to apply it. You have to adapt it based on your industry and the segment. 

If you’re working for a product-based company, you would have a different adaptation of the model than a service-based company.  But, no matter what type of business you’re in, the model is a good one to use to understand your competitive environment.” 

Jeremy Ross, vice president of business development and proposals at Trace Systems recently spoke with ArchIntel regarding success, lessons, proposals and data collection and analysis within competitive intelligence as well as how understanding the trends and bidding thoughtfully can grow revenue and notoriety within the government contracting (GovCon) sector. 

“The best practice when you’re starting out as a smaller company is to make sure that competitive intelligence informs your strategy, it doesn’t become your strategy. ”

ArchIntel: What are some of the lessons you’ve kind of learned within the field of competitive intelligence?

“I’ve seen the competitive intelligence process from a couple of different perspectives. The most significant lesson that I’ve learned is that not all CI is created equal. Based upon the number of resources you have as a company, you can make value tradeoffs on how you’re going to use competitive intelligence. 

Larger organizations have their own shop dedicated to large amounts of data aggregation and put their findings into context to easily guide decision making. Here at Trace, we have to use our competitive intelligence specific to opportunities that we think that we can prime. That’s a completely different operation and mindset. 

When you break our process down to use as few resources as possible, the main lesson is that there will always be a dark horse out there. You cannot account for that when you have limited resources to use. The best practice when you’re starting out as a smaller company is to make sure that CI informs your strategy, it doesn’t become your strategy. 

Competitive intelligence should not be mistaken for total knowledge of your current competitive positioning. In any bid environment, 80 percent of the data is the best you can hope to find. You need to account for the other 20 percent, which could be full of unknowns or people you know. 

As a mid-tier company, when you’re looking at your competition that is five-times your size and scale, there are two ways you can look at that situation. You can view it as an opportunity to be more nimble and be smart about where you attempt to gather data, or you can allow yourself to be overwhelmed and think, ‘I can’t compete in this space.’ 

I spend most of my time figuring out my competitors’ weaknesses and what our larger competitors are lacking. I vector my competitive intelligence on where they are not flexible. I also research exactly where they have resources positioned across the globe that could provide them with the information to out-influence us.”

ArchIntel: How do you personally measure success within competitive intelligence?

“In competitive intelligence, success is ultimately judged by your win rate. It should be one of the primary factors on your bid decisions. At Trace, we don’t fall into the vicious cycles of thinking we have to bid on everything in order to maintain rhythm in the market or utilize our business development and proposal staff appropriately. 

We’ve taken the time to prepare for bigger opportunities and understand the preparation needed for that challenge. As long as the capture continues, the competitive intelligence continues and we refresh our artifacts and write our eventual draft proposals. That’s equally as successful to me as working hard to expand within a given market segment. 

Also, successful competitive intelligence informs your ability to pick the right market segments and more importantly, adjacent market segments. You will win a lot more because you know your competition and your customers. You know your own strengths, weaknesses and differentiators will also help you win new work within those segments. 

You have to do a capability-to-capability assessment. If you get down to the nuts and bolts, you can make an offering that’s truly unique and better than what larger competitors have to offer. We use competitive intelligence to find out why our competition can deliver offerings cheaper and see if it’s actually an innovative approach. 

Competitive intelligence should reveal the companies that are on the bleeding edge of trends to differentiate themselves in a solution-driven draft procurement instead of entering a particular area and focusing on staff augmentation.”

ArchIntel: How is competitive intelligence within the government contracting (GovCon) sector unique?

“Competitive intelligence in government contracting is unique because so much information is publicly available. What differentiates the GovCon competitive intelligence is your ability to boil down your data and then how it’s applied to a specific agency or contract. 

Understanding your bid environment is crucial to how I do business development and win work in competitive intelligence. Tactically speaking, that’s where intelligence is the most helpful. CI is beyond just knowing what federal agencies are doing; it’s also about what their contracting trends. 

That type of data will help inform the way that we approach pricing, solutions, staffing and transition as well as understand their award trends based upon the best-value continuum. That is unique to the GovCon sector. 

Within GovCon, we’re not trying to sell to a certain personality. We’re trying to sell to a bureaucracy that even if they don’t know, takes on a personality of itself, and reveals itself through competitive intelligence trend data.”

ArchIntel: How do you balance privacy and confidentiality of federal agencies when developing competitive intelligence?

“Competitive intelligence becomes table stakes. Everybody’s going to know the same amount of data because there’s a limited amount of information you need to know. But at the same time, you still have your competitive intelligence and spin it because if you actually don’t know the same things that your competition does, you’re fighting with one hand behind your back and you wouldn’t even know it. 

You have big organizations and capture organizations that can break through that wall through previous relationships or creative contact-chaining analysis. That’s how you get additional data that can really help you earn an advantage. 

Whereas on the outside of the government, there are no restrictions. However, you have to use your competitive intelligence to understand what federal agencies are trying to achieve and understand the end state objective from within the government itself.” 

ArchIntel: How do you continue to improve and progress your competitive intelligence?

“We don’t learn what the winning bid is until you lose yours. We receive a significant amount of additional information, which could be construed as competitor intel when we lose. However, there are things we never find out. 

Half the time, you can find out where your competition scored ratings, wise on your technical and management proposal, but you never find out the price from other competitors. You only know what your final tap was and what the winning price was. When you lose, you find out where you stacked up technically and management-wise to the eventual winner. 

You almost always get a price analysis as well as what your total evaluated price was versus theirs. Contracting officers will also release that data on all of the losers, to each of the losers. 

When we enter into any bid, we should always assume that the competition can score blue. If we lose, we complete an after-action and start peeling back the onion to see we didn’t really lose on price, but we lost because we didn’t score tactically as well as they did. 

You can see that in some specific comments that were made in our debrief. We took those comments from our debrief, went back to our proposal, corrected everything that was there and created a process on how we were going to stack up in the future. 

After that, we apply our improvements to how we approached our technical solution and pricing for the next contract. We knew what we had to fix, and, most importantly, how the government would evaluate some aspects that were left gray in the proposal. We’re able to apply that to our next submission. 

Without that data, we wouldn’t have made some of the changes that we did. That’s the best case scenario where you have trends. It actually shows you something usable in your decision making.”

Market research analysts at Technavio predict that the global IT as a service market will grow steadily at a CAGR of more than 22% by 2021.(Technavio)

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