Chris Reichert, vice president of Strategy with Hexagon US Federal, recently spoke with ArchIntel regarding competitive intelligence (CI), and how the new business model has shaped the government contracting (GovCon) sector. He also discussed how this model will continue to evolve moving forward, as the world changes with COVID-19, data and evolving technology.
“I’m the vice president for strategy, providing oversight of business development, sales enablement, marketing, internal and external communication. Competitive intelligence is wrapped into a lot of different job functions and is deeply embedded in pretty much everyone’s role within our organization.”
ArchIntel: What are the lessons you’ve learned throughout your career in strategy and competitive intelligence?
“In our industry of defense, intelligence and national security, along with the solutions we build and continue to support, every person is essentially a sensor in regards to competitive intelligence.
In terms of lessons learned, I would say first and foremost that the term competitive intelligence can mean different things to different people. You need to be able to think and act ethically when you’re trying to understand potential competitors and businesses in this market before enacting any type of CI strategy.
We live in a digital world and information travels fast. Another lesson I’ve learned is to take gathered intelligence with a grain of salt. Trust me, nothing is ever as good or bad or as it is the first time you hear the information.
You need to be able to receive and collect intelligence or information with the caveat of verification. As we’ve seen them in the industry though, in terms of solutions for competitive intelligence, open source is a good thing. There is a lot of free information out there that has been vetted.
As much as you can provide information to customers, colleagues, competitors and partners, it’s an enabler for you to be considered as a trusted entity to receive information. When we navigate what competitive intelligence means in this constantly evolving world we’re living in, we have to wonder if what you ‘know’ is that much of a differentiator or helpful anymore for organizations.
There is so much information available in the marketplace. Information is not a barrier to entry anymore for firms who also have the ability to pay for a lot of this data already. When you get into the classified and some of the Government on-site programs, it becomes a little bit of a different situation. You have to ask yourself how helpful is the competitive intelligence that is out there, given the context of the problem you are trying to solve?
One of the approaches, especially in an environment and era where we need to do more with less, is we spend a lot of time focusing on what we do really well to create comprehensive, cutting-edge solutions that the customer needs.
Most importantly, you need a vision and strategy for the company to help focus on the who, what, where, when and also determine how much to invest and how to collect the competitive intelligence you need to be successful. You should ask yourself, ‘what do we want to focus on and not focus on,’ and then you can drive the CI around your vision and strategy.”
ArchIntel: From a strategy standpoint, how do you compete within competitive intelligence?
“Competition is reliant on the people that you have on your team. There are services and resources that you can pay for and gain access to certain databases and reports, as long as the company’s willing to spend that money. Everyone’s dealing with the same information. It really just comes down to the people that you build around your intelligence cycle.
It’s educating all employees, from program managers to engineers, on competitive intelligence to ensure that they understand what’s happening in the marketplace from their respective roles. It’s also important to have a diversity of backgrounds, life experiences, career paths and ways of thinking about competitive intelligence.
People are going to interpret things in different ways and collect information in various ways, so having that diversity in your workforce will grow your vision and strategy. You’ll be able to get a different type of feedback from those folks. If you have different sensors that are collecting different information from different viewpoints, it’s more valuable to see the entire picture.”
ArchIntel: In 1982, John Naisbitt wrote that we are drowning in information but starved for knowledge. Do you think that is still true today?
“That is certainly true and becomes more so each day. Big data is still a buzzword in the industry, but now it’s in the terms of collecting data. Because of new, faster, and better sensors that both the commercial and Government industries are building and deploying, we have to figure out what to do with this information. How do we analyze it, archive it, make it searchable and retrievable?
This is also true with competitive intelligence on the industry side. There’s so much more data out there that you have access to, but we have to understand how to sort through it and discern what is accurate, and not accurate, to discover the full picture.
There is a lot of information processing. The key is turning that information into actionable knowledge. The environment that we live in now is more of an instant world. You have information readily available at your fingertips. The general reaction is to actionize that information very quickly, whereas it might be to your detriment to work within that mentality.
As you collect more and more information, it becomes overwhelming. Your inclination is to start doing things rather than step back to ensure that the information you have is correct and develop knowledge-based outcomes from that information and then act on it.”
ArchIntel: What advice would you offer on building a competitive intelligence team to ensure efficiency?
“It’s imperative to build a team with people that have legitimate connections and credibility based on the industry, agency and technical requirement that you’re trying to collect intelligence on. I look for people that are trying to have conversations with individuals to gather specific intelligence on what has or will happen.
People with credibility within a government agency, an industry partner or have a strong background in a specific technical skill set that is important to you is essential to collect information, but also to sort through it and make the right decisions.
I look for employees that are in government agencies and have insight into some of those programs, but also have the ability to engage them in dialogue. Those people will give you an idea of what’s going on, what’s working, what’s not, pain points with the customer and how you can solve missions, better, faster and more efficiently.
It’s also helpful to leverage sources that might have information in terms of what’s happening in the Legislative branch, including congressional appropriations and budgets.”
ArchIntel: What are the most common challenges you face within competitive intelligence?
“You have to be able to determine if the information and data that you’ve collected is accurate, especially in an environment where there’s an abundance of available information. Trusting your sources is extremely important and a huge challenge.
In a cleared environment where a lot of work is being done on government sites by contractors, it’s harder to gather the full picture of that environment. You could have a piece of the puzzle, but without context, other pieces and elements of the situation, you can never be certain of its accuracy.
As you are operating in the national security framework, there are oftentimes publicly available statements of work. However, unless you are helping to deliver that system, embedded on site or involved in that specific project, it’s very difficult to connect the dots on what is being delivered in execution of the contract.
Once the contract is won, there are nuances of how it’s being delivered on-site, which makes it very hard to collect that accurate competitive intelligence perspective.
It’s more tactical and hopefully short-lived, but a current challenge is the global pandemic that we’ve been facing. A large element in our environment is being able to have face-to-face conversations. There are no conferences, no trade shows and no travel, so that’s certainly a huge impediment to us in at least the short term.”
ArchIntel: How has the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the framework of competitive intelligence?
“Information isn’t necessarily more scarce. It definitely adds a different complexity to collecting information. A lot of the national conferences and trade shows that occur are no longer running due to COVID-19. The value of in-person meetings is not only getting your brand awareness out there, but having the face-to-face meetings with partner companies, customers and competitors.
At those conferences, it’s implied that conversations are going to happen in person much more naturally. Now, there are more phone calls and emails, and it’s harder to have those free-flowing dialogues with information exchange. One-on-one over the phone just isn’t as natural.
It’s more challenging to collect that information in a broader scope, but it’s not a problem that’s unique to one company. COVID-19 is changing the dynamic for most companies. The companies that have a large presence on existing programs, or have individuals and employees that work at government locations, exist in an embedded feedback loop.
The pandemic has created an environment where competitive intelligence is more important when you can’t formalize the competitive intelligence process. You rely on your staff, who are still going to mission-essential jobs on government sites every day, and you have increased dialogue with them on what they’re hearing and seeing from the federal agencies.”
ArchIntel: How will technology and global advancements change the way you operate within competitive intelligence moving forward?
“If there is a silver lining from a business perspective, it would be that the pandemic has enabled businesses to see how they can achieve their goals differently, better and faster. From a CI perspective, I think that people overcome the past ‘status quo’ work environment, where they were more reluctant to share information.
We’ve all been in this together, so I think there is going to be willingness to share more information over the phone rather than keeping things held so close. There will be changes. I don’t know specifically how that’s going to manifest, but certainly this is going to have an impact in a lot of ways as different types of businesses are adapting.”