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Competitive Intelligence Spotlight #13: Amy Hutchins, Director of Competitive Intelligence at IBM

Amy Hutchins, Director of Competitive Intelligence for IBM

Amy Hutchins, director of Competitive Intelligence with IBM, recently spoke with ArchIntel regarding competitive intelligence (CI), regarding how to implement a united team, gather data and create reports to solve customers’ unique challenges in the sector. 

“When I first did this, I drank all the Kool Aid: The data, messaging, competitors’ commentary, and I constantly believed that we were in trouble. So much of the triangulation of data starves us for knowledge. That’s what we are constantly trying to develop our own skills around.”

ArchIntel: What is the overall strategy that you implement for competitive intelligence and how has that shifted over time?

“I learned about it when Lou Gerstner came into the fold. He was the first outside CEO back in the 1990’s. When he came in, he knew that IBM had truly built itself and was known to be at the technological and innovative forefront. 

He saw the value of bringing different parts of IBM together to bring value to our clients and be unique in the market. Gerstner’s interest in the market launched a competitive program that carries on today. 

Now, there are new competitors with a superior global reach that wasn’t available years ago. I find it fascinating to see how the focus of our competitors has shifted from a portfolio standpoint. 

Within competitive intelligence, you dance around the areas of a company. 

It’s been important for our team to keep track of all of that data and strategy to pass it from team member to team member to not only continue the dialogue, but also to draw from it as we explain culture changes in the company or new innovations.”

ArchIntel: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way IBM’s competitive intelligence team operates?

“When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, other firms started reporting and talking about how their workforces are different. How they move for clients to take on new technology as well as their concerns about supply chains and safety. These challenges hit us all at once. 

It was fascinating because we felt ready. We knew how some firms were already set up to work from home. We didn’t know how others were so we got to learn. We saw the different types of leadership take the personality within the company’s culture, rise up as part of COVID and the disruption that came about. 

Different leaders had different ways of protecting their workforce. Now, we really have a chance to use a lot of social tools to see how employees were connecting outside. There have been new opportunities for us to do our intelligence work that provided shape to understand these firms.

Personally, I feel like we’ve been able to benefit to a certain extent. While we’ve always been able to work remotely, we’re now all remote. We’ve been able to connect personally in our own context. In general, that’s helped our own team work more efficiently together in many ways. 

In terms of actually delivering on our competitive intelligence, we’ve had to also start working cross-function. We’re part of the internal market research group and we always do our own tracking of our own financial analysis. 

Now, we are relying more on social tools from our sister organization as part of our area. We’re working a lot more with marketing to understand how the company needs to appeal to customers and change the different sales experiences. 

Everyone’s gone virtual, but in many ways, people are trying to find how to have that personal connection with customers. It’s been interesting to find the little gems and how all of our competitors are doing it for us to learn what works for us.”

ArchIntel: How do you build an effective competitive intelligence team?

“Over the years we’ve had a competitive group as part of our market research organization at IBM. You can argue that we’ve consolidated and centralized divisions, but it’s always evolving. 

From our market research competitive group, we are trying to be strategic advisors into the top leaders of IBM. We operate with less than 50 people who focus on the top firms. 

After that, we have to vet that list pretty closely every year according to the entire IBM portfolio, which consists of a variety of industries and markets. You have to ask yourself: How do you do that? How do you cover that diversity? 

We share responsibility with others across our greater market research organization. The main thing that we consider is: how do we rotate people through these firms so they don’t get bored, but still maintain their institutional knowledge about these firms?

We try to rotate our people a lot because they can bring a different context and history. We also make our teams diverse in nature: men, women, all races, and across different areas of the world to view our competitors from different perspectives. We really try to find someone who understands the competitor’s culture and the business, as a starting point. 

From there, we have people from all walks, including former sellers, former marketers, former developers, who are all curious individuals. That’s what makes the analysts who follow each firm so great. They have a business context that allows us to have solid storytelling and communication skills. 

We can all talk about the data and what intelligence means, but if we can’t really share that information in piece parts to busy people who are trying to understand something, it’s hard for us to be effective. That’s where the diverse backgrounds come into play.”

ArchIntel: John Naisbitt, in 1982, said that we’re drowning in information, but starved for knowledge. Do you still find that to be true?

“When I first did this, I drank all the Kool Aid: The data, messaging, competitors’ commentary, and I constantly believed that we were in trouble. So much of the triangulation of data starves us for knowledge. That’s what we are constantly trying to develop our own skills around. 

When you get a data point, you have to test it against a variety of other conclusions in order to properly draw and create an assumption. Your theories are never going to be what you know from inside the company, but the ability and discipline to take a point, understand the context and unpack it is extremely important. 

That process will enable you to understand what can be trusted to see the real point of view that we can stand on. When we do things like a net promoter score (NPS) data, we could easily get thousands of verbatims back. That’s not because one person has had so many different entries. 

That’s how many people would have responded within a week or a month’s time. We have to be prepared to know not only how we want to use that data, but we use our own technology to structure the unstructured. 

We also have to ‘unstructure the structured’ to match words with numbers and understand what’s out there with so much volume. That’s what has become really interesting about how competitive intelligence is changing right now. 

Before, we would almost shy away from the data because of the time it would take to analyze it. Now, we can do that within hours and it’s about saying, ‘How do we get more to triangulate the information that is available?’”

ArchIntel: What are the challenges associated with a new company bringing in competitive intelligence for the first time?

“If you hire someone who has either done competitive intelligence before or has a curiosity in your competitors, you might actually overcome a lot of the inherent challenges. First, you need to decide if your competitive intelligence will be tactical or strategic. 

Once you’ve made that decision, you know the type of sponsorship you need across your leadership and the type of budget you’re going to need. It can also drive the type of skill you will need to hire, what type of research agenda they need as well as the data they need to work with to be efficient. You need to think about what you’re going to get out of the effort and time. 

You need to find the analytical ninjas. The people that know how to pull and analyze data really well. That’s a challenge for companies that don’t have a very mature competitive intelligence organization because if you’re not familiar, it’s hard to start. 

Overall, starting a competitive intelligence unit actually gets you going because you learn from what you’re missing and understand more about where you need to take your analysis. It will also enable you to adapt quickly if you’re not getting what you need.”

ArchIntel: What are the components of a competitive intelligence report? 

“When you draft a report, you have to ask what it is you’re trying to explain because then you talk about the key metrics and objectives. It also allows us to talk about the context. We always have a visual because the picture says more than words can, and then provides commentary.

The commentary allows us to make a recommendation, take an action or suggest a next step of what to do with this information. Those basics I’ve learned are very difficult for people to be able to master and commit to providing every time.

Whether it’s a competitor event, such as earnings results, people forget who their target audience  is for the report. Thinking about how a company performed is going to be very different when you make a recommendation for a seller versus a finance person. 

We’re constantly trying to keep all of these components unified. I found that the most important aspect is really the visual. That visual gets added to a library of others that we may have done. You really start to see a full picture, whether it’s about growth rate, acquisitions or seeing a competitor’s footprint evolve.”

ArchIntel: How do you gauge success within competitive intelligence?

“Before, success in competitive intelligence was always seen as having access to top leaders, having the opportunity to connect and converse with them. I don’t see that as something that’s measured as successful. It’s too focused. You’re unable to scale across a lot of people to make an impact on a business that requires an informed decision and recommendations on how to grow. 

I see success as developing strategic competitive intelligence that will help grow our share and understand what IBM does in the context of the world as well as how sellers talk about business using technology. 

Also, having the ability to do our competitive research in ways that feed different jobs to be done and contexts to stakeholders and decisions is how we’re going to be able to be successful.”