Erik Glitman, founder and chief executive officer of Fletcher/CSI, recently spoke with ArchIntel regarding lessons and challenges within competitive intelligence, ethical and legal implications of data collection and how to create a well rounded team of analysts that provide different perspectives. He also discussed the purpose of competitive intelligence and how to stay ahead of competition.
“I’ve found that for a lot of company competitive intelligence departments, the purpose of competitive intelligence information collection. However, the real purpose of CI is to drive decisions within the organization. Competitive intelligence looks for specific actions that the company can take to position for better success in the market space, and those actions are informed through data collected on competitors.”
ArchIntel: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned regarding competitive intelligence?
“I’ve learned, over many years of conducting competitive intelligence, how accessible most information is. If there’s something you want to know, and you have a reasonably good skill set within research, you can find almost anything you need to know.
We often cite that about 80 percent of the information you need for competitive analysis is available through online and public sources. The other 20 percent requires specific CI skills and actions to identify information sources and tailored research, which can be done legally and ethically.
Through secondary data collection and specific CI actions, you can obtain approximately 95 percent of the desired information, so 95 percent of what you need, you can acquire ethically and legally.
Some of the information can be complex, but it’s available, you just have to look. That’s a competitive intelligence lesson, and it’s also a life lesson. For example, you’re driving down the road, you see a truck that has a label on the side of it from a company you’ve never heard of before.
You can go online to find the trucking company and know where they’re coming from. I might even be able to track down a couple of top clients and customers they have and make an educated guess about what’s on that truck.
That is competitive intelligence. Answering questions using research and analysis skills. Competitive intelligence is about satisfying curiosity and there’s so much information you can find when you’re curious. You can answer so many questions with competitive intelligence tools.”
ArchIntel: What are some of the underappreciated aspects of being a competitive intelligence analyst?
“Oftentimes, companies that are trying to start a competitive intelligence department want to know what kind of people to hire. From our experience, the best analysts we have share a couple of common traits.
First, they are innately curious. They want to know the answers to the questions; not because someone asked them to, but because they genuinely want to know. Second, they’re inventive. They’re willing to run down one path of finding information and if it doesn’t work, they’ll think about another way to get there.
The worst competitive intelligence analysts are the one who run into a brick wall and decide the only way is to just keep smashing your head against it. The best competitive intelligence analysts look at the brick wall and identify a weakness in that wall that they can go around or through.
Third, they have to have persistence. Not quite OCD level of persistence, but the persistence that says, ‘I want to finish this and there’s another way I can do this.’ You also have to know when to stop, because you can run down the rabbit hole and end up with nothing. A good competitive intelligence analyst knows when to stop and knows when to keep going.
Fourth, competitive intelligence professionals have the ability to communicate concisely. A lot of analytical people tend to over explain their analysis. When you’re working with a C-level executive, they don’t have time for that. They don’t care how you got there, they want to know the answer and move on. It can be really hard for a person who is a purely analytical mind to separate the answer from how they got to the answer.”
ArchIntel: What skills can you use to find a way around the “brick wall”?
“You have to recognize, first, how you’ve been analyzing and researching a problem, then ask: can I redefine the problem? You have to recognize when your methodology doesn’t work.
For example, if I want to know the product development cycle of one of my competitors, and I spend all my time looking for information on when they developed and launched the product, I might find insights, but that’s not the only way to do so.
Instead of just trying to get days from ideation to launch, I may look at different components and start at a different point in the process, which will lead to a different answer. If you’re running into a problem by a certain approach, it may be because you’re phrasing that problem in a certain way and changing how your phrase, or define, the problem may help.
Rephrase it, come up with a different definition of the problem, and you’ll find a different avenue of attack. Then, all of the sudden, your problem is different and it may be easier to solve.”
ArchIntel: How do you manage a competitive intelligence culture?
“Clear objectives and well defined deliverables have to be at the forefront of your team. In our side of the business, we’re heavily based on primary intelligence, which means networking and having one-on-one conversations. If you don’t have enough people in your network, it’s a lot harder to get the information you need.
You have to be persistent with primary intelligence collection. You can’t just call once or write one email and expect someone to respond. It’s really common for an analyst to be a little more introverted than extroverted, so they don’t really like to make a cold call. It’s really easy for them to get lost on the internet.
As a leader, you have to establish how much time primary intelligence analysts should allocate to networking and contact development for the week. They should have a list of X number of names of people that are appropriate contacts. By the end of the week, every one of those contacts should have had at least one or two emails or phone calls.
By week three, X number of interviews have to have been completed and you hold them to that. By keeping to a set timeline, you’re much more likely to get a deliverable.
Much of this applies to secondary data collection as well. It’s very easy to go down rabbit holes with secondary data following interesting threads that may not have direct relevance to the task. Clear guidelines and expectations are needed to focused on answering the CI question”
ArchIntel: Do you hire analysts with deep experience in competitive intelligence or new analysts with a fresh perspective?
“For experienced analysts, with a ten year history, they come in and provide a competitive intelligence background that can include industry contacts. For new analysts, they don’t really know a lot about research and the industry. You have to train them on how to do research and how to interpret that research in light of the industry. To have a well balanced team, you need both.
My preference tends to be experienced leadership with industry knowledge and fresh researchers, who are more industry naïve. Around ten years of experience, people form their opinions about their industry. While it may change, they already have opinions on the competitors, such as how they play or what they’re going to do.
These are the analysts who are surprised because competitors aren’t stagnant. In that way, it’s nice to have the knowledge. I would like to have someone who has deep subject matter expertise. They may know a lot about how to do CI because they’ve done a lot of it.
If I hire a young person who’s never done CI, I can show them the steps. I will teach them how to do research and receive a different perspective. We generally hire younger people out of college, so we can train them on our tools and techniques.
If you’re coming out of college, and don’t have a lot of work experience, it’s demanding work. However, you will be exposed to more industries, job types, and job functions than anything else, which makes it a lot easier.”
ArchIntel: What are some of the ethical challenges you face throughout data collection?
“If we have exhausted all the ethical and legal ways to get information and can’t find the answer, we will make a note that we could not find that information, as well as what we did to try to find it. As noted earlier, about 5 percent of data is illegal to find.
For the 5 percent, there may be only a few people who know that information needed. These people tend to be senior enough and smart enough not to talk to us.
In competitive intelligence, ethics are a boundary between what’s legal and what’s right. A common example that is cited is if a competitor puts their entire new product launch plan and strategy in a book that is thrown in their recycle bin. Once the bin leaves the company property such as on a garbage truck legally, that’s no longer the company’s property. A person can collect that book out of the garbage truck with the truck owner’s permission and it would be legal; however, ethically it is not.
They didn’t throw the book with their strategic plans away with the intention that somebody else would find it. They threw it away and supposed to be shredded, which makes finding and using that information unethical.
Another example is if your competitors have an open house, so you go and don’t announce that you work with their direct competitor, that is unethical too. Ethics tends to be a misrepresentation of your work or identity. However, if you go in and clearly identify yourself as an employee of a competitor and they don’t kick you out, its OK.”
ArchIntel: What is the purpose of competitive intelligence?
“I’ve found that for a lot of company competitive intelligence departments, the purpose of competitive intelligence information collection. However, the real purpose of CI is to drive decisions within the organization. Competitive intelligence looks for specific actions that the company can take to position for better success in the market space, and those actions are informed through data collected on competitors.
The competitive intelligence department tends to be the only department that looks at the broader market and the competitive environment. Competitive intelligence looks for specific actions that your company can take to position it for better success in the market space, based on data collected on your competitors.
Many times your competitive intelligence and marketing departments overlap, but with marketing, there’s a core assumption of the competitors that aren’t going to change. The core assumption of a good competitive intelligence unit is that competitors are going to change, and the company must change better than the competitors do.
We have to always be one step ahead of your competitors. Competitive intelligence is the one department that says: ‘we have to change because our competitors are changing.” You can’t just assume they’re stagnant. You have to change in a way that gives you an advantage over the competitors in the market space.”