Competitive Intelligence: Thirty Years Retrospective

Fletcher/CSI entered the world of Competitive Intelligence in 1988, a total of thirty years ago. Thirty years is a milestone for any business, and we want to start the year by sharing some perspective on how CI has evolved since 1988. Suffice to say, there have been many changes in CI. In this post, we will discuss some key changes in CI and how those changes contribute to effective CI.

Secondary Research

In 1988, CI used methods that are now considered archaic. Typical projects started with secondary research, which is how they are initiated today, but the way that CI professionals accessed secondary data was quite different. In the late 1980’s, proprietary databases were accessed using a dial-up modem, and the search was all text-based. Successful secondary data collection required skills to know which database and what search strings to use to produce valuable results.

Today, we still use proprietary databases to access secondary information; however, the internet allows us to search multiple databases simultaneously and to access significantly more information using free resources. Searching is easier, to the point where some search engines now develop the search strings for you. The challenge is filtering out useful information from the search results.

Primary Research

In some ways, primary information was easier to collect in 1988 than it is in 2018. CI Awareness was lower and competitor employees were more willing to share information. In 1988, primary often started with a phone call to the competitor’s headquarters and a transfer to the desired department. With luck, the call would connect to someone in the department who could answer specific questions, and, more often than not, he/she would give out those answers. Researchers could purchase company phone directories and dial contacts directly to get around the central switchboard, but the provenance of these directories was uncertain at best.

Today, primary sources can be identified more efficiently. Most companies no longer use a central headquarters switchboard, and few, if any, will transfer a call without a name. Instead, CI professionals can perform LinkedIn searches or look at online resumes to create lists of potential contacts. Once contact lists are generated, CI professionals can make their initial outreach efforts via email, and then follow up with subsequent emails, phone calls, or even text chats. Despite the number of outreach options available, there is greater awareness of CI and people are less willing to share information. Therefore, getting to a good source is easier, but getting useful information from the source is harder.

Data Volume

In 1988, gathering multiple data points was a significant challenge, which required completing analysis based on relatively small samples. In part, this resulted from the challenges associated with finding good information sources. However, it was also a function of how information was compartmentalized; most employees knew what went on in their departments, but only had minimal information about other departments. The personal cell phone was years away in 1988 and after hours contact was uncommon.

In 2018, the issue pertaining to data is too much information. In a typical research effort, we can draw on social media, internet search results, public filings, conference proceedings, and a host of other sources. A plethora of data sources results in information overload and makes it difficult to sort out useful information from noise. Software and digital tools can help the sorting process, but CI professionals still need to be adept at the critical skill of analysis to make sense of the results.

Report Format and Delivery

In 1988 when email was rudimentary and word processing software was not standardized, reports were delivered in hard copy format. There were many last minute rushes to get reports printed, bound, and over to FedEx or UPS in time for the final pick-up. Additionally, most of the report readouts occurred in-person, which gave a deeper appreciation and personal feel to the results. During the presentations, clients and CI professionals had deep discussions about the implications of the research and action steps, which helped build strong relationships.

At Fletcher/CSI, I can’t remember the last time we bound a hard copy report. The majority of reports are emailed or delivered to clients through secure internet transfers, and the last minute rush to make the FedEx deadline is outdated. Over the past 30 years, companies have decentralized functions, and gathering a CI team into one room for a readout is difficult to arrange. Most of the time, readouts are presented through Go-To-Meeting or WebEx, so they are delivered by disembodied voices accompanied by a shared screen. The loss of personal engagement is noticeable in 2018. Active participation in discussions about findings and action steps still occur, but there is less direct interaction than there was in 1988.

Project Timelines

How data was collected and analyzed in 1988 resulted in longer project timelines. Almost every step from secondary data collection to primary research to report preparation took more time. Project timelines of 14-18 weeks were common, and “get it to me tomorrow” projects were the exception. Companies chose to engage in CI projects far in advance of decision deadlines, and used CI findings to support their decisions.

Since 1988, timelines have grown shorter each year. New tools speed up the data collection process and allow for more efficient report creation. In 2018, most projects are less than eight weeks and rush jobs are seen more frequently. This speaks volumes about the acceleration of decision-making at companies and how CI’s role in the decision process has changed.

Impact of Globalization

Before social media and easy access to regulatory filings, there was less public competitive information. While globalization was present in 1988, foreign-based competitors could enter domestic markets as complete unknowns. Access to foreign company information was limited by language, customs, and regulations. At the same time, emerging domestic competitors could get established in markets without attracting attention, and then launch a “surprise” national market entry.

Today, start-ups move from stealth mode to full market entry at unprecedented speed, and new competitors can emerge as true surprises. Globalization has extended the competitive scope far beyond national borders. There is more information available about foreign competitors, even if the regulations and customs remain different.

Strategic Insights

What has not changed in the past 30 years is the importance of CI to strategic insights that create sustainable competitive advantage. CI has always been about informing and directing response to change. Effective CI in 1988, and in 2018, provides unique insights into competitor actions and changes in the competitive environment. CI also helps management make better, more informed, decisions. Tools used to gather, analyze, present, and implement CI have evolved along with the market, yet the relevance of CI to strategy and tactics has, if anything, grown. The business world of 2018 is not necessarily more complex than that of 1988, but the ways that decision makers operate are more dynamic. Today’s decision makers incorporate more data sources. They also demand more insights, delivered in a timely manner, with clear recommendations for action.

Effective CI supports decision makers, and I am proud of Fletcher/CSI’s role in helping our clients stay competitive for the past 30 years. We are looking forward to the next 30 with anticipation and excitement. If the next 30 years are like the past 30, it is going to be a great ride and I hope you will join us in innovating CI as the key tool for decision support.

-Erik Glitman, CEO, Fletcher/CSI