Like most competitive intelligence (CI) experts, Leonard Fuld is weary of answering questions about the difference between his profession – legal intelligence gathering and analysis – and corporate espionage (dumpster diving and associated acts of skullduggery).
Rifle through your rival’s trash, and you’ll end up with trash
“When you go after something in a rival’s trash you’ll likely find just that – trash,” says Fuld, who has been helping Fortune 500 companies with competitive intelligence for three decades, and now has offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, London and Manila dealing with firms in every sector from food & beverage to pharmaceuticals.
But aren’t the boundaries between CI and spying sometimes blurred?
Absolutely not, says Fuld. “There’s more than a fine line; there’s a very hard line. Spying is illegal and competitive intelligence is legal and practiced by most of the Fortune 500 and FTSE 100.
“Competitive intelligence is good analysis wrapped around superb information collection, which in the end results in insight.”
CI has become a profession in a good sense- not adding layer upon layer of nonsense…
In a relatively short space of time, competitive intelligence has become professionalized he says. “There are guidelines, training, skillsets and now a certification program for industry professionals.
“And when I say it’s become a profession I mean that in the good sense, not just adding more bureaucracy, or layer upon layer of nonsense.
“CI has grown as a discipline for the last three decades to the point where SCIP [the Strategic Competitive Intelligence Professional society] has begun a certification program.”
80-90% of the information you need you probably already have. You just don’t know it yet
So how does it work in practice?
It depends, says Fuld, who works with clients in a variety of ways, from helping them develop a CI strategy to conducting research and analysis for them, which could involve everything from benchmarking studies to acquisition studies, market entry studies or market monitoring.
“Most major food companies have a CI function if not a large staff,” he says.
“Most CI groups or departments consist of one or two individuals who serve to coordinate the competitive insights within a division or from corporate through the various business units.”
A key part of their role is establishing an organized mechanism to capture and use intelligence that they already have in their business and ensure it is shared so that the pieces of the jigsaw can be put together, he says.
“80-90% of the information you need you probably already have. You just don’t know it yet.”
So where do the war games come in?
But competitive intelligence is not just about collating data, he stresses. It’s a tool to alert management early to threats and opportunities so they can work out what they are actually going to do with it.
Perhaps your arch rival is working on a new product? Maybe a competitor from a completely different sector is reported to be entering your market? What if your two biggest rivals are in merger talks? Could an apparently minor amendment to a piece of legislation fundamentally impact the way you do business?
Could technology designed for a completely different industry turn out to be a game-changer in yours?
While such topics are no doubt discussed at all levels of your business on an ad hoc basis, getting key decision makers in a room together to engage in war-game simulations can really help them to “understand the competitive situation, anticipate competitor actions, predict likely marketplace reactions, evaluate strategy, make critical decisions and avoid costly missteps”, says Fuld.
It can be an upsetting experience …
While Fuld & Co has helped firms run dozens of closed-door war game simulations for companies, it also organizes public simulations where representatives from the world’s top business schools adopt the personalities of key companies and role play through a range of scenarios, he says.
While cynics might argue that switched on firms don’t need to engage in war games to think strategically, it’s sometimes only when you get people away from their desks and ask them to play out various scenarios that might result in a surge or a collapse of market share that they really begin to understand their strengths and weaknesses, he says.
“It can be really exciting. But it can also be quite an upsetting experience.”
Click here to see a public war game simulation on functional foods conducted in April 2011 dubbed the ‘Battle for Designer Foods’.
Click here to read FoodNavigator-USA’s interview with counterespionage supremo Kevin Murray about how to protect your business from corporate snoops.