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A Real World View of Competitive Intelligence

Ben Gilad, Founder, Academy of Competitive Intelligence wrote a message to his students at the Academy of Competitive Intelligence in February 2020 about what he calls the “trials and tribulations” of a CI practitioner.

With the necessary citation I hereby relay his message as published in LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/trials-tribulation-being-competitive-intelligence-ben-gilad/):

“We just ran the Winter program at the Academy of Competitive Intelligence. Fresh faces. PhDs, MBAs, titles from managers to VPs. Engineers, scientists, business development, researchers.

  • My first question to them: What is competitive? Sounds too academic? Shouldn’t we talk about “search tips” on Google? No. You don’t get to be a world-class analyst on search hacks. You just get to be a hack. We go back-and-forth until we settle on: “Anything that gives you an advantage over others competing for your buyers.” Advantage can be in cost and/or willingness to pay (a famous Porter-Rivkin economic framework). Either way, a customer prefers your value proposition to others’.
  • Next logical question: Can we derive the meaning of competitive intelligence just from that? Should be simple, shouldn’t it? In my mind, the proliferation (or segmentation) of definitions (marketing, market, competitor, competitive, business intelligence) is utterly immaterial. Large corporations today are bombarded with unprecedented amount of external information in variety of areas collected by variety of managers and departments. The information is siloed, compartmentalized, disjointed, and often redundant, but it doesn’t matter if they call it intelligence or clam chowder. The only thing that matters is what companies do with it and therefore, by implication, what users look for. The smart ones look for the same thing: a clue to a bit of advantage. Temporary or sustainable, local or global - advantage is at the heart of competition. And therefore, by simple logic, this is what competitive intelligence is all about, nothing more, but surely nothing less.

So enough with the definitions’ battle....

“We have now sunk to the depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of an intelligent man.” George Orwell. I am hoping to settle on: Any bit about any high impact player/force out there that can materially affect the continuous attempt to create advantage is competitive intelligence. Everything else is just data, information, or much worse- noise, busy work, and routine background “research.” Corporate loves routine tasks that have little material effect but keeps people amazingly busy even on the weekends. So intelligence can be realized anywhere in the company by anyone trained to think intelligently about competition and advantage. It can be (and should be!) a dedicated CI analyst, but also a sales person, market researcher, cafeteria manager or the cleaning crew. We had a bishop in our program and a chef. At the same time I know executives and seasoned consultants who have no idea what competitive advantage looks like or how to identify it. Advantage is never independent of users’ assumptions and cognitive schemas. Keep this in mind. So those who pigeonhole competitive intelligence as the formal activity of “collecting competitor/market information, analyzing it and disseminating it” as if this exercise yields competitive advantage by magic are also those who say competitive strategy is whatever results from a strategy development process. That’s just busy work and it has little to do with intelligence or competitive strategy. The most important question of all - what does it mean to competitive advantage - is at the heart of the art of strategy and the skill of intelligence. Corporate functionaries who need to categorize activities might find the concept slippery. But it’s not for you. You are Competitive Intelligence Professionals. You now know where advantage comes from, and what you need to do to make users see it. “

Thank you for your real-world view as always, Ben.