Competitive Intelligence: The Thin, Blurry Line...

Warsaw, circa mid 1995...there I am, in a huge, stinking dumpster outside the offices of one of the major competitors of a global shipping line, face to face with a rat the size of a leopard (hey, about 15 cm away from your face it SEEMS like a leopard) and wondering what was Polish for "I need a rabies and tetanus shot NOW!"

Welcome to the world of competitive intelligence. When I was asked to set up this capability back then, I initially had visions of casinos sprawling with beautiful, willing women whom I had to seduce to reveal the latest route plans, pricing guidance and terminal negotiations, all the while packing a PPK under my Brioni. However, hot looking women didn't work in shipping, the casino in Warsaw was pretty lame and most of the spectacularly beautiful Polish girls that were in abundance in Warsaw would rather be seduced by a water buffalo than myself.

Despite all this, I did manage to setup a very innovative system that set the standard for a while to come: whilst it certainly was time consuming initially, we did manage to get a consistent ability to act faster and smarter than the competition.

And that is what competitive intelligence is all about: information is one thing, but intelligence is something which I define as information not publicly available that can be actioned to obtain advantage. I still come across people who think having massive volumes of data is intelligence: it’s actually nothing but a recipe for a headache. Nowadays, technology makes information much easier to acquire than the mid-1990s and it is easy to be overwhelmed.

However, I have a word of advice to people entering this field. Many professionals in the area are trying hard to give an extra veneer of respectability to the field, saying things such as dumpster diving are no longer needed or even likely to succeed. Speaking as someone who knows his way around a huge pile of garbage, I can tell you that’s just not true. Despite security protocols, it is amazing what people still throw out. You may not suddenly get a 5 year Business Plan in a Veolia bin, but you will get bits and piece of info that can be composited to give you a real picture of what is happening, or where you should look next. Always obey all laws of course in your jurisdiction and be aware that IT can give you much…but only so much.

Sooner or later, you’re going to have to face down that rat…