Sector News

“Competitive Intelligence” Shouldn’t Just Be About Your Competitors

May 20, 2015
Borderless Leadership

In April 2010, Mars, one of the world’s largest privately owned businesses, embarked on a breakthrough initiative. For the next year, Jessica Eliasi, then the director of Competitive Intelligence at Mars Chocolate, travelled the world running “competitive simulation” games with local market teams from Russia to Mexico to Turkey to England. These simulations were not some computer-based hypothetical games. They were intense, intelligence-based, role-playing immersion workshops that got leaders to see the market from a different and unfamiliar perspectives.

Such games have become more popular among leading edge corporations. But Jessica’s approach was still unique. While large consulting firms push expensive “war games” at the leadership level, Jessica ran cheap and quick local games based on local market dynamics. She then fed the results as market intelligence input into a senior leadership competitive game. The workshops brought the “voice of the markets” to Mars’ leadership’s doorstep. 

By connecting the dots across a series of markets, brands and competitors, Jessica identified the key global insights that provided both risks and opportunities for the global firm.  She brought her on-the-ground experiences to life through a “game” that was played with the business unit’s top management team, pressure-testing some closely held beliefs.  The insights and the workshops have since influenced how Mars assesses risks and opportunities and develops strategy. This is just one example of how Mars is trying to create and sustaining agility through competitive intelligence (CI).

Simply and clearly put, CI is a perspective on changing market conditions. This means identifying risks and opportunities early enough to allow the company to adapt its strategy or in extreme cases, change it. That simple definition forcefully delineates it from all other information, data, and research services. Information alone is not a perspective on change — information does not automatically lead to insight. Yet the vast majority of companies and executives confuse these two to the detriment of their performance.

The popular literature is filled with definitions and images of competitive intelligence taken from the realm of the government and the military. These cause more damage to the discipline than if management was simply ignorant. They focus the discipline on competitors (“the enemy” in military parlance) instead of the market as a whole — the entire competitive arena. They talk about intelligence “collection,” as if more searches are the essence of perspective. In recent years with the big data craze, collecting digital data has replaced strategic intelligence. Many companies either waste millions on massive databases or research projects that don’t yield useful insight, or throw the first available junior marketing or information specialist at the job and push it down to tactical product level, missing out on the true value of competitive intelligence as a purveyor of strategic change.

Used properly, CI leads to greater strategic agility  the ability to adapt to changing market circumstances. To become more agile, start by rethinking your competitive intelligence process. That means having a clear definition of scope and role, as well as following a few simple steps — such as mandating intelligence reviews at critical decision stages, ensuring the CI analyst has direct access to and input into strategic meetings and reviews, and smartly tapping an informal internal community of practice.

The essence of the competitive intelligence perspective is the view of the competitive set as a whole. Consider the example of Pratt and Whitney, a United Technology company. The commercial engine division, under the leadership of Stephen Heath (since retired) and Todd Kallman spent two intensive days in 2006 “war gaming” P&W’s strategy as its two bigger rivals, GE and Rolls Royce, divided the market between them. Looking at the market dynamic between Airbus, Boeing, GE, and Rolls Royce led to P&W deploying a breakthrough strategy for their new Geared Turbofan (GTF) engine. Looking at each competitor separately would have made this insight so much harder to see.

If you want your company to become more agile, start by rethinking the design of your intelligence process. Focus on building a strategic early warning capability so you don’t miss the big picture.

By Benjamin Gilad

Source: Harvard Business Review

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