Competitive Intelligence (CI) explained

cWhat is Competitive Intelligence (CI) and why is it even important? Understand one of the key pillars of strategic planning and why such data can be critical to your success.

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The business world is evolving and highly competitive. We can all agree on this. So it becomes crucial to have solid competitive intelligence capabilities. Having the right data on your market and competitors is key to gain and maintain a strategic advantage. Competitive intelligence has become indispensable in anticipating market changes, identifying competitive threats and opportunities, and enabling data-driven decision-making processes. This article explores what competitive intelligence means, its importance to strategic planning, analytical methods, how to collect it effectively, ethical considerations, and the future outlook for this important capability.

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What is competitive intelligence (CI)?

Competitive intelligence refers to the systematic process of collecting, analyzing and applying intelligence about products, competitors, customers and other external factors that impact a company’s market position and business strategy. The goal is to help companies make more informed decisions by understanding the competitive landscape and market forces affecting their business.

Unlike industrial espionage, which resorts to illegal or unethical means (please don’t do it), competitive intelligence uses only legal and ethical methods to gain actionable insights that create competitive advantage. It enables companies to identify market opportunities, mitigate (upcoming) risks, fend off competitive threats, and develop long-term strategies based on data and insights.

The important role of competitive intelligence in strategic planning

Incorporating competitive intelligence into corporate strategy and planning processes is critical for several reasons:

  • Gaining market insights: Competitive intelligence provides comprehensive insights into the market landscape – from changing customer preferences and buying criteria to the emergence of market segments and the threat of product substitution. These insights help align strategies with dynamic market realities.
  • Understanding competitors: Information about competitors’ product pipelines, technologies, business models, and strategies help to anticipate competitive moves and respond effectively. But time is essence there.
  • Identify opportunities and threats: Early identification of market opportunities and potential threats is only possible with systematic competitive intelligence, enabling companies to take advantage of emerging opportunities and create contingency plans. This can also be to foster innovation and product development.
  • Support decision making: Strategic decisions made on gut instinct alone often fail. Fact-based information minimizes bias and guesswork in strategy formulation.
  • Improve competitiveness: Using insights to continuously improve, differentiate and adapt strategies relative to competitors increases competitiveness.

Without competitive intelligence, corporate strategy risks becoming outdated, reactive (so you just wait for things to happen to you), and vulnerable to external disruption. Integrating competitive intelligence into all planning processes – from environmental scanning to execution – is key to resilience.

Competitive intelligence analysis framework

To produce actionable insights, competitive intelligence integrates information from multiple sources. Some of the best known structured analytical frameworks are:

  • SWOT analysis: assesses internal strengths and weaknesses as well as external opportunities and threats that affect competitiveness.
  • PESTEL Analysis: Evaluates the macro-environmental factors-political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal-that impact the industry landscape.
  • Porter’s Five Forces: examines competitive forces within an industry – rivalry, supplier power, buyer power, threat of substitution, and threat of new entry.
  • Classical Benchmarking: compares the company’s performance metrics with those of its competitors to identify opportunities for improvement.

Which framework is chosen depends on the strategic issue being examined – from new market entry strategies to operational optimization. Using multiple methods provides a comprehensive overview of the competitive environment.

Methods for gathering information about the competition

Effective competitive intelligence relies on a variety of data collection methods, many are similar to becoming an insights-driven organization, including:

Primary research

  • Interviews: Interviews with industry experts, customers and channel partners provide first-hand qualitative insights into competitors, emerging needs and market developments.
  • Surveys: carefully designed surveys help determine consumer preferences, satisfaction and acceptance of new products/services.
  • Site visits: direct observation of competitors’ offices, factories, stores and events provides insights into their capabilities, processes and business activities.

Secondary Research

  • Public filings: Competitors’ annual reports, patent applications, and regulatory filings provide insight into their financial position, strategies, and technical capabilities.
  • News monitoring: tracking news and announcements provides insight into product launches, partnerships, management changes, and competitor mergers and acquisitions.
  • Social media: monitoring competitors’ social media presence and engagement metrics provides digital marketing intelligence.
  • Industry reports: market research reports from vendors such as Gartner, Forrester, and IDC provide independent industry analysis.
  • Conferences: speeches and presentations at industry conferences provide insights into competitors’ strategic thinking.

Please note: Proper analysis of information from MULTIPLE sources enables smart information gathering without crossing legal and ethical boundaries. Animate your employees to identify other resources as well, because the more eyes the better.

Ethical and legal considerations

Although competitive intelligence offers many benefits, there are certain ethical and legal boundaries that you should be aware of and respect:

  • No unlawful or fraudulent means may be used to obtain information, such as hacking, wiretapping, or deception. Privacy laws must be observed.
  • Intellectual property – including patents, trademarks and copyrights – must not be infringed. Publicly available information is fair game.
  • Confidentiality agreements of current or former employees of competitors must be respected. No coercion may be exercised.
  • Information may be obtained and used only to the extent necessary to make business decisions.

If you practice unlawful and unethical practices in competitive intelligence, it could happen the Company’s reputation and trust is under fire. Remember: Unethical shortcuts ultimately prove counterproductive.

The evolving role of competitive intelligence

Although competitive intelligence has long been used in business, its techniques and importance continue to evolve with new technologies:

  • New data sources: Social media, Big Data analytics, web scraping, and IoT sensors provide access to an exploding amount of unstructured data that contains valuable insights.
  • Automated analytics: Machine learning algorithms can quickly analyze large amounts of data to identify subtle patterns and trends that are difficult for humans to detect.
  • Democratization of data: Cloud platforms and analytics dashboards enable broader access to information across the enterprise.
  • Predictive intelligence: predictive statistical models and simulations enable predictive strategies.
  • Ethical AI: Intelligent automation can sift through data while respecting legal and privacy requirements.

As the business environment becomes increasingly complex, competitive intelligence is becoming essential not only for strategy, but also for day-to-day decision making. Companies that leverage this capability position themselves for stable growth, while laggards risk being blindsided by market dislocations. Competitive intelligence must evolve from an obscure practice to a core competency.

Conclusion and recommendation

Relying on gut feelings and outdated assumptions for strategic planning is a recipe for failure. Forward-thinking companies recognize the need for systematic competitive analysis to identify risks and opportunities early. This is also where Insights comes into play. For most companies don’t have the resources, nor the data and the time to gather millions of data points to monitor how their competitors, peers or industry are doing. Just get MoreThanDigital Insights for free and get access to such valuable data.

In general you can also build your own competitive intelligence analysis by legally and ethically collecting and examining market data. Try to gain invaluable insights into the competitive forces surrounding their business and regularly update it. These insights allow strategies to be aligned with external realities. Executives who dismiss competitive intelligence as optional put their companies at a dangerous disadvantage.

Remember: Competitive intelligence informs nearly every aspect of corporate strategy – from product development to go-to-market plans. Companies must constantly gather up-to-date information, analyze it using best practices, disseminate it across the enterprise, and quickly adjust their plans based on what they learn. With technology making it easier to access data, competitive intelligence should be an integral part of all companies that want to survive and succeed in an intensely competitive environment.

Benjamin Talin

Benjamin Talin is founder of MoreThanDigital, a serial entrepreneur and innovator. He has founded countless businesses, ranging in age from 13 to the present. His passion is using technology and innovation to change the status quo, and his experience covers everything from marketing to product development to new technology strategy. One of Benjamin's great desires is to share his expertise with others, and he frequently speaks at conferences on a variety of topics related to entrepreneurship, leadership, and innovation. Additionally, he advises governments, ministries and EU commissions on issues such as education, economic development, digitalization, and the technological future.

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