Competitive Intelligence, What Is It Exactly?

The right information shared at the right time

Competitive Intelligence might be a difficult concept to understand when you read its theory. Written by Harold Wilensky in 1967, Organizational Intelligence was the first reference book to set the pillars of the field. Wilensky designated CI as the capability of an organization to comprehend and conclude relevant knowledge to its business and strategic purposes.

Nowadays, the most common definition of CI would be the coordination of researching, analyzing and disseminating information to the shareholders so they can use it for unraveling the intentions of the market players and learning more about their financial capacities and decision making process. 

Intelligence cycle: direction, collection, analysis, dissemination

Though, this portrait would not be complete if we don’t mention:

  • the complementary expertise of lobbying and Intellectual Property to influence and protect your position in the market
  • the economic war: due to the international trade market and the rarifying resources, competition between economics and countries has increased savagely, leading to an impossible economic peace. Thus, CI would be the consequence of the latest challenges of the globalization.

In practice, CI collect information in a legal context and from open sources only, that-is-to-say the white sphere of information:

  • human sources: providers, clients, sales persons, journalists, CI experts
  • written sources: specialized magazines, business databases, blogs, social networks
  • non-written sources: video, podcast, radio,…

One can use CI software tools to collect massive information from relevant sources with specific keywords, or Social Media Intelligence tools for catching feedback or rumors from the online communities. But more importantly, building a network of trusted professionals with common interests, ready to share strategic information, will definitely be the best source of information.

Better safe than sorry: anticipate your market

Being informed is a way to reduce information asymmetry during a decision making process. All these sources of information will help the CI expert in identifying market change and its weak signals before this change gets confirmed. The company will then take the right decisions accordingly.

To act upstream of a market, one must be careful with the on-going threats and opportunities by:

  • analyzing the market penetration strategy of a competitor,
  • anticipating legal and political measures,
  • observing technological innovation in progress.

Competitive Intelligence or Business Intelligence?

These two expertises can be confusing because they both use the term intelligence, which implies a data/information collection and analysis, but in fact, are really different in their tools and purposes.

Here is a table clarifying the Intelligence expertises, their goals and tools:

Competitive Intelligence Marketing Intelligence Business Intelligence Secret Intelligence
Topic of analysis Competition / Market analysis Behavior / Schemes analysis Customer analysis National security
Decision purposes Expansion decisions Business decisions Marketing operations Geopolitical decision
Tools Content analysis tools Data visualization tools Statistics tools Any tools!

Business Intelligence (or Intelligence d’affaires in French) is how you transform massive data into quantitative information to help the decision making process. Consequently, this information is used for strategic purposes once it is summarized. Being different in its approach and its tools, BI intends to optimize activities rather than analyzing a competitive environment as CI does.

Competitive Intelligence dissociates from Secret Intelligence (Renseignement Secret in French) because it is limited to the open sources whereas Secret Intelligence will sometimes break computing security systems or use more radical methods. Also, monitoring a competitive environment through strategic foresight aim to take strategic decision for a business and not geopolitical decisions for a nation.

Last but not least, it is also important to underline that CI is defined and adjusted differently by the local economies who use it. To conclude, CI is divided by its scope, range of actions and countries.