The army has a phrase: “Every soldier a sensor.”
This phrase came to mind when news filtered out that United States may have bugged Angela Merkel’s phone for more than 10 years. The Germans were so outraged over this report that they summoned the US ambassador for the first time in living memory, an unprecedented post-war diplomatic rift.
I had a hearty laugh myself when I heard about it. I’ll tell you why.
There’s an old expression that says, “All’s fair in love and war.” Welcome to free enterprise.
In a competitive marketplace, up-to-date information can make the difference between keeping pace, getting ahead or being left behind. A smart intelligence operation can serve as an early-warning system for disruptive changes in the competitive landscape.
Evidence of military use of intelligence can be found as early as in books of the Old Testament nearly 3,000 years ago.
But the birth of a formalised approach to intelligence is often attributed to the Chinese general Sun Tzu, who developed his concepts in the time of turmoil of the Spring and Autumn period around the sixth century B.C.
Sun Tzu is one of the first to have mentioned that a source of competitive advantage could be acquired by superior knowledge of information.
One fast way to snooker your business is to ignore your competition.
While you’re busy ignoring them, they may be chomping away at your market share. If you don’t know what the competition is up to, you can’t make the intelligent decisions that will keep the customers you have or entice new ones.
But as a business person, how can you gather the competitive intelligence you need to keep or expand your market share? Here is how. All corporate manoeuvres leave a trail. It is simply a matter of knowing where to look.
Salespeople talk to customers, who talk to competitors. Human resources staff members interview job candidates who work or may have worked for rival firms. Purchasers talk to suppliers who know who is demanding what and when it is needed.
Even a receptionist can be an intelligence asset. At many companies, visiting salespeople are kept waiting for several minutes after they arrive for appointments. Should they start chatting about anything that seems germane—the receptionist can actually mine a lot of information from them.
The rule of thumb is that when it comes to your competition, the more you know about what they’re doing now and what they’re planning to do in the future, the better decisions you’ll be able to make about your own business. Gathering competitive intelligence on your competitors needs to become one of your regular habits.
The secret is to get your people to be astute enough to gather competitive information as they interact with people outside the company. Each independent information source can help complete a larger picture.
Knowledge of your competitors’ projects gives you the edge to continue improving so you are able to set your company apart.
A competitive intelligence organisation aids your business in gaining information and monitoring competitors.
This information can serve as a useful tool for planning your own business decisions going forward.
Whether the Germans were aware of Sun Tzu’s work or not, the Americans set up systems of espionage and information gathering which could help decision makers to achieve their goal of making informed decisions.
As a businessman, what is your biggest fear when it comes to competitors? “Being beaten” should be your answer. You need to maintain a competitive edge over them- or at the very least hold even. It is crucial you maintain strong competitive intelligence.
Mr Waswa is the managing director of Outdoors Africa. [email protected]