Much of the competitive intelligence flying around the world is unusable. Here are three examples, adapted from real examples:
1. Competitive intelligence about employee personalities. It's all very well knowing that Google’s Marissa Mayer loves to wear Oscar de la Renta and wanted to own a cupcake shop and owns a penthouse at the Four Seasons San Francisco; but when will that really be useful? The theory goes that facts like these help to draw a psychological profile of an executive, from which you can deduce how they will react in certain situations. Good in theory but it is pretty rare for that to work out in practice. Marissa may have interests that point to a passion for creativity, but her quantitative management style had designers complaining. Even less esoteric personal details can be useless as competitive intelligence. Consider these suggestive facts from a few years ago:
- Larry Page chose Richard Branson as his best man and had his wedding on Branson’s Necker Island
- The two men were spotted in discussion at a couple of events
- The Google founders are interested in space, sponsoring the XPrize and parking their jet at NASA Ames
- Branson is pioneering commercial space travel
Surely these two were up to something together? But no. Competitive intelligence would have led to a dead end there.
2. Serendipitous competitive intelligence. The man next to you on the plane is working on a presentation about some new branding for a client’s product. The client’s name is not on the slides, although the product is likely made by BigCo, the biggest company at the flight's destination. The man turns to his colleague to discuss how much they will charge the client for this work. As the plane gets ready to land, the man checks some printed emails with driving directions to a zip code (that if you were curious enough to check later, shows that the client is indeed BigCo). Finally, after landing, the man switches on his phone to check emails and you glance at a few sender names. Were you to do some Googling, you'd see that one of them works at BigCo. So far so good. This is solid competitive intelligence served on a plate. Unfortunately, it’s useless – this line of business has nothing to do with you and there is no way to use this information. Such intelligence, freely given yet unusable, is perhaps the most common type.
3. Competitive intelligence that appeals to intellectual vanity. Competitive intelligence analysts are not just good looking, but also extremely intelligent. So it is not their fault that they are vain, and drawn to competitive intelligence techniques that they think make them look even more intelligent. Counting cars in car parks, using satellite imagery of a warehouse during construction, reading the names off a visitor’s book, watching supply trucks deliver goods to a competitor. Exactly the kind of thing to make an analyst feel smug about how clever he is. But how often is that kind of information used to inform business decisions? Maybe once a decade. Most of it is useless in practice.
Notwithstanding that it may be useless, competitive intelligence is always fun. That is the beauty of intelligence gathering - even when it is of no use to anyone, it is fascinating work. Something to remember when standing outside a competitor's offices at 10pm on a cold February night taking thermal images to see which departments are working late.