How the biz world took a page from the CIA

December 20, 2012: 11:13 AM ET

Companies use a variety of methods to stay one step ahead of their rivals. Competitive intelligence is one of the fastest growing ways to pull this off.Basil Rathbone

By Omar Akhtar, reporter

FORTUNE -- Corporate espionage may be illegal, but companies can still keep tabs on the competition. Some large corporations around the globe spend more than $2 million a year hiring outside firms or staffing internal departments to track and analyze the actions and strategies of their competitors. These companies pull this off with the help of public resources and investigative research, a practice collectively known as competitive intelligence (CI).

"Competitive intelligence is gathering information, which is analyzed to the point where you can make a decision," says Leonard Fuld, president of competitive intelligence and research firm Fuld & Company. This includes gathering information about competitor's products, pricing, business culture, and investments, as well as external factors like market conditions and government regulations.

More than anything, CI aims to eliminate surprises. "Companies seem to have been caught off guard more by new and disruptive technologies in the last five years," says Jan Herring, former director of intelligence at Motorola. "As a result, senior management has become more appreciative of gathering intelligence and we're seeing expanded areas of application."

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Herring, a former CIA officer, was asked to bring his government intelligence experience to Motorola in the mid-80s. "I believed that, much like governments, multi-national companies were going to need their own intelligence departments to be able to make the right decisions," says Herring.

In many ways, competitive intelligence is as old as business itself. In the late 1800s, the Rothschild family sent its bankers to France to observe banking techniques and adopt the best strategies. However, Herring says the modern incarnation of competitive intelligence took root in the 1980s, pointing to the publication of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter's Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors. "It was the seminal document that caused everybody to focus on intelligence gathering as a profession," says Herring.

Recession-proof business service?

While businesses have been slashing budgets in the wake of the recession, expenditure on intelligence has actually edged up. A survey of 400 global companies by Fuld & Company reports that in the last five years the number of companies that spend more than $1 million on CI has increased from 5% to 10% of all companies with CI programs. More

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