THE term "competitive intelligence" conjures up images of cloak-and-dagger industrial espionage. In reality, it merely means investigating the competition.
Of course, business people have always scouted their competitors. But now experts in the field are trying to make it a recognized management specialty. Because businesses have lost global market share to German and Japanese companies, competitive intelligence skills have become sought after in the past decade, says Gerald Miller, at the School of Information Science at Simmons College in Boston.
Investigators use above-board techniques in researching competitor companies, says Jennifer Swanson, a member of the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals. The organization has 18 chapters nationwide. Its membership has grown about 8 percent a year in the last three years, says William Deal, the executive director. He anticipates that membership will reach 2,500 worldwide this year.
"American corporations are beginning to come to an awareness that they're not king of the hill," Mr. Miller says. Competitive intelligence professionals assess outside threats and opportunities, including environmental, technical, and governmental developments and changing consumer tastes.
Jan Herring, vice president of The Futures Group, a market forecasting firm in Washington, says that companies are setting up competitive intelligence departments. "It's like 30 years ago, when companies were setting up market research," he says.
Competitive intelligence experts are useful to the decisionmakers in a corporation, Miller adds. In a 1990 survey, competitive intelligence professionals responded that they most often reported to corporate planning groups, marketing departments, and research divisions.
"Competitive intelligence is understanding strategy and the strategic intent of the competition," says Richard Buchanan, at Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard, Mass. "Competitors increasingly try to fill niches and ... note what competitors are doing."