In a highly competitive economy, companies need to stay ahead of their competition if they are to stay afloat. To this end, companies routinely scan all the public information they can find about competitors, including annual reports, scientific papers, regulatory filings, and social media. They talk with key opinion leaders and utilize other primary sources of information. Placed in perspective, this information is a sort of early warning system for companies in competitive markets, helping them to navigate the waters of the business world. The field is called competitive intelligence (CI).
The people performing CI are commonly called “CI analysts.” Some companies have CI departments. Specialist CI-consultancies also exist, but many people perform CI without bearing the title. Within companies, program managers, business-development managers, and senior vice-presidents for strategic planning -- and others -- often undertake CI roles. CI skills are also required to perform a big part of what venture capital firms call "due diligence.” Stock analyst firms do similar work to decide which companies to invest in. National agencies that support economic development and international trade employ CI skills, too.
Competitive intelligence with a technical flavor
Whatever their official title, CI analysts find out where a company’s competitors are heading. They make head-to-head comparisons between their (or their client’s) company and competing companies for every aspect of a company’s operations, then place this information in the broader context within which the company operates.
To analyze competitors’ sales strategies, for example, they compare the number of people employed in sales, how the sales force is organized, and other means those competing companies have deployed to sell, taking into account the regulatory and economic context in which they operate.
At companies whose products are technology or research-based -- in the pharmaceutical, chemical, energy, telecom, and information technology (IT) sectors, among others -- the intelligence gathered by CI analysts must cover technical information relevant to a company’s competitive mission and environment. This field -- the technical/scientific version of CI -- is dubbed “competitive technical intelligence” or CTI. CTI analysts may, for example, track the results of a competitor’s clinical trials, and determine whether trials are on schedule, based on direct interviews with clinicians involved in the trials. This helps a company anticipate whether their competitor will be first to bring their drug to market and allows them to adapt their commercial strategy.
Some key skills …
They may not realize it, but by the time they graduate, most Ph.D. scientists have developed a skillset that not only is directly relevant to CI but is also transferable across industries. “You don’t need a lot of training to do CI when you have a Ph.D,” says Jay Paap, president of management consultancy firm Paap Associates in Waban, Massachusetts, which is involved in CTI. Ph.D.s are accustomed to trawling through peer-reviewed literature, perusing databases, and sourcing information on the Internet. “They don’t call it CI, but they have developed the basic training to do CI.”
Ph.D.s have a range of analytical skills, which CI analysts need to squeeze valuable information out of a broad range of sources. Ph.D.s are also able to learn quickly; CI analysts often have little time to familiarize themselves with a new field. Conveying findings to non-experts, such as a company’s senior management team, is also part of a CI job, so the written and verbal communication skills scientists have developed during their Ph.D. will prove helpful, too.
But what really gives Ph.D.s an advantage is that they come in with “an understanding of the technology studied,” thanks to their backgrounds in relevant science, says Ken Garrison, CEO of the professional organization for Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP), based in Alexandria, Virginia. Another advantage to a Ph.D. is the credibility that comes with it. Most of the technical people in large organizations “don’t trust someone that does not have a Ph.D.,” Paap says.
In a new environment
But Ph.D.-trained scientists need to make some adjustments before they can use their skills effectively in the CI world. According to Garrison, the difficulty for scientists “is to go from a Ph.D. program with a narrow focus to [analyzing] an industry with a broad focus.” Also, companies use CI to complement market research to help senior management decide on research and development and sales strategies, so CI analysts need to watch closely not only the technology and the market but also the broader political and economic context, Garrison adds. The job requires “somebody who can take a look at the bigger picture and be critical" of what they observe, agrees Eric Garland, founder and managing partner of CI consultancy Competitive Futures Inc. in St. Louis, Missouri.
As they enter the CI field, Ph.D.s need to learn how to use standard IT tools to tackle the huge amounts of information hidden in databases, newsletters, and event reports, as well as in social media such as blogs, tweets, discussion forums, and RSS feeds. Increasingly, CI professionals need foreign-language skills, partly because the exponential growth of online information is driven by social media sites of all languages, and partly because many companies requiring CI work are multinationals with diverse markets worldwide.
Finding a way in
Scientists are most often hired in CI straight after their Ph.D. as subject-matter experts in a CI consultancy. They contribute their scientific knowledge and mindsets as they hone their skills alongside seasoned CI professionals. Because CI is a discipline and not a profession, “entering the field would require self-teaching at the beginning,” Garland says.
Some other Ph.D.s take an industry route, typically gaining a few years’ experience as industry scientists or in other technical positions before moving into a job with a CI component within the same company. Prior industry experience helps scientists understand how R&D relates to business issues and the broader context in which a company operates.
The cultures of some large multinational organizations are such that it's necessary to prove yourself in a different role before being awarded a strategically sensitive position such as CI. For many people entering the field, "it is a second stage in their career,” says SCIP’s Garrison. In the pharmaceutical industry in particular, CTI roles are often fulfilled by experienced bench scientists who have acquired an intimate knowledge of the company over the years.
However, CI roles in industry do not constitute a well-defined career. “Many firms use CI as a temporary career progression assignment, since CI groups tend to be small overseers of the program and thus lack the size for an internal career path,” Paap says. This means that most Ph.D.s who perform CI within a company eventually take other industry positions, including higher management roles.
Bridging the gap
Scientists who want to increase their chances of CI employment can learn the typical tools used by CI analysts through formal training. Two main non-academic institutions provide CI certification programs: the Fuld Gilad Herring Academy of Competitive Intelligence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Institute for Competitive Intelligence in Butzbach, Germany. Alternatively, scientists may take CI modules offered as part of librarian training, business and information degrees, studies in marketing, and continuing education at academic institutions including Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom and the University of Toronto in Canada.
Regardless of the amount of self-teaching and training received, Garland emphasizes the importance of approaching experienced members of the CI community to get further advice. Prominent CI practitioners can be approached at SCIP events or through community discussion forums such as the 8000-strong SCIP LinkedIn Group or the CI2020 Web site. If you haven’t got one already, finding a mentor can be particularly helpful.
It is difficult to anticipate the need for the CI workforce in the coming years. On one hand, the growing number of CI software tools, which automate retrieving and archiving of information, is likely to drive the number of external CI consultants down, warns Chris Hote, CEO of on-demand CI software Digimind, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the other hand, some experts believe that an increasingly unpredictable and faster-moving business environment will drive the need for CI up. “The number of firms with [CI] programs will increase as the value [of performing CI] becomes apparent. So I expect always a demand” overall, Paap says. “If you are interested in being broad and are able to synthesize information, there are a lot of good opportunities.”
Sabine Louët is a freelance writer based in Dublin.