Knowing what your rivals are up to needs special intelligence.
Almost all businesses keep tabs on their competitors. Fewer do so systematically, or anything like comprehensively. But in most companies of any size there is a senior staff member - or several - charged with tracking what the competition is up to, and with funnelling this information to the appropriate quarter. It's hardly surprising that they should have their own professional body. In fact the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) began life in the US in the mid-1980s and spread to Europe a few years later. A UK branch was formed in 1992.
Unfortunately 'intelligence' is one of those words that can mean not very much (like combing through company reports) or rather a lot (like planting bugs under tables). It's safe to say that few UK professionals would engage in the latter. On the contrary the British members tend to regard SCIP as offering opportunities for some innocent networking and exchange of information.
Alan Eastwood is a market analyst at Imperial Chemical Industries' central planning department. Having a strong interest in electronically-held information, he found that 'a couple of sessions SCIP has held have been quite helpful'. Barney Usborne, now an independent consultant and chairman of the UK branch of SCIP, quotes two very different uses for competitor intelligence. In his day as head of competitor analysis at British Petroleum, the exploration division adopted a new and more geographically focused strategy following detailed studies of its competitors. Second, the large bonus element in senior managers' salaries at BP was based on how they scored against the competition, which implied a lot of competitive benchmarking.
All very sensible and proper. Nevertheless, some of the methods which Eastwood found in the society's (American) magazine struck him - although strictly legal - as 'a little out of bounds'. Andrew Pollard, like Usborne a luminary among CI professionals in the UK, was a member of an international ethics committee last year, but not much came of it. 'It's difficult to frame rules,' explains Pollard. 'There's nothing specific that says: If you do that, you're out.' On the other hand, some practices are certainly 'frowned upon'.
Pollard's researches in the UK (at seminars run by his firm, EMP Intelligence Services of Northampton) confirm that only a tiny percentage of Brits will admit that they might be willing to bug a rival's conversations. However the vast majority would readily position themselves at any gathering so as to eavesdrop on competitors. 'But it's probably wrong to emphasise the slightly sleazy end, or even the grey areas,' says Pollard. 'Nearly everybody thinks the competition is more ruthless than they are themselves.' So it's back to those company reports.