Indeed, the growing information glut makes it critical for CIOs to start thinking about how they can support their company's CI snoopstersand do it with as much zeal and imagination as they already apply to building hacker-proof security systems. According to Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp., most existing systems and organizations are still ill-equipped to keep pace with the ever-growing amount of information available. "Many companies are still stumbling to process and respond to competitive information as fast as it pours in," says former IDC analyst Gerry Murray. The result: The key to carving out the leading edge of the knowledge gap in one's industrythe difference between what you know and what your rival knowslies in the ability to build IT systems that can scope out the movements of corporate rivals in real time. Murray believes that IT-aided intelligence gathering is so critical that entire industries will be redefined by the companies most skilled at snooping. "Players unable to surmount their bureaucratic inertia will find their existence threatened," Murray says. "And once intellectual and competitive agility becomes more commonplace, competitive advantage will be both harder to come by and increasingly expensive."
Murray's advice: Start now to recruit the technology executives who can build systems that give your company the ability to react in real time to what rivals are doing. Build such systems, and your company also will be able to respond faster to customers. The goal: "To tie technology and business together in a common pursuit of becoming more competitive and more responsive to rivals and customers in the marketplace," Murray says. Observes Herbert Meyer, who runs Friday Harbor, Wash.-based consultancy Real World Intelligence: "CI is to a company what radar is to an airplane. Companies are now installing radar in the corporate cockpit, and that's where the CIO comes in."
At minimum, CIOs should start helping executives to monitor the Web more effectively. Just ask Eamon Allbee, a CTO with Chicago-based Dollens and Associates, a marketing firm. Increasingly, says Allbee, the Net is opening up whole new ways to snoop, giving companies access to material that used to take months or years and millions of dollars to unearth, from satellite photos of rival plant sites to the inside skinny on a rival CEO's off-work activities. And it's legal. Example: The London-based consumer products firm Unilever plc was looking to go into China with a new product. But Allbee, by going on the Web in February, discovered that Proctor & Gamble was developing a similar product. Unilever, Allbee's client, had to decide whether to offer that product at a lower price, add on more features or simply avoid the Chinese market entirely. How did Unilever get wind of P&G's plans? Allbee found P&G's new product report on P&G's own corporate intranetaccess to which Unilever was able to get through Allbee and a common supplier. "Without this information," says Allbee, Unilever "would have gone in [to China] blind."
But it takes far more than watching Web sites to get smart about CI. Compaq Computer Corp. gets it. There, both Bret Breeding, manager of competitive intelligence, and Compaq's vice president of strategy report to the CTO. Because of the increased role of technology in information gathering, Breeding has helped Compaq establish an intranet communications system in which a salesman in Egypt, for examplewhen told by a potential client that Compaq needs to team with another vendor to get a job donecan instantly obtain information about that other vendor and then report back what he learns so other salesmen can benefit from the data. Breeding says he's designed this simple CI system for both "skimmers" who want a high-level view and "deep-level divers," who need to ask his CI team for more information. Such digging recently allowed Breeding to get a client to increase a deal from $1 million to $25 millionsimply by ferreting information about the client's key rivals and their technology plans.
At Royal Dutch/Shell Group, the CIO is part of the CI team and is in charge of helping corporate snoopers gather and distribute key bits of information about rivals to company executives. Shell's CI office provides benchmarks on competitors to the CIO, and the CIO then develops customized search software to help the CI team sift through files. "At Shell," says Breeding, Shell's former CI manager, "CI is all about aiding the decision-making process. It's a mix of technology and people. Ideally, the CIO should be the hub for CI throughout the company."
To be sure, most CIOs are still far more likely to be shopping for technology than actively participating in CI tag teams and strategy sessions. But increasingly, says CI expert Steinhardt, companies like P&G are realizing they cannot move forward on CI without asking CIOs to help tag and distribute priority data to the people inside the company who most need to know.