The Main Event

Being good at what you do won't make you successful. You have to be smarter than the next guy.

The Forum: Competia Symposium on competitive intelligence and strategic planning, held in Quebec in June
The Speakers: Michael Porter (left), professor, Harvard Business School; Pierre Guesry, vice-president of technology intelligence, Nestlé; Anne Henrich, senior vice-president, Washington Researchers Ltd.; Andy Hines, ideation leader, the Dow Chemical Co.
The Insights: Best places to get the inside scoop about your rivals; the crucial difference between strategy and vision; playing the "trend game" for new product ideas
The Details:

The official term for digging up information about your rivals is competitive intelligence, or CI for short, but you could call it plain old-fashioned snooping. This past summer 200 inquisitive execs gathered at the Competia Symposium on competitive intelligence and strategic planning in Quebec to learn how to get the skinny on their competitors and customers and hone their own companies' strategies. Some highlights:

Between the lines
Pierre Guesry, vice-president of technology intelligence at Nestlé, recommended watching the connections between competitors and universities. The academic grants, symposia, and prizes that a company sponsors -- usually announced in university press releases or on the schools' Web sites -- give clues to the business's evolving research interests. So do the company's job listings and patent filings. A couple of years ago, Guesry said, his group successfully predicted that Nestlé rival the Danone Group was about to introduce a new line of cookies with layers of filling, after they noted a suspiciously large number of new Danone patents involving "multilayer forms."

CI specialist Anne Henrich of Washington Researchers raved about the virtues of local newspapers in her presentation on how to investigate private companies. Get the hard copy of the paper, she advised, since pictures don't always make it into the online versions of papers. Why care about pictures? Once, Henrich said, while researching a Japanese-owned factory in Georgia for one of its competitors, she came across a profile of the factory in a local magazine. On a hunch, she contacted the magazine's photographer and asked to see any unused photos. The pictures taken inside the facility included a photo of a bulletin board that showed absentee rates, production figures, and scrap rates, information that Henrich's client found very helpful.

Another rich source of intelligence is the paperwork that businesses must file with the government, said Henrich. Look up your competitors' filings, she advised. For instance, companies often don't edit the blueprints that they file with a city planning commission, leaving in information about, say, industrial processes that might interest a competitor.

Keeping a poker face
Andy Hines dreams up new businesses for Dow Chemical. The "ideation leader" plays "trend poker" -- a game he invented -- with Dow employees. Each team gets a handful of cards on which Hines has described trends -- for instance, "the home is increasingly a workplace." Players use the cards to jump-start ideas for new businesses. Perhaps wary of the roomful of CI specialists, Hines didn't specify businesses thus developed but allowed that trend poker has already spawned a "plastic whatever" still under wraps at Dow.

No visionaries need apply
In his keynote address, competitive-strategy guru Michael Porter of Harvard Business School talked about what strategy is -- and isn't. "A vision is not a strategy," he said. "A vision is something you have when you've been up for three nights in a row with no sleep." Strategy means making choices that distinguish your company from your competitors, which involves making trade-offs. "To deliver one kind of value, you have to sacrifice another kind of value," Porter noted. "Southwest Airlines, for instance, probably loses some potential customers because it flies out of secondary airports. But avoiding congestion shortens the time that Southwest's planes spend on the ground, a key competitive advantage." Trade-offs give a business a competitive edge and make it harder for other companies to copy it. "It's trade-offs that give you a very clear understanding of what the company stands for. A company that makes no trade-offs is either confused or heading for trouble," Porter said.

Emily Barker is a senior staff writer at Inc.

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