Why Global business opportunities create special challenges for CI profess
How do CI professionals differ from country to country? Is everything the same except the language?
Managing an export oriented competitive intelligence and marketing consulting company with projects conducted in several countries, we often recruit country specific CI professionals to work for us on client projects. As an American living "overseas", my attitudes and techniques toward CI and marketing are still very much based on my American MBA and work experience in a Fortune 500 corporation. However, working overseas has provided numerous opportunities to interact with CI professionals in many areas of the world and, as I will explain, differences in technique and culture are sometimes astounding. The following example will illustrate some of these differences.
We recently completed a client assignment for a manufacturer of a new consumer product. The client was developing something new and wanted to check out a number of related products which they had heard about "through the grapevine" that could be considered competitors. Unfortunately, none of the products were on the market yet. The CEO needed someone to investigate the rumors about the products and the companies that planned to make them. We pinned down the assignment to 3 targets - one in the USA, another in England and the last one in Italy. After defining our objectives, we hired information specialists in each of the 3 countries. The differences in business approach and CI performance were quite interesting.
The 3 Techniques
Let's begin with the American. After agreeing to the project, he sent us a bill for ½ the fee and advised us that he would not begin until the invoice was paid (contrast that to the British and Italians outlined below). After being paid, he easily found the required secondary data on the target, a privately held company, from a number of published sources including on line data bases and company newsletters. When seeking out information on the product of interest, he contacted the target company directly, although he was very careful in not misrepresenting himself. He told them who he was and that he was doing "industry research" (a true statement) but came up empty handed. Using the "big fish" method of research, he realized that the target manufacturer was a one location company in a fairly small US city. Making calls to local business journalists and organizations lead him to a former employee who is now a supplier to the company. He readily supplied information about the product, when its launch was planned and which markets were being targeted. He told us how he "beat out an overseas competitor" for the component he supplies so he was anxious to talk about it. Overall, a job well done.
Then there was our associate in London. He agreed to handle the project and begin immediately. After 10 days we received his first invoice, giving us 30 additional days to pay it, even though we never asked for such credit terms. Once he began work, he secured some of the published data needed as the target was a public company but he was having problems finding information about the product of interest. He would not call the target under any circumstances - this was deemed unethical. He tried interviewing industry experts, but only after telling them that he was conducting a competitive intelligence project on behalf of a foreign manufacturer. With an opening statement like that, the British insiders refused to cooperate. The consultant explained that his firm is a member of a UK research association which has strict rules of ethics which they must follow. While our American played by the rules, he explained only what was necessary. That approach seemed unethical to the Brit who never did find what we wanted. Eventually we secured the product information but it was from a non-British source.
Finally, there is the Italian, also a business information expert. He said he could easily get the needed information. No payment was needed up front - he would bill the whole thing for payment within 10 days upon receipt of his report. It wouldn't take him long, he advised. Sure enough, he quickly found sales data for the target manufacturer, a privately held company. He never did tell me how he got it but hinted that he had a relative in a government office. Looking for data on the product of interest, he promptly called the manufacturer and made an appointment. Using one of many business cards, he explained that he represents a major wholesaler in South America (untrue). The Italian manufacturer, a smallish company, was quite interested in the South American market for his new product and welcomed the researcher with open arms. He even gave him a tour of the facility and our consultant reported on the number of production lines and type of equipment being used. He apologized for not getting a better look in R&D department. They were out to lunch so he only managed to peak in the window. He came back with product literature, price data, feedback on their marketing plans and names of their new overseas agents. When we asked about the ethics of this approach, he sounded puzzled. "You said you wanted competitive intelligence didn't you? That's how we do it in Italy!" In his mind, this was standard operating procedure. (Other Italian competitive intelligence researchers have subsequently advised us that they do not use such techniques).
We told the story about the Italian to our British colleague who was astounded. "People really do such things" he responded? We also told the American but he was not shocked. "That's how it works in Italy. If I did that in the US, they would put me behind bars".
A Global Market
In today's environment of Internet and low cost, efficient global communication, the world has truly become a global village. More and more companies - yes even those in the US - are becoming aware of the fact that exporting is not something "nice to have" but a critical element of business success. This situation has opened up opportunities for CI professionals, especially those with international networks that can be accessed immediately as opportunities arise. As our small example illustrates, business practices differ from country to country and even from region to region. Being aware of these differences help make CI professionals more valuable to their organizations and clients. It also will help avoid legal and ethical problems before they occur.
Global Tips for CI Professionals
Build an international network of professionals. Business is no longer limited to your home country, even in the United States.
Clearly define your project objectives, in writing, with all collaborators. What is obvious to you, may NOT be obvious to them.
Establish ethical guidelines. Practices like some of those described earlier could create difficulties for you or your client .
Be open to cultural differences. Learning about and understanding other cultures is good business and also makes work more exciting and rewarding.