by Sue Bushell

How to Create a Know-it-all Company

Jun 14, 200717 mins
Enterprise Applications

In the current cost-focused climate, plenty of organizations are calling on competitive intelligence to help reach educated strategic decisions.

Put simply, the effort of sharing knowledge has to be less than the value of participating. People have to see tremendous immediate benefit. They have to see, smell, touch and taste how it’s going to improve their work lives.


  • Why convincing workers to share knowledge is especially important in a tough economy
  • How some companies have convinced employees to share their knowledge
  • Why it’s critical to make participation as easy as possible

Alert to possible pitfalls, when Astrazeneca Australia director of corporate planning Justin Ooi was charged with implementing the first significant competitive intelligence (CI) operation outside of the company’s US and UK offices, he vowed to proceed with caution.

It proved a wise decision. An initial low-cost pilot for 30 staff taught the company a few valuable lessons: Do not use systems as your starting point. Do make sure your CI efforts are integrated into the core processes of your business. And above all, do make sure CI becomes a part of the organizational culture.

There is little use implementing a knowledge management system, a huge database or some kind of online form to collect data, Ooi says, without building the processes around it that link that to someone’s normal job responsibility. Unless you can link your CI efforts to process, no one will enter information into the system, either because they cannot see what they will get out of it, or because even though they do see the value, entering information in the system falls outside of their normal work routine so it is all too easy to lose any motivation to do so.

“CI won’t get done unless it [gets integrated into core processes in the business], because if it’s another responsibility for someone in marketing or someone in sales, and they can’t see how it’s going to aid their day-to-day roles, or if they think it’s going to add to their workload, it will never be a deliverable that we can see happening,” he says. In the current cost-focused climate, plenty of organizations are calling on competitive intelligence to help reach educated strategic decisions. Competitive intelligence allows companies to anticipate market developments instead of reacting to them, and that can make the difference between staying afloat and going under. On the other hand, even major organizations that have long relied on their competitive intelligence strengths have been cutting back on the number of employees devoted to competitive intelligence activities. Many companies are now expecting all of their employees to collect and understand competitive intelligence and know how to apply it to make strategic decisions.

As those in sales, marketing and strategic planning are increasingly expected to bear the burden of the organizational CI activities, organizations are learning that integrating competitive intelligence with business processes and inculcating an intelligence culture into the organization are becoming increasingly critical.

“One of the things you need to do as a CI person working in a company is to build up a network of people who are conscious of the need to give a heads-up [about competitive threats],” NRMA Motoring and Services strategy consultant Chris Elenor says. “And some people really get off on it. I mean there are a couple of patrols in the NRMA that are always sending me things – little e-mails saying ‘I saw such and such doing such and such in this place’, or ‘I’ve recently been to England and guess what X is up to?’ One of the things you learn is to make sure you value their inputs,” Elenor says. “Most of the best CI – unless I’m chasing a particular issue or a particular question – doesn’t come from me. It comes from other people, in the normal course of their business, who rub up against our competitors.”

Linking CI with Business Processes

As Astrazeneca – a major pharmaceutical company – went through its small CI pilot it held focus groups with major potential users in sales and marketing only to be told the same thing again and again: “Yes, CI is really important to our roles, but at the end of the day, if it imposes an additional burden on us, it is not going to get done.” The answer was to build CI into business processes, Ooi says.

“If they’ve got a process of information to develop a new campaign for a product, we’ll build competitive intelligence into that campaign, rather than implementing a CI process,” Ooi says. “So the tack we took is to come up with a process and incorporate CI into that process.”

If a sales rep out in the field is already recording what doctors they see and the products that those doctors ordered, it is far better to add another field to record those doctors’ individual responses to Glaxo’s initiatives in relation to asthma than to introduce an entire new system to capture campaign intelligence. “If they can do it as part of their normal call record activity, then it’s more likely to get done,” Ooi says.

He warns that using systems instead of process as your starting point exposes your organization to the danger that the money it invests in CI technologies could be wasted.

“[If] someone implements a knowledge management system or a huge database or some sort of online forum to collect data, and it’s done without the processes around it that link it to someone’s normal job responsibility – we’ve had the same experience – no one enters information into it. They can’t see what they get out of it, or if they can see but it’s just not part of their normal work routine, they kind of forget its value. So you often don’t see the value coming out of that investment at all,” he says.

The Human Element

However important the technology, CI is still mainly about people, and about planning, says Professor Daniel McMichael, group leader for business intelligence CMIS at CSIRO’s division of Mathematical and Information Sciences. Over the past 30 years technology has provided ways of reducing the cost and computerizing and improving the quality of low-end activity, according to McMichael. Once we didn’t pay typists very much, for instance. Now we all do our own typing and word processing, and while on the whole we get much better results than ever we did when we had typists, we spend more time doing that work. “So that’s good, but if you can sell to a company or any organization the possibility of replacing or better utilizing much more expensive talent, then they’re going to like it,” McMichael says.

One way the CSIRO is trying to do just that is by working with Boeing in the area of “source fusion”, looking for techniques to synthesize useful knowledge from collections of data, as a way to move CI up the value chain. People know how to do searches – you put in a query and end up with a whole series of documents. Now the CSIRO is looking for ways to help turn searches – probing both the Internet and relevant databases – into investigations, by providing technology that can extract the relevant items in the relevant documents and then begin to assemble them into a structure that is “halfway towards a document”. “What you then need is the technology to do all that stuff. And a lot of it is based on search, but a lot of it is based on language understanding, so that you actually get semantics based on meaning out of a document and sections of documents. So you can apply that technology not just in CI but in intelligence analysis for Defence, counter-terrorism, all this kind of thing using exactly the same technology.”

In the meantime, McMichael recommends organizations take a look at the CSIRO’s P@noptic, a new search engine for corporate and government intranets that he says makes information more accessible, improves information flow to clients and significantly increases efficiency. But McMichael says the main lessons to have come from the CSIRO’s extensive experience in CI are that you should never expect the machine to do too much, and that tools must be well integrated to be truly effective. “You want to have human involvement at all stages,” he says. “You want to be able to say: ‘Okay, I need to get involved in this if the machine isn’t working very well.’ So you can use whatever technology you’re given, in the best way for you, and where there’s an automatic solution you can switch it out.

“And the other thing that I think is useful to be able to do, is to be able to plan what you’re doing around an investigation,” he says. “So instead of just having a whole series of different tools, relatively independent of each other, the tool enables integration of a number of technologies. I don’t know about you, but I spend a large amount of my time transferring information from one computer tool to another computer tool, and if that process can be automated so that there’s effective integration, then that’s a massive saving.”

McMichael says currently the best option for integration is a workflow solution, although since workflow is really designed to “shovel information around the organization to different people working on a single job”, this is far from the ideal. People are also at the centre of considerations of the need for CI, says Helen Price, market research and planning manager (Oceania) for DHL Worldwide, and those needs must be the central consideration when choosing tools. In DHL Worldwide, management tends to want to do ad hoc searches and ongoing tracking, while employees mainly need the sort of general information Price makes available on a basic intranet.

Until Price came on board, DHL Worldwide provided a so-called “competitive toolkit” to help managers do CI, but there was no structured approach to the organization’s competitive intelligence efforts. Price has been working to change all that, introducing a formalized program at the end of 2002.

She says with no separate funding for a CI program, her biggest initial task was to work out just what the organization could do with what it already had. That meant making better use of ongoing tracking, market shares, brand awareness, customer perceptions, customer satisfaction, employee feedback, service evaluation, differentiation matrices, competitive profiles and so much more. But she says equally important was to make sure people in the organization were kept aware of the volume of CI available to them. “For instance, we put out a newsletter to the staff highlighting information, because of course it doesn’t matter what you put on the intranet – unless people know it’s there, it’s pretty useless,” Price says.

But she says regardless of how many tools an organization has, unless CI is a part of the culture, with the full support of senior management, the program will never be effective. “You’ve got to get the support of your management, and the senior management. Unless they’re behind you, then it won’t happen. The problem is, it’s something that they need, but it is probably not front of mind for them, so there does need to be a sell job,” she says.

Getting the support of senior management also helps align the CI effort with the business, Ooi points out. When Astrazeneca was beginning its CI efforts Ooi’s team went to business leaders and asked: “If you had one question that you wanted to answer that changed the way you managed things, what would it be?” That meant working their way up from the strategic plan, by identifying the key issues and assumptions and finding out how those could be validated through CI. The drawback, Ooi says, is that aligning to quite high strategic goals helps managers to make decisions without necessarily helping people in the field.

Aligning CI with the business means being prepared to use the knowledge derived from CI to inform changes to the overall organizational strategy, says Elenor. One of the big issues NRMA Motoring and Services has been “banging its heads around” is the notion of convergence, he says. When Woolworths began selling petrol, the motoring organization began pondering other potential threats from convergence, such as the extent to which organizations in the insurance industry might in future want to offer roadside assistance. “And lo and behold, what happens is that you’ve now got some credit card companies offering a form of roadside assistance, as value add with their credit cards,” he says.

NRMA Motoring and Services’ strategic analysis also accurately predicted 18 months ago that customers might in future be able to buy roadside insurance along with their mobile phone – a situation that has now come to pass. Indeed the organization recognized a range of competitive threats from industries that might offer roadside assistance as a value add – insurance, telecommunications, utilities, retail and finance. And this recognition is largely because the organization’s people are fully on board.

“Through having a network of people who have got their eyes open and focused on the right sorts of things, suddenly I get an advert or a reference in the papers saying this particular telecommunications company is about to get into roadside assistance. We then go and find out about that company, see where it fits into their strategy, how important it is to them, whether it is just a value add or whether it is a move by a number of the telecommunications companies into those sorts of services, what’s going to drive the value of that . . .” Elenor says one of the roles of CI people is to drive that consciousness about your CI threat through the whole organization.

But if the ultimate goal of CI from a futurist’s point of view is to predict threats before they emerge, on a day-to-day basis it acts more as a decision support tool, used to help detect competitive threats of the nature of the competitive environment. “The way that we drive the competitive intelligence is very much: Well, you ask the question and we’re going to try to find you the answer,” he says. “And it is situated in the larger sort of strategic planning format: Where are we going forward? What’s happening in our key products and markets? Who are the competitors in those products and markets?

“The central thing is that we need to work out our own market strategies, rather than in response to our competitors, but at the same time the point is to know what our competitors are up to.”

Telecom New Zealand is achieving enhanced CI by integrating the CI function at strategic, operational and tactical levels. The approach is already paying dividends: the CI unit has been identified as a Centre of Excellence within the organization for meeting the challenges of the ever-shifting New Zealand telecommunications market.

Competitive intelligence manager Denise O’Shaughnessy says bringing together the telco’s primary market research and customer database capability, as well as learnings from each of those areas, is giving Telecom NZ an integrated view of competitive activities in the market. “We brought together the customer database team and the market research team and the market intelligence team,” she says. “They all now work out of the one group.”

As a team, this group can now answer questions for customers based on information from different sources, such as market research, market intelligence and databases. O’Shaughnessy says bringing different skill sets together lets the team put together a comprehensive “single story” for any internal customer. “So rather than focus in on assorted disciplines that we might have rather than a functional structure, we focus in on what it is that our internal customers need from us, which is information from various sources in various guises, and adding some value to that information. And the way we add that value is the way we bring that together,” she says.

Putting It in the Right Hands

When Astrazeneca was pondering its desired CI function, it considered hiring someone quite senior to take on the role of CI associate. Instead, it decided to hire an associated product manager three years out of university with some commercial experience. Ooi says it was the right decision to make, because that person spends their time running around the company “like a headless chook” sitting in meetings.

“So instead of having a manager who tries to implement something but isn’t there for it, this person is more than happy to sit in on the campaign group meeting and flag CI issues or go out in the field with the sales representative and implement it that way and try to ‘culturalize’ it from the bottom up,” he says. “And that works better for us. In fact we actually had a business intelligence manager at one point, and he was struggling with the fact that although he was trying to implement things at a certain level, he was too senior to actually get down into the business and be involved, and consequently wasn’t getting any buy-in.” Ooi admits the approach leaves a gap, because the associate is not best equipped to interpret or analyze some of the intelligence coming through. Instead this is done by a different group of people. On the other hand she is definitely the best person to inculcate that CI culture. Being young, enthusiastic and highly motivated has left her well placed to achieve buy-in at the same rate as CI is growing in the company.

Ooi has found an even more radical way to achieve buy-in. Reasoning that sales and marketing, for instance, are better sources of information than other areas of the company, Ooi felt the ideal model would be for sales and marketing to be the major source, and senior managers the main recipients of CI. The only trouble is, implementing such a model would mean the people who were giving the most information would be getting nothing back.

“So what we spent most of the first two years on was using their information to actually help them with their own processes in relation to either market research requirements or information dissemination across sales representatives in different states, as opposed to helping the senior managers,” he says. “That didn’t initially go down all that well with the directors, but at the end of the day we had to get buy-in first.”

Ooi says one of the best ways to achieve quick wins was to never say “No” to any request, even those that were not strictly related to CI. “The more you say ‘No’, the less likely they are to come to you at a later stage,” he says.

What Not to Do

Don’t make the following missteps when instituting knowledge management in your organization

  • Don’t call it knowledge management. Employees don’t get it, don’t care about it and would rather ignore the whole thing.
  • Don’t sweat the definitions. It doesn’t matter how people define “knowledge”, “competitive”, “management” and intelligence. Let them create their own definitions.
  • Don’t offer carrots. Resist the temptation to give payment – a few dollars or points in a reward system – for each knowledge contribution. Such a system is designed to be abused and will result in low-quality content.
  • Don’t wave sticks. Even worse, some companies threaten punishment for failing to contribute. Knowledge shared under threat of negative consequences is likely to be worthless.
  • Don’t bother unless there’s trust. Most companies meet the minimum interpersonal trust threshold required to make a go of KM or CI. Most, but not all. If your company prizes competition to the exclusion of all else, best put the knowledge management effort aside.