Sree's Stories

TAKING IN THE SITES / By SREENATH SREENIVASAN

Corporate Intelligence: A Cloakhold On the Web

March 2, 1998
Pg. D4
Competitive intelligence, known variously as CI and business
intelligence, is more than just a buzzword thrown about by management
consultants. Gathering information on rivals can be one key to success in
the cutthroat corporate world. But some of the cloak-and-dagger may be
giving way to the mouse and keyboard as an increasing number of resources
become available on the World Wide Web.

"Many people don't realize just how much you can learn about your
rivals by accessing the Internet," said Leonard M. Fuld, founder of Fuld &
Company in Cambridge, Mass., which specializes in competitive-intelligence
issues. "From prospective clients to product specs, it's out there. And
we are not talking about some secret Web site that you need to access." He
is talking about the seemingly innocuous company home page.

Mr. Fuld and other experts say that organization charts, customer
lists and executive biographies can all be plumbed to learn about the
state of a company. Corporate plans, mergers and strategic alliances can
also be discovered if the documents are properly analyzed. "Of course, the
Internet is a tool and not an answer machine," Mr. Fuld said, "so you need
to be really patient and able to dig deep."

Digging deep can lead to strategies for research and development and
information about new products. Another area to pay close attention to is
the news-release archive. Because the great majority of such releases are
never printed in newspapers or other publications, the archives can hold
hints of future opportunities and challenges.

Human resources departments, in their quest to attract candidates,
provide extensive job postings that can signal areas that a corporation is
focusing on.

"The problem is compounded by the fact that many sites are created by
divisions within a company or by outside design firms that are not as
cautious about content as headquarters is," said Robert D. Aaron,
president of Aaron/Smith Associates, an Atlanta consulting firm on
competitive intelligence.

Small businesses as well as large ones are using the Web to gather
information about rivals. For example, an independent stationery store can
benefit from studying the on-line catalogues of chains to identify trends
and offer competitive pricing.

This abundance of information, much of it given out unwittingly, is a
result of companies' trying to maintain active and extensive Web sites
without thinking about some of the consequences. The easy access and
in-depth nature of a site that makes it so different from, say, an annual
report is also a disadvantage. Not only are potential customers looking
at the site, but competitors are too. It seems likely that in the years
ahead, corporations will reduce or curb the kinds of features that are
open to the public.

A good place to start a Web tour of competitive-intelligence sites is
the Fuld Internet Intelligence Index, which has links to more than 300
sites related to intelligence gathering, arranged by industry and interest
area. The site features a "strategic intelligence organizer," a useful
guide that suggests questions to ask when trying to gather information
about topics like information technology, employee defections and
deregulation.

There is also an interactive questionnaire that says it can determine
how intelligence-savvy a company is.

The sites of other consulting firms vary greatly in quality and
presentation. Some are nothing more than bare brochures, while others are
quite handy. The site of the Montague Institute of Montague, Mass.,
offers a Web journal that tackles topics like "Using the Internet for
Competitive Intelligence."

The site of the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals,
though designed for members, is helpful to others, as well. Among the
resources: a data base of 350 competitive-intelligence experts available
to discuss their areas of specialization, and various research reports. It
also answers questions like: "Is CI espionage?" Answer: "No. Espionage is
the use of illegal means to gather information. In fact, economic
espionage represents a failure of CI."

Naturally, corporate espionage remains an area of much concern, and the
Web reflects that. The School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State
University has teamed up with the society to produce a site dedicated to
intelligence and espionage laws worldwide.

Also worth visiting is the World Intellectual Property Organization in
Geneva, with its arbitration and mediation center and texts of various
agreements, including the Paris Convention for the Protection of
Industrial Property of 1883.