THE MAGAZINE

I Spy Your Company Secrets

By John J. McGonagle, Jr., and Carolyn M. Vella

What Information Warrants Protection?
Which information assets should your company seek to protect? The answer is competitively sensitive data. What is that? It differs for each company. You can determine what it is at your company by answering the following six questions.

  1. What information is most difficult for your competitor to develop without your tacit or active cooperation?
  2. What data would be crucial to completing a competitive profile on your firm?
  3. What data is already partially protected? For example, if your marketing plan is a “trade secret,” protect information from which someone could derive critical elements of that plan.
  4. What data is critical to your operation as a business?
  5. What competitive intelligence is your firm collecting (or trying to collect) on your competitors? What is most critical? What is most difficult to find?
  6. Which data analysis techniques are most likely to be used in your industry? What information would be vital to using those techniques?

SYNOPSIS
A lot of information about your company is accessible to competitors, and the smart ones are busy collecting it, analyzing it, and using it against your business to gain an edge in the marketplace. The good news is that there are ways to thwart such competitive intelligence (CI) collection efforts.

It helps first to understand what CI is. CI consists of two overall facets. First is the use of public sources to develop data (raw facts) on competitors and the market environment. Second is the transformation, by analysis, of that data into information (usable results).

CI collection can be active or defensive. Active CI involves development of intelligence on all aspects of businesses and the competitive environment. Active CI is divided into four types: strategy-oriented, tactics-oriented, target-oriented, and technology-oriented. A key maxim common to each of the variations of CI is that 90 percent of what a company needs to know about competitors is public information or can be developed from public data.

A defensive CI program protects a company’s information assets from legal collection efforts. Defensive CI consists of monitoring and analyzing your own business’s activities as your competitors see them, and then working to cloak company data from CI efforts.

Cloaking rests on three basic concepts: First, the company must understand the channels through which a competitor could gather company data. Second, it should seek to control what goes into those channels. As a part of that, it should determine what activities are of greatest competitive interest and focus on protecting those areas. Third, the company should consider how competitors might analyze collected data, which will help it assess the kind of data that competitors need to conduct their analysis.

John J. McGonagle, Jr., is managing partner of The Helicon Group, a global competitive intelligence consulting, training, and research firm. He has authored and co-authored numerous business, competitive intelligence, law, and economics articles and books. He also has served as an expert witness. He received the prestigious Fellows Award in 1998 from the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP). Carolyn M. Vella is founding partner of The Helicon Group, which she founded in 1980. Vella received the Meritorious Award in 2003 from SCIP. This is the highest honor SCIP bestows. She has authored and co-authored numerous articles and books on business and competitive intelligence.

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