Scenarios and directional trending

One of the aspects of CI that constantly surprises me is the schism between future-based scenario CI and tactical sales-focused CI.

I’ve long been a fan of the latter – utilising information gathered to help businesses stay in business and win more today than they did yesterday.  I’m also a keen reader of futurists such as David Brin, Eric Garland & Frank Spencer, who help strip away market noise and elevate the underlying trends that will impact business/consumerism/life.

With the untimely passing of Steve Jobs, it’s given me some pause as to what’s more impactful:

  • Picking the right set of future scenarios and business/consumer trends to accelerate growth and stay relevent.
  • Actively competing “today”. Building customer share and a revenue base to accomplish the same goals as above.

Having the luxury to go after the first point relies heavily on a clear vision and a “big-bet” on that future scenario. In a similar light, building a successful business as outlined in the second point can provide cash and time to decide how to approach new market challenges.

Obviously, having a combination of both is vital in creating long-term competitive advantage. The trick is not taking the foot off the sales accelerator as senior management outline these futures to customers. This is compounded by the risk of choosing the “wrong” future.

With that in mind, I’ve linked a few videos below that highlight what a number of different technology companies see in their future. It’s a great source of leveling information. Pulling out the fundamental trends that are central to all of them, namely:

  • Data sharing
  • Constant connection
  • Continual blurring of work/life
  • Privacy
  • Devices and interaction

Lots of positive reinforcement, but read between the lines and there’s room to question what aspects of these “futures” are going to create competitive advantage vs just being noise or at worse – harmful to your customers experience with your product or brand (see the last video)!





Competition makes you better. Period.

It’s been far too long between posts (over 3 years, how time flies).  Since then I’ve been a little busy getting married to the love of my life and having a darling daughter who is exploring the world around her and just fascinating to watch!

Competitive Intelligence is still very close to my heart and day-to-day job and I’m keen to re-visit blogging, now with the growth of Twitter (globally as well as my addiction to it) which, I hope, can help me tie more of my thoughts and observations together.

I have also been hooked on another form of time suck, but this one is a little more productive. Crossfit.  Functional fitness and trying to be more dynamic on my excercise regiment has helped me drop a bunch of weight and also given me a more healthy approach to what “being fit” is.

But enough of that – what’s any of this Crossfit business got to do with Competitive Intelligence. Well one of my favorite blogs Fitbomb, blogged about an applied exercise physiology study at the University of Portsmouth in England that measured the effect of the presence of competition on athletes performance (cycling) and concluded that the brain is able to tap into additional reserves of energy in race scenarios.

In many ways, this mirrors the effect competition has on businesses. Monopolies grow inefficient and stagnant and are open to competitive shifts from outside their own industry from hungrier and more agile players. One only has to look at the disruptive effect that Apple has played in recent years in the music, PC, gaming and software distribution businesses to see how regular competition is healthy in driving advances for customers.

Embracing competition (and competitors) for what is it, an opportunity to make your products, services and processes better aligned to what your customers want should always be top of mind. All too often CI is used as a shield. Defensive in nature, looking for ways to mitigate risk, rather than positioned as a healthy measurement of what a company can do to remain relevant and vibrant in the market.

 

Real Competition

Forget what we do. Sure competing for market share and dollars is all well and good, but THIS is competition.

Well apparently Michael Phelps is competition personified, but YouTube and the muppets who control the Olympic media policy have a nice handle on the word monopoly. Anyway, can’t embed any videos and any “home made” versions are being taken down. When will these people get it.  Well for those still interested, here is his swim 🙂

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNKrQBGdYW0&feature=PlayList&p=93F1EBBB02FDF6AD&index=14

I don’t care if he’s American, I don’t care that there are no Aussie’s within cooee of him this year. Phelps is competition personified.

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Creating competitors

We often think about how to compete against competitors effectively. It’s our job. However, while a lot of great work has been done around anticipating competitors moves (or new market entrants) using various radar models, not a lot has been said about how companies effectively “create” their own competitors.

Dick Costolo, Founder of FeedBurner, wrote in his blog last March about how software startups effectively create their own competitors by doing three core things wrong or badly. One of these stuck out for me as being true for not only software, but the IT industry as a whole.

“Partnerships in non-strategic areas that place company X between us and our customer.”

For me, this is THE key area where competitors are created. Not the guys to think about today, but the ones that seemingly come out of nowhere to make a strong play for your customers. There are numerous examples, Google in search now making strong plays in the enterprise with their productivity solutions, Apple’s iPod as a sleeper cell in the music and possibly mobile applications business. The list goes on and on.

So the question is, how to best manage the process of keeping an eye on these non-strategic areas?  I see three techniques to help weed out the noise from the truly important:

1. Know your customers.

2. Understand where your partner’s products and services fit in the overall value of your product.

3. Understand where your partner’s products and services fit in the overall value proposition of your competitors.

 

Knowing you customers:

This is pretty basic stuff, so not going to be earth shatteringly new to most of you. Knowing your customers, and what technologies their using is vital in assessing where competitive threats may lay. More importantly, is understanding where your customers “want” to be in the next 2-3 years.  Are they looking to mobilize a workforce? Are they in an industry where heavy outsourcing will make your job selling to them more difficult. The list is pretty much endless here. At Microsoft we attempt to deal with this in a myriad of ways, from market research into install base (software and hardware) through to future buying propensity and talking to the Analyst community about what their customers are telling them.  At the large enterprise level, it’s more about building relationships and dialogue between us and customers. Something that is fairly new from a culture perspective, but is definitely something we’re gearing up towards.

 

Understanding where your partner’s products and services fit in your value proposition:

So what makes your product or service valuable to your customers. Are you a small cog in a larger piece or do you provide the platform for others to build on? If your largest partner were to offer a similar product to you, who has the better relationship with the customer?  All of these aspects of the market can be mapped and weighted based on what is most important to your company, but keep in mind that any analysis needs to be done with a non-biased mind-set. Are there specific customer groups that only buy your product because it is dragged along with your partners (Oracle Database behind SAP for instance – any database behind SAP in reality). SAP’s efforts to build more functionality into MaxDB are indications that they would like to try this, however, the maturity of the market and the number of players influences this strategy greatly. The fewer products and the more intrenched a partner/competitor is, the harder it is to get customers to switch. 

 

Understanding where your partner’s products and services fit in your competitors value proposition:

Oracle’s acquisition strategy is often seen as a way of buying share, and it is. However, more than just buying competitors in certain product areas, all of the application acquisitions were partners for Oracle technology (database and middleware). In much the same way, BEA, while a competitor in Middleware, was a huge partner for Applications. Understanding the fit between partners and your competitors can allow you to measure any strong signals of the “what ifs” when they join forces, merge or are acquired. List out your 5 largest competitors and your 5 largest partners and see where the overlaps are.

 

Follow-up: Dow Jones Webinar, The Impact of Web 2.0 on Competitive Intelligence

Dow Jones presented a free webinar on the topic, The Impact of Web 2.0 on Competitive Intelligence last night (for me). The session features Knowledge inForm’s Cynthia Cheng Correia.

Firstly… Wow! Cynthia’s content was not only detailed, but well presented and thought out for her audience. I have to admit, going into the webinar I wasn’t expecting much (not any slight on Cynthia, I’ve just never taken part in a free information webinar before, so my expectations were low).

What I got out of the webinar was a much better understanding of the framework needed to assess and take advantage of Web 2.0 in your daily CI tasks, be they gathering, analyzing or distributing information and insight.

I wont post the full deck here, but I will take one of the slides that neatly summarizes Cynthia’s main points and reproduce it here. When the recorded presentation becomes available you can get the full low-down. (Guessing it will be here when that happens). Link to the archive is here.

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As I mentioned, I pulled out some good insight for myself and how we’re using portions of Web 2.0 at Microsoft.

  • Content & Information is moving towards Collaboration and Knowledge. E.G. as people interact, knowledge is harnessed via the interaction, rather than just collection.
  • Web 2.0 can have a massive effect on how we currently plan and project manage. Prioritizing the right forms of Web 2.0 information sources at the right time.
  • There is still a need for a clear framework for collection and idea of what you end result you are looking for – otherwise you end up with the firehose, rather than a funnel.

And one caveat:

Definitely keep an eye out for when Cynthia delivers this presentation again, it was well worth my time – even at 11pm here in Singapore.. and that’s a rare occurrence!

**As a side note: I think Web 2.0 should be renamed “the Web” (Web 2.0 is what the Internet is all about now). I think there is just as much jaded concern and mistrust around Web 2.0 as there was for “e”-everything back during the Bubble.

Is CI a generalist or specialist role?

“Mile wide and an inch deep” is something that I catch myself saying more times than I care to admit. It stems from the fact that I believe I know a little about most competitors in my market (enough to be dangerous) but not absolutely everything about their technical or business strategies.

Would I call myself a generalist though? In the harsh light of day, I would have to admit – in the realm of CI, I am a generalist. I cover multiple markets, multiple types of analysis and tend to be a jack of all trades. I pride myself in being able to jump into a new technology market or competitor and come up with insight. However, in the realm of marketing, I’m a specialist. The mile wide and inch deep argument is a little like an iceberg. While I may be covering a large number of competitors, touching and interacting with several business groups and stakeholders, at the core I bring specialized CI skills to the table. Here’s a very top-line explanation of what I mean.

Slide1

There’s a lot of arguments for and against being a generalist and I’m none the wiser as to what’s the best positioning for a CI professional. Two interesting takes on the argument come from Pras Sarkar, from Yahoo! Research and Seth Godin

Five key tips on being a brilliant generalist according to Pras:

  1. Stay up-to-date with your area of generalization
  2. Know what to explore and what to ignore
  3. Be critical of new technologies
  4. Visualize the results of all new pursuits and endeavors
  5. Don’t over-generalize

While Seth swings the opposite way, stating:

“When choice is limited, I want a generalist. When selection is difficult, a jack of all trades is just fine. But whenever possible, please bring me a brilliant specialist.”

I tend to side with Seth on this in my case. Proactively positioning myself as a CI Specialist, rather than a generalist. Regardless of what the mile wide part is, the deeper value is the core CI principles, techniques and skills I can bring to a discussion or team. However, Pras’ advice makes a lot of sense for the “mile wide” portion. Using his framework to assess and sanity check what competitors and what markets I need to keep in my periphery.

So how do you position yourself?

 

Dow Jones Webinar, The Impact of Web 2.0 on Competitive Intelligence

Presentation1

This could be interesting. At least I haven’t heard too much on this topic as it relates to our profession.

Dow Jones is presenting presenting a free webinar on the topic, The Impact of Web 2.0 on Competitive Intelligence. It’s on 17 July at 11:00 AM EDT (GMT-4), so all you APAC CI people, you can stay up with me!

The session features Knowledge inForm’s Cynthia Cheng Correia.

Based on what I hear from this session, I promise I’ll put together my own recorded webinar on gathering CI over Blogs, Online Databases, Linkedin, etc. I have a bit of an older-school take on this topic as I’m a proud Gen-Xer.