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Gathering Competitive Intelligence Ethically

man researching on a computer

A common misperception is that “competitive intelligence” is synonymous with “corporate espionage.”  

Nothing could be further from the truth.  

Corporate espionage is an illegal activity where companies steal valuable information from their competitors in order to gain a competitive advantage.  It may involve tactics such as wiretapping or hacking into proprietary systems to gain unauthorized access to private information. In contrast, competitive intelligence is a legal and ethical activity that uses publicly available information to gain insight into a company’s capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, performance, and general approach, which can then be used to develop likely competitor strategies in a given competition. Competitive intelligence is a widely-used and valuable business practice that leads to developing customer-focused and competitor-countering strategies that improve a company’s probability of a win.  

With that said, it is important to understand the legal and ethical boundaries of competitive intelligence, so that your company will remain above reproach in all of its competitive intelligence efforts.  Following are a few best practices to keep in mind when gathering competitive intelligence:

Define Ethical for Yourself & Your Company

Ethical boundaries are ultimately determined by the customer. For example, in the federal contracting space, the customer is the US government. Because the US government is funded by the American taxpayer and is therefore accountable to them, federal agencies are obligated to ensure that the way they use their allocated dollars is completely fair and free of any fraud, waste, or abuse. This results in a very high standard for what is ethical. Other industries and other countries, however, may have different ethical standards. That’s why it’s so important for you to determine what your company’s definition of ethical is and direct everyone at all levels of the organization to follow those standards. 

Develop a Culture of Ethics and Integrity

Be careful to avoid any ethical gray areas so that you can avoid being removed from a competition because of a real or perceived breach of ethical boundaries. As you collect competitive data, make notes about where you found it. It could be important in the future in case you need to prove that it did not come from a protected source. Talk frequently and openly inside your company about the safe sources to tap for information-gathering and ways to steer clear of any ethical danger zones.