Fast Company has a really neat article on competitive intelligence, which has a concise explanation of various ways to get information. But they don’t tell you where to put it once you get it.
One of the axioms of competitive intelligence is that 80% of what you’re looking for is probably available in the company. In file cabinets, in email accounts, and other people’s heads. Clearly, if this axiom is true, the main problem any newbie CI person faces isn’t where to get the other 20%, but to make sure you’ve got your fingers on the 80%. The issue is where to put it all so that you can put your fingers on it. Even if the new stuff is all you’re after, once you start looking you can accumulate a lot of stuff very rapidly and it needs to go somewhere.
The problem wouldn’t be so bad but for the variety of forms this information has. Computer files of various types, email, scanned documents, paper documents, and product samples all need to be someplace where they can be found. There’s not much to do with paper docs – either scan them or not. File cabinets take care of the “not”. Product samples are really a different problem entirely.
That leaves all the computer based stuff, and you can get pretty far with just a set of directories to provide basic structure, and Copernic Desktop or the like to find it when you need it. Spreadsheets and a Access databases can serve for summaries, comparisons, analysis of data, and other tasks, but tend to yield more files that need to be kept track of. Even so, this kind of freestyle approach can be extremely flexible, and search tools are getting good enough to make finding just about anything a reasonable task. If you’re concerned about sourcing, you can always make a simple database to store info on each file, where it came from, its validity, etc.
This approach takes very little to get started, and it doesn’t have many problems until it gets really, really large, or lots of people need access. Everything ends up someplace where you can usually find it, if you think to look for it.
While this approach has great flexibility, it’s at the expense of structure. While structure can be confining, it provides some advantages. CI can be about exploration, and getting information that seems important but doesn’t seem to have a place. This tends to be the stuff you need to be reminded of, to see several times before something clicks and you understand what it means. The advantage of a structured environment is that it tends to put this stuff where you see it, whether or not you are looking for it. Structure also helps guide the effort – empty fields are a reminder of things that need to be looked for. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of the freestyle system is that its lack of structure denies the user the benefit of a lot of other people who are doing the same thing.
There aren’t many systems out there that provide this kind of structure out of the box, and when I went looking the best I could find was Strategy!. Strategy! has a lot of places to store all kinds of tidbits, among many other things. It also has about 150 reports that regurgitate all those tidbits in various ways. Usually when you are printing the report for a different, but maybe related, reason. It doesn’t let you forget those things that don’t seem like anything when you first get them, but when combined with all their bretheren paint a picture as obvious as a stop sign. For those things that don’t fit the structure, files can be linked in and kept track of. More than once this structure has brought something to the surface that I had forgotten about, but proved to be an important piece in the puzzle. The built-in reports have also saved me much last-minute spreadsheet and database wrangling.
So, while you’re exploring all the ways to get competitive information, think about where you’re going to put it. Whether you go with a flexible freestyle system, or a structured package, the time to have something in place is before you need it.