Passive versus active
Many conversations have hashed and rehashed the issue of competitive intelligence. The objection that most often comes from technology managers and senior executive of technology firms is that information gathering often develops into corporate espionage, implying that there is something wrong with spying. The word spy come from the word espionage, that whose French root means to look over the hill. To the best of our knowledge there is nothing wrong with looking over a hill, either literally or metaphorically. We believe, after many more discussions with these managers, that they were making a distinction between the passive information gathering we refer to as competitive intelligence, and the active information gathering we refer to as economic espionage (and which we spend so much time detecting and stopping).
With passive information gathering it is almost impossible to break the law or do anything wrong. Passive information gathering includes the reading and analysis of published articles, trade information, public reports, etc.
With active information gathering we are discussing techniques such as interviewing the employees of competitors perhaps under some false pretense; using a pretext to get information out of suppliers and current or past employees, hanging out in bars or restaurants that cater to a companies employees, dating employees to get information, etc. Although nothing of what is described above is illegal, the active nature of people listening to or talking to people makes many company officers — and us — uncomfortable, hence, the pejorative use of the word spying.
It is most likely that the active business intelligence measures, as opposed to the passive methods, will be the ones to cross the line. And at the point when you are working as a cleaner in a competitor’s office and going through their trash, or photocopying documents, or planting tape recorders, you have definitely crossed the line.
Hence, the objective when designing a competitive business intelligence unit should be to specifically identify the legal methods of gathering information which are acceptable, and the improper or illegal means and methods that are not acceptable, and to regularly require a managerial or peer review for compliance. 95% of the Fortune 500 Companies have competitive intelligence units. These companies did not get where they are by being blind and refusing to “look over the hill.” As a business owner or manager you must stay current and you must stay informed. By definition this requires you to “look over the hill” to see what is coming next, or where you will be going. It does not, however, require you to engage in illegal or questionable acts.
For those companies too small for CI departments, hiring contractors, with specifically spelled out terms will be more than sufficient.