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The new competitive intelligence: Raising the confidence quotient

online documentation for information about clinical trials, adverse events and other knowledge about competitors, Buckingham says. The key words and phrases go into a text analytics engine that helps the user derive the proper meaning (i.e., is the term "Paris Hilton" referring to the socialite or a hotel in Paris?). The technology can also determine from the syntax if the terms are valid or if they are part of a sarcastic remark, Buckingham adds.

QL2's flagship product, WebQL 3.0, extracts unstructured data from the Web, Microsoft Office documents, e-mail archives and disparate data repositories for use by business and competitive intelligence and analytics applications in financial services, life sciences, travel, telecommunications and other regulated industries. WebQL can even read text represented as images in Web pages and PDF documents using optical character recognition.

While technologies like WebQL 3.0 and competing products provide valuable details, with so many different sources of information, it's necessary to separate the reliable from the unreliable. Information must be verified via industry research, Carpe says.

Ford Motor Company provides an example.Its recently announced changes to the Lincoln Mercury were discovered via blog searches long before being made official by the company, according to Tony Pietrocola, president of Tenth Floor, a firm that develops content management software.

Similarly, the auto company's recent job cuts were not all that surprising in the wake of its financial woes. On the other hand, if someone were to uncover information, even from a few different blogs, that Ford was moving all production to China, that would have to be considered with serious skepticism.

"Anyone can buy QL2 or similar software and get some information," Carpe says, but CI analysts are needed to help companies determine the validity of the information.

Some competitive intelligence software will provide "sentiment indicators" to indicate where sentiment lies on an issue at a certain period of time. Buckingham says the growth in the popularity of sentiment indicators is one of the biggest recent trends in CI technology.

Consequently, there's growth in the demand for CI consultants to interpret the information. "Research isn't analysis until it becomes an actionable recommendation," says Carpe.

The growth in competitive intelligence resources is expected to continue as blogs gain in popularity and as a source of valid information, according to Carpe. Some bloggers have been very good at uncovering inside information about companies.

Johnson expects podcasts will become more popular sources of competitive intelligence as they become more commonplace on the Web.

And Pietrocola expects to see more use of competitive intelligence technology to search the information contained in SMS messages. 

Protecting yourself

Obtaining "inside" information about competitors can be helpful, but those competitors are trying to obtain the same information about you. So how does a company protect itself from letting confidential information get into the wrong hands?

One way is to strictly limit information dissemination throughout a company, but such a super-secretive environment may not play well with employees and managers. So the need to protect company information must be balanced with the desired corporate environment.

David Carpe, founder and principal of Clew, says, "People don't want to be treated like babies. They need a certain amount of information in order to do their jobs."

Yet some firms do quite well with a secretive culture. Regarding Apple Computer, Carpe says, "Before the iPod came out, virtually no one internally had any idea what was going on with it."

Arik Johnson, managing director of Aurora WDC, recommends creating secure communications mechanisms for those in the field so that competitors don't intercept communications.

Know the workflow of content and how it gets published to the Web, recommends Tony Pietrocola, president of Tenth Floor. That way people who don't need to have information don't obtain it and put it in a "non-approved" communication like a blog or SMS message.

Pietrocola also suggests establishing a company blog in which customers, employees and others can post comments or concerns about the company, even if they're negative. Taking such an action can help an organization be proactive in addressing negative sentiments and can help alleviate the desire for people to create their own blogs, which can be more damaging in terms of revealing corporate information.

Despite a company's best efforts, some inside information is likely to get on the Web. "It's amazing the amount of information that's available on public Web sites," Pietrocola says.

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