According to a February, 2011 Financial Times article, US intelligence sources estimate that industrial espionage will cost American businesses between $100-250 billion dollars annually. Increased global competition, pressure to rapidly and persistently innovate and pure profiteering are oft-cited motives for both physical and electronic means of securing proprietary information.
Even the seemingly benign HR industry isn’t immune from these concerns with the settlement between Halogen and SuccessFactors reading like a SP(HR)y novel – creation of a bogus company, the duping of unsuspecting sales reps, the disclosure of proprietary information, and so on.
And although shadowy characters will always attempt to invade the halls or http’s of their competitive foes, there are two relatively obvious and quite simple means of gathering G2 without breaking a single law:
Intel Option #1: Job Postings
Curious about the location of your competitor’s new operational center? Wondering what the underlying code is for their yet-to-be-unveiled SaaS offering? Sleepless thinking about your relative pace of growth when compared to those in your domain? This is so obvious I’m almost remiss in mentioning it – simply check out your arch enemy’s career site and job postings.
We have reached a level of requisitioning maturity whereby extremely detailed job codes and underlying descriptions are almost a prerequisite for securing both internal approval and a highly targeted and talented candidate pool. Because of this move toward clarity of purpose, you can gleam an incredible amount of highly valuable information in no time flat. With a simple export and sort you can assess trending information, deconstruct growth plans, find out what tools and technologies your foe is codependent on and ascertain exactly where they might go next. It’s really quite simple.
Intel Option #2: Public Sector
Although this may not be true of very small or emerging organizations, most companies of any significant size or scale eventually dabble in the public sector. And with the public sector come four words that are often music to your competitive ears – Freedom of Information Act. FOIA is a post-Watergate provision effectively allowing any citizen to request that information be released to the public by government entities. Although exceptions do exist covering confidential business information, you’d be amazed what is disclosed under the act (visit GWU’s National Security Archive for more details).
If you aren’t willing to wait months (or sometimes years) for FOIA fulfillment, you can always try searching GSA’s Advantage site to find existing government contracts, pricing lists, and the like. Think of GSA as the procurement department of the Federal government, and since many states also purchase off of GSA schedules, this is a great means to find either direct relationships or indirect distributors that carry your competitor’s wares. You can also perform complex searches on State, County or Local sites to gather publicly available information on a wide variety of topics and issues. This one is also painfully easy.
Seriously, That’s It?
Yep, that’s it. I could offer more complex means to an end but this is not spy school and I’m not a lawyer. And trust me – I would guess that 99% of organizations hadn’t thought of how this information could be gathered so cheaply and easily. How do I know that? Because I’m always surprised by the raised eyebrows and “huh”s (followed by frantic note taking) when I describe these two techniques.
What Should I Do Next?
You should ignore this advice completely. Instead you should focus less on your competitors and more on your customers. Any good offering will always stand up to competitive threats and those who spend more effort on understanding others should redouble their efforts on understanding their clients (and themselves). I’m not suggesting that you should be cavalier or myopic in your competitive marketplace. Instead I’ve found that – more often than not – we look elsewhere for answers when they are standing right in front of us.
A Closing Thought
As former CIA counterintelligence officer (and now convicted spy) Aldrich Ames once said:
“Espionage, for the most part, involves finding a person who knows something or has something that you can induce them secretly to give to you. That almost always involves a betrayal of trust.“
Most organizations I know can rationalize their way in and out of any morally ambiguous ground. Maybe by writing this post I’ve contributed to the problem, but what if you think of it instead as a test — now that you know how to do this, should you?
When the dust settles and time passes, it’s up to you to decide if you’re in the business of the betrayal of trust. Like all real life situations, the answer is never as simple as it seems.