I recently read Confidential: Business Secrets – Getting Theirs, Keeping Yours by John Nolan (Yardley Chambers, 1999, available on Amazon.com for about US$18). John Nolan spent 22 years as an intelligence collection and counterintelligence expert.
If your competitors are consistently beating you in open bids or are getting new products to market before you do, perhaps they know things about your bids or product plans you would rather they didn’t. If you are playing catch-up with your competitors because you didn’t anticipate their next move, perhaps you don’t know enough about what they are doing. In either case, I recommend this book.
Confidential is divided into three parts:
- Eliciting, the process of getting other people to tell you things they probably shouldn’t.
- How to set up a business intelligence organization in your company.
- How to protect your confidential information from other companies who are following these practices.
You don’t go into a business meeting without a lot of preparation. You know the desired outcome, what you are willing to pay to get that outcome, and you have a carefully crafted message designed to get the desired result.
Likewise, the way to get information from somebody without them even being aware they are giving you information requires careful preparation for an apparently casual conversation. Instead of asking questions, you may make provocative statements, use quid pro quo or flattery, exploit a willingness to complain, pretend naïveté, or quote “reported” facts (which you just made up). Mr. Nolan includes at least a dozen such techniques, each carefully explained with examples. These techniques are used within casual conversations which always start and end with something totally innocent. When done right, the target does not even know they gave away or even talked about anything of value.
The book emphasizes that these techniques, when used appropriately, are ethical and legal. However, your competitors may not stay within those boundaries, so the final third of the book provides information on how to protect your confidential information from others, and recognize when you are the target.
Some key takeaways for me:
- Take advantage of every opportunity to learn things about your competitors. Trade shows and conferences provide a lot of targets who are there to talk about what they are doing.
- Educate your employees about what is your confidential information and about elicitation techniques so they can protect that information. If you don’t trust your employees with that information, get rid of them.
- Plan. Before every potential opportunity, plan what information you would like to get, then make sure everybody involved knows what that information is and how to get it. There is a whole chapter on trade shows and conferences that goes into great detail on the planning, actual event activities, and debriefing actions. It may read like a military operation, but most of it is fairly obvious. You spend a lot of money sending people to these events, for a little more you can gain valuable information.
- Use the information. Make sure the information gets passed to everybody who can take advantage of it.
- And, as always, get senior management buy-in.
The last word:
This book was written before the amazing rise of social media. How much additional information can you get by monitoring your competitors’ key personnel activities on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn? What does the movement of their sales leadership or key support personnel tell you about current or future customers? Who are their procurement folk visiting? If you know some of their people are attending a technical conference in a different area than you would expect, maybe you should send somebody. If someone in your LinkedIn network no longer works for a competitor, then maybe it is time for a friendly conversation. Ex-employees, especially those who did not leave voluntarily, are often a good source of information. What confidential information are you giving away through your corporate and employees’ individual social media channels? Make sure you have a policy on social media usage and educate them on that policy and why protecting your confidential is critical to the organization.
Keep your sense of humor.