Vol. 9 No. 8 September 2001
Competia Symposium 2001:
A Strategically Competitive and Intelligent Choice
by Josh Duberman Partner, Pivotalinfo LLC
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There's a new addition to the conference lineup for information professionals and it's worth checking out.

The first Competia Symposium was held on June 11-13, 2001, at the Chateau Frontenac in the old-walled quarter of Quebec City. The relatively high $1,800 registration cost was balanced by the setting, a historic, castle-like hotel complete with stone towers, turrets, and a gorgeous view overlooking the St. Lawrence River.

The goal of the conference was to enable strategic planning and competitive intelligence (CI) professionals to learn and network in an intimate environment. The 230 participants mainly came from corporations and governments and held job titles such as Directors and VPs of Strategic Planning or CI Managers and Strategy Analysts. Attendance was international, with 40 percent from the U.S., 30 percent Canadian, 20 percent European, and 10 percent from the rest of the world. Exhibitors and sponsors included Factiva, Hoover's, Infomart, Oxford Analytica, Webforia, Versalys, ZeroKnowledge, and the Chateau Frontenac.

Most of the 33 speakers came from industry, representing such companies as 3M, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bombardier, BP Amoco, Compaq, Dow Chemicals, Hewlett Packard, L'Oreal, Lucent, Lycos, Nestle, and Shell.

Highlights from some of the presentations are included below, with excerpts and paraphrases. For more complete details, see the Competia Web site at, where you can also purchase the conference proceedings for $300 Canadian. Videotapes of some sessions may also be available by the time this article is published.

Keynote Address: Dr. Michael Porter on "Strategy: The New Learning"
The conference opened Monday night with a reception for all participants. On Tuesday morning, Competia president Estelle Métayer introduced Harvard Business School professor, Dr. Michael Porter, author of The Competitive Advantage of Nations. Dr. Porter addressed the conference via videolink from Boston, expressing regret that he couldn't speak in person or participate on the post-conference golf team. His keynote presentation, "Strategy: The New Learning," drew on ideas from a forthcoming book as well as from his earlier works, Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage

Dr. Porter began by stating: "The more information in the economy, the more competitive is the economy so you in this room are doing very important work."

He then reviewed some business basics: 

1. The creation of economic value depends on the ability to command prices greater than the full costs of producing goods or services.

2. The only real, appropriate goal of a firm must be superior long-term return on investment. Dr. Porter continued, "If you can find a competitor who doesn't have this goal you might have an opportunity." He explained that other goals for example, being big or technologically advanced, or even increasing shareholder value are dangerous, because the company can be drawn into other directions such as trying to guess what the stock market might want.

When you analyze a company, you must examine the company's entire value chain and disaggregate the company into its parts. Companies are collections of discrete activities in which competitive advantage resides.

A company's relative performance is determined by either or both of these factors:

1. Operational Effectiveness Becoming more efficient by assimilating, attaining, and extending best practices, i.e., running the same race faster than other companies.

2. Strategic Positioning Creating a unique and sustainable competitive position, i.e., choosing to run a different race than your rivals.

Many companies just try to compete on superior operational effectiveness but that's not enough. Companies must try to do both.

What is strategy? It's not a race to one ideal position, but the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities, and making trade-offs between competing and choosing what not to do. Strategy isn't vague; it's a very clear understanding of where you're going both the approach and the way of implementing the approach.

How do we distinguish an actual strategic position from just competing on improvements in operational effectiveness, also known as best practice competition? 

1. It's a different value proposition, a different mix of values delivered to different customers. How do the activities in the value chain differ? 

2. The company's activities are tailored to the strategy, and these activities fit together in an integrated system. Dr. Porter cited the example of Southwest Airlines, whose features are supported by a web of interlocking activities (from his article "What is Strategy," Harvard Business Rev., Nov/Dec 1996). Southwest's low ticket prices are made possible by limited passenger service, such as no meals, pre-assigned seats, or baggage transfers; its highly productive ground crews are motivated by high employee compensation and stock ownership. 

3. Another key test of strategy is trade-offs or choices. You intend to do something differently than your rival, unlike competing on best practices, in which your choices are made for you. Dr. Porter said, "If you don't make trade-offs, why wouldn't your competitors imitate you?" When understanding a company, it's revealing to see what trade-offs a company has made what markets it won't serve, for example. Dr. Porter used the example of Neutrogena, which places its soap in the health and drugs section, not in the cleaners and grocery aisles. Neutrogena decided to forego cleaning, skin softening, and deodorizing features because it considered these features incompatible with its goal of safe, residue-free skin. This approach also necessitated higher costs in manufacturing, skin research, and medical advertising.

4. A good strategy has continuity. "You have to stick with it for a while and get good at it." It's not that you will never change the job is always to improve. In fact, Dr. Porter continued, "I believe that if you have a strategy, that enables you to change strategies faster."

Superior strategy policies are hard to do not conceptually, but organizationally. It's easiest for organizations to follow the path of best practice improvement copying competitors and this path is often reinforced by management and by capital markets. Companies will be pushed to copy a benchmark.

Strategy involves vision, learning, agility, flexibility, innovation, restructuring, mergers/consolidation, alliances/partnering. These are all useful tools in the service of strategy. You can also use them to see how your competitors might stumble.

When asked, "What do you see coming next or what should be coming next?" Dr. Porter replied, "I hope we have another strategy fad. In the late '60s and early '70s everyone had a big strategic planning fad, with 5-year plans, etc., but it failed because it was a disconnected exercise. We didn't understand the field. We see strategy with much more rigor than before. It's not a zero-sum game. The customer can benefit strategy is about everybody having a unique strategic position."

Multiple Tracks, Multiple Presentations
Following the keynote presentation, symposium attendees were offered their choice of short presentations in five different tracks. Each track contained up to five different half-hour talks, with participants encouraged to change tracks and attend different sessions if they liked. Four of the tracks were oriented mainly towards strategy: Strategic Thinking Process; Bridging the Gap in CI Analyze; What if CI stood for Customer Intelligence?; and Great Analysis and Insight Make Sure It Gets Implemented! What follows represents highlights from some of the sessions in the fifth, research-oriented track, "Cutting-Edge Tools and Techniques for Competitive Advantage." [For presentation details, go to the Competia Web site at] 

Although conference arrangers attempted to keep the sessions on a strict schedule, delays occurred almost inevitably. One attendee commented about tight timing, saying that she had to take care walking in high heels on the fine marble staircases of the Chateau Frontenac, and this alone made her late to some sessions. Others said they would have preferred slightly longer sessions or some way to attend more than one of the simultaneous sessions. Overheads for the sessions were provided to participants in the thick Conference Proceedings book.

The first speaker in the research track was former Searcher columnist ("Canada and Beyond") and author, Ulla de Stricker, president of Ulla de Stricker Associates. One memorable comment in her talk "Strategic Deployment of Information Professionals (Librarians!) in Corporate Settings" was "My recommendation: Hire a librarian hire five!"

Another research track speaker was Anne Henrich, vice-president of Washington Researchers. She gave a well-attended presentation on "Advanced Hidden Company Research: Digging Up Data on Divisions, Subsidiaries, and Private Companies." Here are some of her excellent tips:

1. Look for information in places where the company is a big fish in a small pond. 

2. Read specialized newsletters, called "House Organs," in the Standard Periodical Directory. Offer to swap your newsletters for another company's. Or contact the local library and ask them to request copies if they don't have them.

3. Government sources To figure out which ones, look for files where your company reveals its own information. While you're at it, audit your own company's filings, since people get lazy and often overcomply. Henrich used the example of one company whose personnel gave the government updated information of changes in a factory. The personnel sometimes submit more recent blueprints with unnecessary information unredacted, such as where conveyor belts and packaging equipment are located. Much can be gleaned from some of this extra information.

4. The best computer system for hidden company research is ... the telephone!

5. When talking with reporters or newspaper personnel, always ask first, "Are you on deadline?" It makes you look savvy and they're more likely to take a callback.

6. Call reporters from the smaller publications first. "I always call the reporter for The Payphone News before the one for Forbes."

7. To conduct effective telephone interviews:

a) Block your schedule for about an hour, or from half an hour to 2 hours.

b) Have a limited number of objectives from three to no more than five or seven. Go for depth.

c) Identify yourself and tell them why you are asking.

d) In your introduction give them a reason to care. They might want to know what you know, or defend something they said.

e) End your introduction with a soft question that they can answer.

f) Let silence work for you.

Dr. Ian Goldberg, chief scientist, ZeroKnowledge Systems, spoke on the topic "Don't Leave Your Business Card Behind You Protecting Your Company While Surfing the Web." In reviewing the lack of privacy on the Internet, Dr. Goldberg made the following points:

1. Hotmail accounts now supply the sender's real domain name with all messages because Hotmail got tired of getting subpoenaed. 

2. Domain name registrars offer a service selling a list of domain names that people have searched but not purchased yet.

3. It's important to protect not just the content of e-mail messages (e.g., by encryption), but also the fact that there are messages going back and forth between companies that might merge, for example.

4. What do you stand to lose if competitors acquire information on your company's patent activities, domain name searches, aggregated surfing profiles of your staff, or communications with partners, shareholders, customers, or employees? Consider the impact this would have on your investments in intellectual property or your strategic advantage.

Dr. Goldberg explained ZeroKnowledge's Pseudonymous IP Networks, which enable real-time private communication between users and outside Internet servers. Its system routes users' Internet traffic through numerous Anonymous Internet Proxies before eventually reaching the Internet server targeted. At the same time, it mixes users' traffic with all other users on this worldwide network of intermediate nodes. This process results in Internet traffic with untraceable origins. 

Interactive Training and Expert Studios
After an excellent lunch, attendees were offered their choice of eight 2-hour training or expert studios. Topics included strategic planning simulations, business war gaming, time management, data-mining, and giving more effective presentations. 

Bruno Vanasse, Organizational Development consultant, Hay Management, spoke about "Influence and Elicitation Strategies: Effective and Ethical Human Source Intelligence." 

His introduction underscored the importance of Human Source Intelligence: "More than 50 percent of the critical information for organizations comes from human sources." This was followed by an exercise in which participants were assigned roles as CEOs, consultants, engineers, and technicians and had to negotiate with each other to form companies and exploit a newly available technology. 

Vanasse then discussed the various persuasive techniques used by the role players in their attempts to influence each other. Examples of some of these "Ethical Influence Strategies" included bargaining, appealing to a common vision, and logical persuasion.

Vanasse defined "Elicitation" as "the means by which, via dialogue, one obtains information from another without raising suspicion." Some tactics used in elicitation include expressing provocative, slightly positive or negative statements; asking for advice; or appearing innocent or naïve. Elicitation is often successful with people who are showing off or gossiping, who are dissatisfied or have a tendency to correct others, or who underestimate the importance of the information.

Elicitation can be easy and effective when used with people for whom sharing information is part of their job, such as teachers, publicists, or salespeople and librarians?!. Elicitation may be more difficult to use effectively with lawyers, accountants, and ex-military personnel.

Vanasse also mentioned some cues that might tip you off that someone is using elicitation tactics on you. Be alert if someone tells you white lies or truth mixed with lies, slight or blatant exaggerations, or information which can't be verified. He said, "If there's no way for you to verify it, it's probably not true."

The Envelope Please The Competia Awards
Winners of the First Annual Competia Awards were announced in a ceremony Tuesday night. These awards were created "to guide professionals and executives in choosing the best resources to excel in their work," said Estelle Métayer. The judges, practitioners from leading companies in the field, chose the following winners in five specified categories:

1. Most Insightful Article or Book Thriving in E-Chaos: Discover the Secrets of 20 Companies That Have Conquered a Turbulent Marketplace by James D. Underwood (Prima Publishing, June 2001)

2. Best in Class Software or Tool The Plumtree Corporate Portal by Plumtree Software 

3. Best Information Source Skyminder by CRIBIS

4. Most Innovative Strategic Planning Process Gagan Agarwal, AG Communication Systems (a Lucent subsidiary)

5. Competitive Intelligence Champion Caren Grandgenett, Jim Shearer, and Patricia Shirley from American Century

Management Machismo and the "Pretty Woman" Syndrome
The Competia Symposium 2001 continued Wednesday morning with three plenary sessions. 

First James Cherry, president of ALSTOM Transport Canada, spoke about "Implementing a Successful CI Initiative in a Strategic Business Unit." In a very good general talk, Cherry described the three-step approach used to establish CI at ALSTOM, the world's second-largest rail equipment manufacturer.

1. A "Petit Journal" of daily pertinent news was made available to every employee with a computer. Topics covered included railroads, competitors, industry trends, suppliers, HR topics, technology and others. 

2. A "Players" database was compiled, with data on competitors, clients (railroads, leasing, shippers), and suppliers. 

3. Background macroeconomic data was gathered, with information on the markets, industries, and technologies involved. Other information tools included the annual business plan, ad hoc reports, client survey results, and salespeople trip reports.

Mr. Cherry explained how this CI initiative successfully anticipated the current economic downturn by flagging an announcement of 300 layoffs on 1/7/01. This analysis provided significant assistance to ALSTOM's strategic planning process. 

Next, Nadine Raymond, Marketing Planning manager at Microcell Solutions, spoke on "Implementing a CI Unit at Microcell Solutions." She summarized the lessons learned while performing the basic steps of understanding the organization's needs, getting buy-in, developing a game plan, and achieving your goals slowly but surely. Raymond's parting words of wisdom could help achieve most corporate goals: 1) Perform an internal audit; 2) Keep your focus on your original plan; 3) Start with smaller objectives, gain credibility, and build on success; and 4) Reevaluate customers' satisfaction.

The final plenary speaker was Robert Greenhill, senior VP for Strategy, and president and COO of Bombardier International. His topic was "Corporate Perspective on CI from a World-Class Organization." He opened with an overview of Bombardier and its market positions, ranging from first to third in the product sectors of regional aircraft, business jets, personal watercraft, snowmobiles, and rail passenger cars. Greenhill named specific competitors, and described them in general as very competent and aggressive companies from all over the world, varying from focused entrepreneurs to multi-billion-dollar behemoths.

Greenhill said that superficial knowledge of your competitors isn't enough. The key to success is building a deep understanding of a competitor's likely behavior, with profiles and historical actions of key business managers. You must also understand the capabilities of their business systems as well as their strategies and commitments, both explicit and implicit. 

He gave the example of Bombardier's previous situation with the diversified engineering and construction firm Morrison Knudsen (MK), famous for building the Hoover Dam. Bombardier had lost key contracts to MK and doubted its ability to compete effectively. After a comprehensive review, including a reverse engineering of MK's commitments "What would it take for us to do these contracts?" and an analysis of their CEO's previous methods, Bombardier concluded that MK was overextended. This conclusion was substantiated by MK's later performance.

Greenhill summed up his approach to CI with five points:

1. Focus on business priorities. There's lots of fascinating information out there that has nothing to do with the business.

2. Go beyond the numbers to the people.

3. Put simple systems in place to make CI an ongoing part of the business.

4. Make sure that CI is driven by the people who are going to use it.

5. Verify critical new information. Triangulate it. Try to make sure the information is correct. 

In explaining this last point, Greenhill compared the confusion that sometimes exists around CI issues to "The Fog of War." That phrase comes from Carl von Clausewitz' On War "War is the realm of uncertainty; three-quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty." 

Greenhill ended his presentation with three Key Cautions for CI Professionals:

1. Management Machismo Executives do not want to admit that they might not succeed and that a competitor might be better or different. Also, companies may not want to change the methods that made them successful in the first place even though the world or the market may have changed around them. Part of your job is to help the company be self-critical. Previous companies failed not because they didn't have the information, but because they didn't believe it.

2. Obsession with existing competitors Executives often have blinders about new competitors that lead to underestimating them. Make sure that your radar screen goes beyond the existing competitors list to have a cost and time-effective monitoring of potential competitors.

3. Danger of uncontrolled information Part of the role of CI professionals is that when you understand your business issues, you need to help your company recognize what information must not get out to your competitors. 

The symposium ended with some comments from Competia president Estelle Métayer. Some of the points she made included: 

1. CI is alive and well. 

2. Communication is central to CI. How do I get people to give me the information I know they have and how do I forward it back to my organization?

3. Beware the "Pretty Woman" Syndrome. Expanding on Greenhill's "Management Machismo" concept, Métayer referred to Julia Roberts' character in the movie Pretty Woman who, when asked, "What's your name?" said, "What do you want it to be?" Métayer continued, "Even at the lower levels don't be afraid to say what you believe, if you have the facts to back it up."

Attendees had a variety of post-conference options Wednesday afternoon. They could choose a tour of Quebec City, a round of golf with fellow participants, or, for French speakers, attend three additional presentations. 

Competia Is a Contender
Founded in October 1999, Competia has built a remarkable list of products, services, and clients in a short time. Most know of the company through its flagship Web portal for Strategy Planning and CI professionals, The site includes a monthly online magazine and has more than 120,000 worldwide subscribers. Other company offerings include the following:

  • Competia Express reviewed bookmark collections relevant to specific industries
  • Competia News a free monthly newsletter of CI and Strategy news
  • Competia Academy a series of training modules
  • Competia Facts on Tap an on-demand info brokerage
  • Competia Symposium two are planned for 2002, one in Europe and one in the U.S. 
  • Competia Awards recognition for exceptional practitioners and tools
The Competia Symposium 2001 succeeded on many levels. There was a lot of positive feedback for the content, the speakers, and, of course, the location. One attendee said, "Logistics-wise, operations went very smoothly especially considering this was their first symposium." Estelle Métayer said future programs will spread out over more time, have different concentrations of topics, and will continue to offer high-level presentations from world-class industry leaders.

Estelle Métayer had opened the symposium by saying this was one of two new babies this month. Attendees were quite impressed when they learned that she also had a 3-week-old baby in the hotel room upstairs with her husband. In fact, Competia is itself a rather young organization. It will be interesting to see how IT will grow! Next year's meeting will be in Boston.

Josh Duberman's e-mail address is
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