To Gain an Edge, Firms Hire Sleuths ; This Is a Job for Computer-Savvy Data Browsers, Not James Bond

Article excerpt

John Nolan's assignment: Find out everything possible about the CEO of a company targeted for acquisition by another firm.

Talk with his friends and rivals. Scour public records and newspaper stories. Glean quirks and details about his personality. In short, develop a complete psychological profile - right down to his facial tics when he negotiates.

The task was perfectly legal, and, in the end, worked. "They closed the deal and credited our work with playing a key role," says Mr. Nolan of the dossier he and his colleagues at the Phoenix Consulting Group put together.

Score another victory for "competitive intelligence" - the corporate spy game, minus the cloak and dagger, not to mention the guns and gadgets. Outside consultants like Phoenix, based in Huntsville, Ala., sometimes perform the work. But more often it is being done by in-house units.

And in an age of growing global competition and mergers, corporate sleuthing is on the rise:

* In May, Simmons College in Boston started the first master's degree program in competitive intelligence offered in the US.

* This month, Fleishman-Hillard, the world's largest public- relations firm, unveiled a 40-employee competitive-intelligence unit it has been developing for clients for more than a year.

* The Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) has seen membership grow from 150 in 1986 to 7,000 today.

"Companies have realized some huge earnings through intelligence efforts," says Leonard Fuld, founder of Fuld and Co., one of the oldest and largest competitive-intelligence consulting companies in the country. "It has quietly insinuated its way into the business process."

A definition of competitive intelligence is as elusive as a well- trained spy. It involves gathering and analyzing bits of information from every imaginable source - the Internet, court documents, patent filings, conversations with rival salespeople or engineers.

CI, as it is commonly called, is more than a database search but falls short of 007. Indeed, CI professionals often define their work by what it is not. The work doesn't include "dumpster diving" - scouring a rival's trash for data - or involve sending exploding cigars to rival CEOs.

Ethics in theory and practice

SCIP maintains a code of ethics that proscribes aberrant behavior.

Virtually all Fortune 500 companies and smaller ones involved in CI, concerned about maintaining their reputation and avoiding legal entanglements, adopt their own ethical creeds. And often, CI is used to ferret out and avoid partnering with firms involved in shady activities.

Still, interpretation of what is ethical and what isn't can vary widely. …