Know Your Competitors. (Competitive Intelligence for the Information Center)

Article excerpt

INFORMATION PROFESSIONALS ARE OFTEN CALLED UPON TO PARTICIPATE in an organization's competitive intelligence program, and they do so in a variety of capacities, playing key roles in the development and maintenance of the process. While they help firms develop effective competitive strategies, information professionals rarely apply the same evaluative techniques to their own operations. This article examines the basic elements of a competitive intelligence program as applied to a library/information center setting.

In the Beginning...

You cannot monitor the activities or develop a comprehensive profile of your competitors if you are not clear as to who they are, so Step 1 in the competitive intelligence process is to identify your competition. Loosely defined, your competitors are any people or institutions with the capability of offering information services to the audience you have targeted as your own. The field is no longer limited by geography, as users can contract with anyone, anywhere--academic or public libraries, information or documentation centers, independent brokers, consultants, direct access databases offered by various vendors, or Web-based resources.

In determining which libraries you will monitor, and to what extent, consider bath your current and potential competitors (i.e., those who, with slight changes, could easily offer products or services similar to your own). The latter category should include competitors from within your organization--other departments, such as marketing, public relations, or IT--as well as those outside, regardless of apparent barriers, such as geography or language.

It is also important to consider what is happening in the field of information and library science. Identify libraries that are considered leaders, regardless of their location. Who are the innovators and why are they so successful? These are the organizations against which you will want to benchmark your operations in a never-ending attempt to "be the best" in the eyes of your customer base, the larger organization/institution, and the professional library/information community. Study those organizations and analyze:

* What they are doing;

* Their rationale for offering the products and services they do;

* The degree to which their deliverables are polished and professional looking;

* The markets they are targeting; and

* The methods they are using to promote their libraries to the public.

Choose at least one competitor from each category and, overall, one or two that are considered "best in class" (i.e., those recognized as leaders because of their quality customer service, product offerings, or technology innovation). These are the organizations you will want to monitor on an ongoing basis and use initially in your competitive intelligence effort. After determining who the competition is--and how this group is likely to change over time--you and your staff should consider both the pressures and opportunities this group of current and potential competitors creates for your library/information center.

The Next Steps

Step 2 of the competitive intelligence process involves the selection of criteria that will allow you to benchmark your operations against those of the competition.

Select both the qualitative and quantitative information you will need to adequately assess your competitors' strengths, weaknesses, and strategies. These indicators or measures will help you understand not only what your competitors are doing but why it does or does not work. What you need to know about your competitors falls into six broad categories: background, finance, products, markets, facilities, and personnel.

Now that it's clear what you will have to learn about your competition, you need to implement a procedure for gathering these data. This is Step 3 in the competitive intelligence process. …