Academic journal article Management International Review

The Nexus between Human Resource Management and Competitive Intelligence: An International Perspective

Academic journal article Management International Review

The Nexus between Human Resource Management and Competitive Intelligence: An International Perspective

Article excerpt

Introduction

One widely acknowledged prerequisite for organizational success is that everyone in the company must continuously scan the external environment to have a current, accurate grasp of what is transpiring around them (Prescott/Gibbons 1993). However, for many multinational corporations, particularly those headquartered in the U.S., this may be a goal that has yet to be attained (Herring 1992b).

Indeed, many companies targeted by their competitors, particularly U.S. ones, are oblivious to the fact that they are being singled out and scrutinized so aggressively and systematically (McDermott 1994; Eftimiades 1994). When it comes to protecting their business interests, most large U.S.-based firms seem to adopt an "ivory tower" approach (Mintzberg 1994).

On the other hand, multinationals elsewhere in the world, especially those headquartered in Europe and Asia, systematically leverage the eyes, ears, and intelligence of their people in the field, both employees and executives alike (Hannon/Sano 1994). In contrast, U.S. companies have frequently relied on salespeople, but more often than not have used elite groups of MBA graduates to collect, analyze, and distribute competitive intelligence information (Mellow 1989).

In spite of this more `professional' approach, there are many who have argued that efforts and results in this arena have "failed to meet expectations" (Mellow 1989). Some scholars even lament that professional business strategists presently are more preoccupied with strategic programming than strategic thinking (Mintzberg 1994). The purpose of this study, one of the first of its kind, is to empirically examine the nexus between international human resource management (HR) and competitive intelligence (CI) from an international perspective.

There are a number of reasons to believe that business executives, managers, and scholars have not considered how their HR policies and practices can compliment their competitive intelligence activities (Hannon 1997). To address this gap, the current study examines the link between CI and HR from the perspectives of executives (the Chief HR Officers, typically the Vice President of HR) representing 50 U.S. multinational corporations and future managers (150 students attending a prominent MBA program).

To begin, the next section introduces and briefly outlines the concept of competitive intelligence. Then, the relationship between competitive intelligence and HR in the international context is reviewed. Thereafter, I present the results from a survey of HR executives and MBA students addressing the relationship between International HR and CI. Finally, the outcomes from this study, and their implications for researchers and practitioners, are discussed.

Competitive Intelligence

For the purpose of this study, competitive intelligence is defined as the acquisition, analysis, and distribution of information pertaining to (1) a company's resources and capabilities, (2) the current and potential resources and capabilities of its competitors, or (3) the external business environment in which the company operates -- in other words, it gauges the impact that customers, regulations, industries, cultures, and other forces will have on its current and future market opportunities (Ghoshal/Westney 1991).

Conceivably, any person or any department in an organization can perform intelligence activities (Ghoshal/Kim 1986). Traditional competitive intelligence activities, unlike acts of corporate espionage, range from obtaining publicly disseminated or publicly accessible information about competitors (such as annual reports or proxy statements) to obtaining competitors' products in markets (such as buying and testing a competitor's newest product). Generally, most people view these activities as being both legal and ethical (Sammon/Kurland/Spitalnic 1984). Indeed, according to McDermott (1994, p. 32), "many corporate intelligence specialists insist that 99% of the most useful competitive information about any company is available through perfectly legal means."

Alternatively, some companies and countries resort to covert activities to obtain information about their competitors (McDermott 1994). In doing so, they sometimes push the limits of ethics and legality by engaging in certain activities and methods normally undertaken by warring countries (Sammon/Kurland/Spitalnic 1984; Hallaq/Steinhorst 1994).

No matter how ethically or formally they monitor their competition, it is imperative for firms to identify competitors who merit surveillance and determine if there are appropriate information sources for finding out more about these adversaries. In general, sources for intelligence information include published materials, such as patent filings and financial reports, as well as current employees; specifically, employees who have had some interaction with these competitors (Fleisher/Schoenfeld 1993).

To be sure, observers increasingly acknowledge that intelligence plays a pivotal role in the formulation and implementation of business strategy in the modern corporation (Kahaner 1996). Obtaining and evaluating competitive intelligence is invaluable for describing the current environment, forecasting the future, challenging underlying assumptions, exposing and compensating for weaknesses, changing plans, and, if need be, abandoning strategies (Herring 1992b).

As alluded to previously, the responsibility for acquiring, analyzing, and disseminating competitive intelligence has historically been assigned to a select group of corporate strategists. At the top of the organization, corporate and line executives are also likely to bear some responsibility for intelligence gathering and evaluation (Ghoshal/Kim 1986). Of course, given their many other responsibilities, these intelligence-related activities may be performed less frequently and less systematically by executives than by other employees.

One group of executives in particular, HR officers, and the human resource profession as a whole, seem to be partly responsible for the failure of many corporations to fully utilize the acquisition, analysis, and dissemination capabilities of their employees. Irrespective of whether this failure is attributable to ignorance or timidity, one could certainly make a case that it has adversely affected the productivity, profitability, and competitiveness of many organizations (Kahaner 1996). A thorough review of some of the most common and critical HR activities (beginning with recruiting and ending after retirement) demonstrates, however, that systematically incorporating competitive intelligence principles into the HR function would not be impossible, or even difficult (Hannon 1997). Rather, it seems perfectly natural and quite attainable.

Alternatively, in the strategic management literature, competitive intelligence has received more attention (Ghoshal/Kim 1986; Ghoshal/Westney 1991; Herring 1992a; Herring 1992b; Herring 1993; Kahaner 1996; Lenz/Engledow 1986; Prescott/Gibbons 1993; Prescott/Smith 1987). However, many multinationals, particularly U.S. corporations, and surely their HR departments, remain either ignorant or unconvinced of the importance of competitive intelligence. One expert has even gone so far as to say, "In the area of legitimate corporate intelligence activities, U.S. marketers appear numbingly naive in the eyes of foreign competitors" (McDermott 1994, p. 32).

Competitive Intelligence and International HR

Ignoring or avoiding competitive intelligence is certainly not the modus operandi elsewhere in the world (Eftimiades 1994). In Sweden, for example, the government and the private sector are both strongly committed to collecting competitive intelligence information. Indeed, there are even graduate courses and degrees specializing in business intelligence at the University of Stockholm, as well as other European universities.

Other European companies and governments are proficient in the use of competitive intelligence as well. For instance, it has been reported that the French equivalent of the CIA, the DGSE, has directed its agents to "bug the conversations of U.S. executives traveling on Air France flights and steal the garbage of a prominent computer company executive" (McDermott 1994, p. 31).

Japan, of course, has its famous Ministry of International Trade and Industry, its keiretsus, and its trading companies (Goodman 1992; Herring 1992b). Taken together, these public/private information networks come together to form an unrivaled web of human information collectors and processors.

Hannon and Sano (1994) have also highlighted the degree to which nearly every employee in a Japanese private sector company bears some responsibility for obtaining information about its competitors. One example they point to is a norm in the retailing industry whereby retail clerks' job duties require them to visit competitors' stores on a regular basis and file formal intelligence reports thereafter. They also describe how Japanese multinationals send new employees, even rank-and-file employees like cashiers, abroad to expose them to new or better business practices. In the realm of research and development, some have argued that it has been a competitive intelligence advantage that has enabled Japan's multinationals to move from being mere innovators to being both inventors and innovators (Kokubo 1992).

Adopting a somewhat different approach, enterprises in the People's Republic of China, many of which are partially owned by the government, are alleged to purse their competitive intelligence aims by sending their employees to study abroad first and then work for foreign-owned firms abroad or in China (Eftimiades 1994). Since this is a relatively recent phenomenon, it is mere speculation whether, when, and where these individuals might eventually re-emerge at the headquarters of the Chinese parent company that sponsors them. In any event, these individuals, who have, in somewhat disparaging terms, been referred to in intelligence terms as `bottom-feeders', are alleged to be people destined to move around and up through organizations worldwide. Allegedly, their primary responsibility is to collect valuable intelligence information all along the way.

Other countries who are purported to be heavily involved in the process of gathering, evaluating, and circulating competitive intelligence pertaining to U.S. and other companies include Argentina, Canada, Great Britain, India, Israel, and Russia. Interestingly, all of these countries are supposed to be "allies" of the U.S. and, in some cases, friends with each other (McDermott 1994).

When thinking about the cross-cultural ramifications multinationals face when trying to unite HR and CI, from either an HR or Strategy standpoint, one vital issue worthy of further consideration is the notion of differing ethical standards across regions and countries (Paine 1991). At one extreme, there is a feeling that there are, or could be, international standards for conducting business in the present age (Cohen/Pant/Sharp 1992). At the other extreme, the position is that ethical norms are rooted in the culture (Wines/Napier 1992) or specific situation (Jones 1991). Undoubtedly, different interpretations of these ever-evolving standards certainly affect competitive intelligence, particularly acquisition activities. Among the many considerations, differing cultural and religious beliefs influence whether people view a particular business act as permissible, honorable, or scandalous (Cohen et al. 1992). In fact, a competitive intelligence practice that earns an employee a bonus and a promotion in one context may result in a fine and/or jail sentence in another (Fredrick/Post/Davis 1992).

Nevertheless, it is obvious that far too few of even the simplest changes to conventional HR policies and practices have been made to systematize and institutionalize the acquisition, analysis, and dissemination of competitive intelligence information (Hannon 1997). Indeed, if the HR function, in conjunction with the overall organization, turned its attention to this issue and undertook even a cursory overview, it would be readily evident how little we know about this important topic. In addition, such a review would clearly show the degree to which those who are aggressively pursuing these practices are gaining on their slumbering or sleeping competitors (Kahaner 1996). Unfortunately, however, it seems as if too many organizations have no idea whatsoever that they are derelict in this area. Perhaps it will take a threat to their viability to awaken them.

Hence, it appears that the opportunity to marshal and focus all of the firm's employees (not just those of a small and elite cadre of corporate strategists) on its competitors has been virtually wasted until now. For most companies, a competitive intelligence focus is either nonexistent or dormant. Perhaps as perplexing, even when a formal competitive intelligence system is in place, a state of information chaos frequently prevails because of motivational and structural communication barriers (Boettcher/Welge 1994).

To be sure, it appears to the informed observer that if multinational companies do not unify their human resource and business intelligence policies, practices, and philosophies, they will grow more and more vulnerable with each passing day, irrespective of what other admirable strategic goals they rally around. The questions that linger include: Which HR-related CI practices are considered ethical?, Which are effective?, and Which are ethical and effective ?

Lately, several researchers have lamented the dearth of empirical studies addressing these specific questions and, more generally, the role of ethics in international business and management (Schlegelmilch/Robertson 1995). Results from the limited number of studies exploring cross-cultural differences in the attitudes of current and future managers regarding business ethics are decidedly mixed. Some theorize, and have found, that these attitudes are universal (Husted et al. 1996; Lysonski/Gaidis 1991; Schlegelmilch/Robertson 1995). Others contend, and have observed, that these attitudes are country-bound (Becker/Fritzsche 1987; Dubinsky et al. 1991; Okleshen/Hoyt 1996).

With regard to differences between managers and future managers (business students) regarding the ethicalness of certain business practices, the empirical evidence is scarce and, once again, inconclusive (Singer 1996).

Therefore, the fundamental objective of this investigation is to first classify a set of HR/CI activities on the ethicalness and effectiveness criteria and then empirically examine their standing in the moral pluralism/ethical relativism debate. To accomplish the latter objective, the following hypotheses were examined:

[H.sub.0][[Micro].sub.executives] = [[Micro].sub.students-domestic] = [[Micro].sub.students-international]

[H.sub.1][[Micro].sub.executives] = [[Micro].sub.students-domestic] = [[Micro].sub.students-international]

Data, Measures, and Methods

Sample

This study includes three samples. The first consists of the Chief HR executives at a select group of Fortune 500 companies. The second is made up of domestic MBA students at a mid-western university. The third is comprised of international MBA students at the same university.

The questionnaire developed for the current study builds on and extends the foundational competitive intelligence/business ethics work of Furash (1959) and Wall (1974). It probes considerably deeper than these inquiries which only asked respondents to indicate whether they believed an act was acceptable or unacceptable, without assessing the strength of their feelings. In addition, it also incorporates several new constructs, most notably effectiveness assessments for certain HR-related competitive intelligence practices and both ethical and effectiveness assessments at the country level.

Fifty HR executives and 150 MBA students (89 domestic and 61 international) completed and returned the survey. The executives received and returned the survey by mail. The students completed the survey as part of an in-class exercise. The majority of the executives were between 45 and 55 years of age. They were employed as Chief HR Officers (usually with a title of Vice President of Human Resources) in a variety of industries including: media, manufacturing, electronics, heavy metal, utility, pharmaceutical, retail, banking, and insurance. The average age of the students was 27.0 years. On average, they had 3.0 years of work experience before entering the MBA program.

Measures

The executives were first asked to make judgments, on a 7-point Likert scale, as to the effectiveness and ethicalness of 38 HR-related competitive intelligence activities. The items, though updated slightly, were derived from two previous studies relating to this topic (Furash 1959; Wall 1974). The item list, along with the mean ethical and effectiveness scores for each item (in descending order), appear in Table 1. These data were then plotted in a 2x2 matrix based on the ethical/ effectiveness dimensions. As may be seen in Figure 1 (page 74), the responses to the HR-related CI items fell into one of four quadrants. For illustrative purposes, I label these quadrants green (ethical & effective), yellow (ethical, but ineffective), pink (unethical, but effective), and red (unethical & ineffective).

[TABULAR DATA 1 NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Since they were not gainfully employed when they participated in the study, the MBA students did not make expert judgments about the effectiveness of the 38 competitive intelligence activities. As such, only their ethical judgments were obtained. Like the executives, they judged the ethicalness of the 38 items on a 7-point Likert scale. I compare and contrast their results (reported by the domestic and international subgroup) with those of the executives in Table 2 (page 75). Analysis of variance was used to compare the means across the three independent samples (Executives vs. Students-D, Executives vs. Students-I, Students-D vs. Students-I). After comparing the variances for each of these pairs to see whether it could be assumed that they were equal, appropriate means difference tests were conducted to see whether there were significant between-group differences for the ethical items at the 0.5 significance level (see Table 3, page 77).

[TABULAR DATA 2-3 NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

The executives also assessed, on a 7-point Likert scale, the proficiency of 14 different nations with respect to their HR effectiveness and CI effectiveness at the country level. I chose these nations because of their prominence and importance to the global economy. The list of countries, along with their mean HR and CI effectiveness scores (in descending order) may be found in Table 4 (page 79). To illustrate where the nations lie on these two dimensions, Figure 2 (page 80) highlights the 2x2, 4-quadrant HR/CI matrix. Once again, the quadrants have been labelled green (effective CI and effective HR), yellow (effective CI and ineffective HR), pink (ineffective CI and effective HR), and red (ineffective CI and ineffective HR).

Table 4. Executives' Ethical & Effectiveness
Judgments for Various Countries

Country              HR Effectiveness     CI Effectiveness

Green
Japan      (JAP)            5.6                 6.1
Israel     (IRS)            5.1                 5.3
Taiwan     (ROC)            4.8                 5.6
Germany    (GER)            4.9                 5.4
USA        (USA)            5.2                 5.0
Canada     (CAN)            5.1                 4.9
Korea      (KOR)            4.3                 5.5
France     (FRA)            4.6                 5.1
UK         (UK)             4.8                 4.9
Brazil     (BRA)            4.2                 4.3

Pink
China      (PRC)            3.1                 4.9
Mexico     (MEX)            3.7                 4.2
India      (IND)            3.7                 4.0

Red
Russia     (RUS)            2.7                 3.9

[Figure 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Results

The results from this study indicate that it is possible to measure and develop a framework for the effective blending of HR and CI. Second, somewhat contrary to conventional thinking (Cohen et al. 1992), there is a general consensus as to which HR policies and practices are ethical and effective and which are not. Indeed, there appears to be some evidence that a universal competitive intelligence ethic exists. Finally, there is general consensus among the HR executives as to which nations are the most effective when it comes to HR and CI management.

Of all the activities listed in Table 1 about half are considered ethical (green and yellow) and the other half are viewed as unethical (pink and red) in Figure 2. Using publicly available information about a competitor, monitoring targeted competitors, and utilizing the expertise of a competitor's former employee all seem to be acceptable. Deceptive acts, theft, and entrapment (though possibly effective) are nearly universally believed to cross over into unethical territory though.

At a national level, Table 4 shows that the executives rank Japan the best at managing its HR and CI functions. As Figure 2 depicts, there is a cluster of countries that do a fairly good job at both of these crucial tasks. This `green' cluster includes: Japan, Korea, USA, Canada, Israel, UK, Germany, Republic of China (Taiwan), France, and Brasil. Alternatively, Mexico, India, and the People's Republic of China received effective scores for their competitive intelligence acumen, but they were judged to be ineffective when it comes to HR management and, thus, fall into the yellow quadrant. One country, Russia, fell into the least desirable, `red', quadrant. It was thought to have both ineffective HR & ineffective CI.

Table 2 compares and contrasts the ethical judgments of the three groups for the 38 HR-related competitive intelligence items. Perhaps the most surprising finding is the strong level of practical agreement among these groups. From a statistical standpoint, in 19 of the 38 cases, statistically significant differences between two or more of the groups are present. In 15 of these cases, there is one group that stands out from the other two. However, the vast majority of the time, the actual effects of these differences are, practically speaking, inconsequential. For 37 of the 38 CI practices, the ethical judgments of the executives, domestic students, and international students did not vary from a practical standpoint. In only one case did some people view an act as ethical while others viewed it as unethical, or visa versa. For Question 14, the international sample viewed `being rewarded for bringing in competitors' mailings' as unethical (3.3), whereas executives (4.3) and domestic students (4.0) considered this ethical.

Discussion and Future Research Directions

This preliminary investigation into the relationship between international human resource management and competitive intelligence was undertaken to better understand how to build a bridge between these two critical business functions. Only recently have researchers even begun to make this connection at either a descriptive or prescriptive level (Fleisher/Schoenfeld 1993). This is one of the first studies of its type to empirically study the relationship between international human resource management and competitive intelligence. The results of this study have important implications for practitioners and researchers.

First, practitioners need to know how to effectively manage their increasingly widely dispersed human resources without breaking laws or violating established ethical principles. As the global business arena expands and the number of market players increases, competition is sure to bring out the best, and worst, in organizations and their employees. Accordingly, at the least, managers and employees need to be aware of the potential ethical pitfalls and land mines that may confront them. Likewise, labor and product market participants need to know how the MNC's country of origin will affect the way it operates and manages its intelligence operations, from an organizational standpoint, companies might consider revising their corporate missions to recognize the role of business intelligence, redesigning their organizational structures to facilitate information flows, and enhancing their HR policies and practices to facilitate CI efforts.

As for researchers, it is clear that many conceptual and empirical questions remain unaddressed or unanswered. For instance, future inquiries should try to continue to defend or refute the assertion that there is a universal business intelligence ethic. Also, the distinction between statistically significant and practically meaningful differences needs further attention. In the current study there were very few cases where both of these criteria were met. To some degree, this finding mirrors the results obtained by Cole and Smith (1996) who examined lying and ethical ambivalence on-the-job.

Additional studies should also examine these constructs from the perspective of international HR executives worldwide (recall that this study only sampled a group of U.S. human resource executives). In addition, it would also be appropriate to expand upon the current study by questioning these individuals about the HR and CI effectiveness of the countries they view as their strongest competitors. Finally, there is an obvious shortage of case studies documenting the successful integration of HR and CI.

With regard to the scope of CI activities, the list of 38 HR-related competitive intelligence activities could be expanded to include an ever-emerging array of new intelligence practices. Of course, some basic CI practices will probably never change much. However, the information explosion has created many new alternatives and, at the least, revolutionized some old ones. For example, some companies now use the Internet to bait and hire away competitors' employees. They do this by using an alias on an external Internet service provider to enable recruiters to target chat group participants and send out employment ads to discussion groups. Some are even posing technical questions or feigning the need for help to elicit replies that demonstrate expertise from highly qualified candidates, further refining the search process.

To summarize, it is important to point out that in an unassuming, but diligent and measured, manner some multinational companies are increasingly treating business like an economic war. The exploits of companies like Toshiba, Proctor & Gamble, ABB, Microsoft, Nike, and Frito-Lay are frequently highlighted in the business press. With ever increasing vigor these organizations are methodically monitoring and investigating their competitors. They are deploying all of the resources they have at their disposal in order to beat their current or future foes -- be they domestic or international adversaries (Ghoshal/Kim 1986). The same cannot be said for all companies and countries. Then again, there are `alert' companies like Sony, which has a competitor-focused business strategy and armies of employees sensitized to the competitive intelligence theme. These successful and stable organizations have tirelessly interwoven the philosophies and practices of competitive intelligence into their marketing, R&D, production, and human resource systems for years.

In conclusion, the prospects for unifying HR and CI (in order to promote ethical and effective business practices and gain a competitive advantage) seem quite bright. Moreover, there appears to be general agreement (even across groups) as to which practices are ethical and which are not. When it comes to overall assessments of national effectiveness in the realms of HR and CI, it seems that although some countries have done better at this than others, most have done reasonably well, but none have quite mastered this task. For now, the potential for using human resource management to better inform the competitive intelligence function seems unlimited, yet unrealized.

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Dr. John M. Hannon, Assistant Professor of Management, Krannert Graduate School of Management, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA.

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