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Businesses Can Play Spy Game, Too


King County Eastside Journal & South Sound Journal

February 20, 2001

by Clayton Park, Journal Business Editor


Espionage became the recurring theme yesterday, beginning with my turning on the TV morning news to hear about the arrest of veteran FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen, who has been charged with passing secrets to Russia.

Listening to the radio while driving to work, I also learned of the case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court in which federal agents have been accused of violating the Fourth Amendment -- barring unreasonable searches -- when they used a thermal-imaging device to detect a marijuana-growing operation in the garage of Oregon resident Danny Lee Kyllo.

The day's spy theme continued when I checked for incoming e-mails on my computer at work to discover a message from Diane Giese, a member of an organization that calls itself the Puget Sound Business Intelligence Group.

The group's purpose, wrote Giese, ``is to help business people share ideas about how to improve their `competitive intelligence' skills -- that is, how they gather and apply information about their competitors (or other aspects of their competitive environment) to be more successful in the competitive market.''

Formed about a year ago, the Puget Sound Business Intelligence Group boasts of a rapidly growing membership of approximately 100 people, including competitive intelligence professionals from Boeing, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser, Immunex, Safeco and Avista, to name just a few.

Puget Sound Business Intelligence Group is loosely affiliated with a worldwide organization called the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, which has selected Seattle as the host site for its upcoming annual conference. The gathering, which will be held March 7-10 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, is expected to draw up to 1,500 people. (More information regarding this event can be found at www.scip.org/.)

At Giese's suggestion, I checked out Puget Sound Business Intelligence Group's Web site (www.psbig.com/), which contains the following greeting on its home page: ``Welcome! You have just entered a strategic gold mine.

``The Puget Sound Business Intelligence Group (PS-BIG) is a local organization for people who want to manage competitive intelligence and other information about their competitive environment to help their business or organization make brilliant strategic decisions. PS-BIG is for competitive professionals who like to win.

``Think the Puget Sound Business Intelligence Group sounds like a `secret spy society'? See if PS-BIG is for you.''

Intrigued, I called Giese to learn more.

Giese explained that the field of competitive intelligence is more like professional sports teams that send scouts to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of upcoming opponents than it is actual cloak-and-dagger stuff.

For one thing, the PS-BIG does not condone engaging in illegal activities, Giese said. Members are asked to abide by the strict code of ethics set forth by the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, which includes agreeing to comply with all applicable laws, as well as accurately disclosing all relevant information, including one's identity and organization, prior to all interviews.

PS-BIG also requires members to ``leave our competitive knives at the door'' when attending meetings in situations where two or more members are from competing companies, Giese said.

Giese noted that the concept of competitive intelligence is not new, even though the term itself may be unfamiliar to many. ``Companies have been doing it for years,'' she said. ``Even Jay Leno says he watches David Letterman's show. His quote is that it's important to keep an eye on what the guy across the street is doing.''

Staying on top of what one's competitors are up to is of particular importance for those competing in a rapidly changing global economy, Giese said. What PS-BIG does is provide a support network that allows competitive intelligence professionals to share information-gathering techniques.

The group's meetings, which generally last four hours, are held at a different location each month -- usually at a company of one of the group's members.

Each meeting includes a talk or presentation from a guest speaker as well as an informal brainstorming session in which members are asked to offer advice on how to solve a specific situation or problem that a fellow member may be encountering.

Giese began attending PS-BIG meetings while working in government affairs for the Sisters of Providence, the health care system that operates Providence Seattle Medical Center. ``I wanted to learn from people whose professional focus was competitive intelligence,'' she said. ``I came as a total neophyte, but I found it so fascinating that I changed careers to work full time in this field.''

Today, Giese works as marketing manager for a Kirkland software company called Strategy Software Inc., which sells software and computer systems that help client companies ``track their competitive environment.''

Most of the techniques involved in competitive intelligence involve using one's common sense and knowing about available tools and resources.

The Internet, in particular, has been a godsend to those in the competitive intelligence business -- provided one knows how to take advantage of its capabilities, Giese said.

``I would say a good 95 percent of all the information you need on your competitor is public information,'' Giese said. ``You just need to know how to find it ... and know how to put two and two together.''

For those who prefer not dealing with double-agents, it's nice to know that the Puget Sound Business Intelligence Group stands ready to help.