From battlefields to boardrooms


 …Mastering the covert art of competitive intelligence

“Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” These timeless words from the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu encapsulate the profound importance of intelligence and counter intelligence in the pursuit of success on the battlefield and in the realm of business.

The art of espionage, employing spies and intelligence networks, has been a constant feature in history, providing those who possess superior information with a strategic edge over their adversaries. From the American Revolution to the intricate deception campaigns of World War II, the impact of gathering accurate and timely intelligence has reshaped the outcomes of battles and campaigns, leading to decisive victories. Here is some context;

Operation Mincemeat during World War II: In 1943, the British used a deceased homeless man as a decoy to deceive the Axis powers about the planned Allied invasion of Southern Europe. The man’s body was dressed as a British officer and planted with false documents suggesting an attack on Sardinia and Greece instead of the actual target, Sicily. This operation, known as Operation Mincemeat, led the Axis forces to disperse their troops, giving the Allies an advantage during the Sicily campaign.

Operation Fortitude: During World War II, the British executed the highly successful Double Cross System, turning captured German spies into double agents. This ingenious counterintelligence operation involved building trust with the turned agents and creating a fictitious spy network to deceive the Germans. One notable example was Operation Fortitude, which misled the Germans about the Allied invasion of Normandy. Through a web of misinformation, the double agents convinced the Germans that the main attack would occur at Pas de Calais, diverting their attention and defences away from the actual D-Day landing sites. As a result, D-Day became a pivotal turning point in the war, leading to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany and highlighting the profound impact of intelligence and deception on military operations.

In every era, the astute leaders and generals who have embraced the principles of competitive intelligence have devised intricate plans, foreseen potential pitfalls, and adapted their strategies accordingly. Sun Tzu’s wisdom, articulated centuries ago, still resonates with the fundamental principles of warfare and leadership today.

Just as foreknowledge and understanding the enemy’s dispositions were paramount in military conquests, competitive intelligence has emerged as a critical factor in modern-day corporate warfare. And in the world of business, where knowledge is power, those who neglect the power of competitive intelligence risk being left behind in the relentless pursuit of market dominance.

While many organizations are familiar and have embraced Business Intelligence (BI) to improve operational efficiency, the relatively fewer businesses know of or invest in Competitive Intelligence (CI), which focuses on understanding competitors, market trends, and industry developments to gain a competitive advantage.

This article delves into the art of gathering competitor intelligence, the types of data to collect, and the ethical considerations involved in this crucial process. Just as Sun Tzu’s teachings have guided leaders to achieve victory in the most challenging battles, the principles of competitive intelligence offer modern-day business leaders the keys to unlocking success in their endeavours and securing triumphs over formidable challenges. Let us explore how embracing the wisdom of competitive intelligence can pave the path to triumph in the competitive arena of business.


Competitive Intelligence involves monitoring and assessing data from various sources, including public information, market research, customer feedback, and competitor activities. The goal of CI is to provide businesses with actionable insights that drive better strategic decision-making, enhance product development, identify growth opportunities, and ultimately improve their competitive position in the market.


According to Sun Tzu’s teachings, collecting competitor intelligence involves obtaining information from external sources, particularly from people or human agents. Therefore, building a network of sources is crucial for gathering competitor intelligence. This network may include industry experts, customers, suppliers, employees, and even former employees of competitors.

Local Spies (On-site Observation):

In Sun Tzu’s classification of spies, “local spies” refer to individuals who have insights into the enemy’s territory and immediate surroundings. In the context of competitor intelligence, this could involve on-site observation, visiting competitors’ locations, attending their events, and observing their activities first-hand.

Inward Spies (Inside Information):

Inward spies infiltrate the enemy’s ranks to gather internal information. In the business context, this can involve gathering insights from competitors’ employees or partners who may share valuable information, either willingly or unknowingly. All best endeavours must be observed to ensure that no legal or ethical best practises are flouted.

Converted Spies (Turning Competitor Agents):

Sun Tzu suggests converting enemy spies to serve your side. In the business context, this translates to enticing competitors’ employees or representatives to provide information or even switch sides. This can be done ethically through networking and relationship-building.

Doomed Spies (Spreading Disinformation):

Sun Tzu discusses using spies to spread false information to deceive the enemy. In competitive intelligence, this involves understanding that competitors may also gather intelligence about your organization. Providing them with selective or misleading information can help protect your strategic initiatives and plans.

Surviving Spies (Reliable Informants):

Surviving spies are used on appointed occasions based on the information provided by converted spies. In the context of competitor intelligence, this means using reliable informants who have consistently provided accurate information.


Strategy Assessment:

Competitive intelligence involves assessing your competitors’ strategies to understand their approach to the market, their goals, and their tactics. This category focuses on analysing their long-term plans and how they intend to achieve a competitive edge.

Current Operations:

Understanding what your competitors are doing in the present is crucial for making informed decisions. This category involves monitoring their day-to-day activities, such as product launches, marketing campaigns, partnerships, and pricing strategies.

Competitor Perceptions:

Customer perception of your competitors plays a significant role in their success. In this category, competitive intelligence seeks to gauge how customers perceive your rivals, their strengths, weaknesses, and overall reputation in the market.

Competitor Capabilities:

Knowing the advantages your competitors possess, both currently and potentially in the future, is essential for assessing their strengths and weaknesses. This category involves evaluating their resources, technology, intellectual property, and any unique capabilities that give them a competitive edge.

Market Prospects:

Understanding the direction in which the market is moving is critical for staying ahead of the competition. This category focuses on identifying market trends, customer preferences, emerging opportunities, and potential threats. It also evaluates how well-positioned your competitors are to adapt and succeed in the evolving market landscape.

Ethical Considerations

Competitive intelligence, the process of gathering information about competitors to gain a strategic advantage, does not require resorting to unethical espionage tactics. Instead, businesses can adopt a responsible and ethical approach to acquiring competitor information, leveraging publicly available data, market research, customer feedback, and industry reports. By tapping into legitimate external sources like industry experts, customers, suppliers, and former employees, organizations can gain valuable insights into their competitors’ strategies, operations, strengths, and weaknesses. Emphasizing the principles of transparency and integrity in competitive intelligence not only safeguards a company’s reputation but also helps build trust among stakeholders.

Competitive Counterintelligence

Equally crucial in the competitive landscape is the practice of counterintelligence, where companies actively protect their own sensitive information from prying eyes. While achieving complete secrecy may be impractical, taking proactive measures to identify and address potential vulnerabilities can minimize the risk of data breaches and leaks. By consulting the same sources used for competitive intelligence, businesses can assess what information about their own operations is publicly available, ensuring that sensitive data remains guarded. Through robust cybersecurity measures, employee training on data protection, and monitoring access to critical information, organizations can fortify their defences against potential competitors seeking to gain an advantage through unethical means. Embracing both competitive intelligence and counterintelligence not only empowers businesses to make informed decisions but also ensures they operate ethically, building a strong foundation for sustainable success in the competitive marketplace.

In conclusion, the age-old wisdom of Sun Tzu, immortalized in “The Art of War,” continues to reverberate through the annals of history, guiding both military leaders and modern-day business strategists alike. The power of intelligence, foreknowledge, and understanding the adversary’s dispositions cannot be underestimated in the pursuit of triumph on the battlefield or in the competitive arena of business. While espionage and deceptive tactics may have their place in historical tales, the landscape of competitive intelligence in the modern world demands a principled and ethical approach.

Embracing the principles of competitive intelligence and counterintelligence empowers businesses to navigate the dynamic and competitive landscape while maintaining ethical standards. By heeding the lessons of Sun Tzu, leaders can unlock the path to sustainable success, where knowledge becomes the formidable weapon in the quest for victory, both on the battlefield and in the ever-evolving world of business. As Sun Tzu’s words continue to resonate, let us remember that with foreknowledge and strategic insight, triumph in the face of adversity is attainable, and greatness lies within the grasp of those who embrace the wisdom of competitive intelligence with unwavering integrity.

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