January 1, 2009 One of the most difficult challenges facing corporate competitive intelligence departments is developing and maintaining a network of employees and external contacts who can provide unique knowledge and information on competitive and market developments within their industry. Building and maintaining “human source networks” is a competitive intelligence best practice that supports both the acquisition of unique, non-published information as well as provides expert opinion and commentary in support of the intelligence analysis effort.The arrival of social networking and Web 2.0 applications, however, provides competitive intelligence practitioners with a wealth of new tools that can facilitate the development of human source networks both inside and outside the enterprise. Like most new technology tools, these social networking applications are still evolving and unfamiliar, and most businesses are trying to determine their value. However, there is reason to believe that, when used properly, a few of these tools can pay dividends to the management of corporate competitive intelligence efforts. Sponsored Content Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read other users' updates, or "tweets." Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length which are displayed on the user's profile page and delivered to other users (followers) who have subscribed to them. In a very short time, Twitter has evolved from a mundane social networking diversion ("onion bagel with cream cheese for breakfast. Yum!") to a potentially valuable business tool ("CDC using Twitter for Swine Flu information."). At the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals 2009 conference in April, there were more than 300 tweets sent by conference attendees. For CI practitioners, several Twitter tools and features make the service potentially very valuable: Advertisement • Twellow is an online directory of Twitter users that is arranged into various categories. Twellow takes the geographical information and bio information from your Twitter account and uses it to categorize your profile. It allows you to find people with similar interests who you can follow and interact with -- perfect for developing human source networks. • Twibes are a group of Twitter users interested in a common topic who would like to be able to communicate with each other. On each twibe's page, there is a list of twibe members. There is also a tweet stream that lists tweets from twibe members that contain key word tags. CI professionals can form twibes within their companies to organize sales force intelligence or externally to assemble a network of topical experts. • Twitter Search helps users filter all the real-time information coursing through the service. Users can take advantage of the many advanced search operators available, and also use the advanced search page to easily incorporate search operators in queries. Hashtags also help isolate Twitter feeds on precise topics. For instance, to see all the Twitter feeds sent during the SCIP 2009 conference, search Twitter for #SCIP09. Get Linked Advertisement Launched in 2003 as a networking tool for business professionals, LinkedIn has some 35 million members and has emerged as the most popular business networking site. Several LinkedIn features make it well suited as a competitive intelligence tool, including the LinkedIn profile, the advanced search feature, the Q&A feature, and LinkedIn groups. In combination with other primary and secondary information sources, LinkedIn can contribute to locating and communicating with business professionals that have the knowledge and expertise to address your company’s competitive intelligence needs. For example, I used LinkedIn to identify third-party insurance product distributors -- agents, broker/dealers, and consultants -- in support of a client research project. By leveraging the social networking aspect of LinkedIn (offering to “connect” with these potential sources, allowing each of us to expand our online network) we were able to collect valuable information while offering business networking benefits for our sources. Get Wikied Wikis allow users to create web pages, edit each other’s work, and link their pages to show meaningful associations. Unlike other static websites, wikis allow users to edit the content and appearance of their content rather than having a webmaster manage it. In the intelligence realm, the most well-known wiki is Intellipedia, an online system for collaborative data sharing used by the U.S. intelligence community. It was created to foster sharing and collaboration among the country’s 16 intelligence agencies on some of the toughest U.S. intelligence issues. Advertisement Competitive intelligence analysts can similarly use wikis to collaborate with CI function practitioners and contributors to define intelligence requirements, share observations and information, and test and debate analytic hypotheses and conclusions. Research conducted by Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., shows that when used as an end-to-end intelligence tool, wikis increase productivity and increase intelligence user satisfaction. They do so by providing a convenient means for CI professionals, as well as market-facing personnel such as sales reps, supply chain managers, and others to contribute to and draw on a holistic understanding of the competitive environment. When used properly, wikis can support all facets of the intelligence function, including determining intelligence needs, collecting and reporting intelligence, and analyzing intelligence. While no technology tool can completely replace old fashioned human-based networking and analysis, these new social networking and Web 2.0 tools represent perhaps the most significant technological advancement in the intelligence field in some years. Organizations that can leverage these tools to improve their human source network management, and to add unique and differing insights on their most pressing intelligence problems can dramatically increase the value and impact of competitive intelligence inside their organization. To read more articles on competitive intelligence issues by Outward Insights, click here.