By Mylena Vazquez


Corporate espionage is nothing new. In fact, it has a long and storied past—and a shady one, full of secrets and stealing. But it’s the 21st century; let’s keep corporate espionage where it belongs—in the past. Instead, we should focus on keeping our companies relevant by using competitive intelligence.

A history of corporate espionage

One of the most notorious acts of corporate espionage in history took place as early as the 1800s. At that time, tea was king and China was its main producer. But Great Britain wanted in. Britain’s East India Company, which at the time accounted for half of all global trade, hired botanist Robert Fortune to sneak into China and spy on their tea industry. In disguise, he smuggled not only tea production secrets but also actual plants and seeds out of China and into India, then ruled by Britain. As small as it may seem now, it changed the course of history.

Robert Fortune conducting corporate espionage in China for the East India Company [source]

The cons of corporate spying

Of course, no one in history has ever considered stealing to be morally good. But as a society, we have come to understand the ethical concerns and perils associated with corporate espionage. Not only is it unethical, but tolerating it and engaging in it puts all companies in a vulnerable position. 

Besides, in this day and age, no company should be engaging in corporate espionage. For one, it is illegal—and your company will pay the price. Recall the 1997 case of Volkswagen v. General Motors, where VW paid $100 million to GM plus agreed to buy $1 billion worth of parts from them in the 7 years that followed —all because of corporate espionage. But more importantly, corporate espionage is unnecessary. There is so much information out there and so many different ways to gather it. What we can rely on instead is competitive intelligence. 

José Ignacio “Iñaki” López (left), the man at the center of the VW v. GM lawsuit [source]

How to compete intelligently

Competitive intelligence involves gathering important information about other companies in (or related to) your industry so that your company remains abreast of what is happening in the market and, ultimately, remains relevant and competitive. None of it involves smuggling out sensitive materials or spilling secrets!

With the advent of the internet, gathering competitive intelligence is incredibly easy. Your company can do something as simple as searching the web for industry developments and press releases from your competitors. You can pretend to be a customer by going through the steps of buying a product, like shopping online without hitting the “confirm purchase” button. You can subscribe to your competitors’ mailing lists to see how they are trying to reach mutual customers. You can even actually shop the competition: just because you work for CVS doesn’t mean you’re violating any ethical or legal boundaries by buying a bottle of shampoo from Walgreens.

Competitive intelligence is like playing a game of chess [source]

As you can see, gathering competitive intelligence is not only easier than engaging in corporate espionage, it is more rewarding. It allows your company to gain a deep understanding of your industry, the market, and your consumer because it requires consistent and active engagement. In any case, there’s more security and satisfaction in winning by your own efforts than in winning by cheating! 


What are some ways your company has ethically gathered competitive intelligence?

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