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Economic gardening: a role for government agencies in competitive intelligence

By Vernon Prior - posted Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Most senior executives are happy to spend large sums of money on the firm's mouth - on advertising, promotion, and publicity - and rightly so. Yet they are often reluctant to invest in the company's eyes and ears. They have yet to be convinced that it may be more important to know what is going on (and to do something about it) than it is to tell the world about their products or services.

Simple research reveals that the most successful companies employ competitive intelligence (CI) to continuously monitor and respond to external events and conditions. This enables them to identify business opportunities and new markets, stimulate innovation, make sound decisions and improve their strategic planning. It allows them to benchmark against best-practice companies, enter alliances with confidence, and avoid risk.

A survey conducted in the USA compared 152 companies actively involved in CI with 1,396 in the same 19 industries. This revealed that, for those with a CI operation in place, their average:

  • annual sales were US$9.8 billion compared to US$1.02 billion;
  • market share was 5.4 per cent compared to 0.8 per cent;
  • earnings per share were US$1.24 as against minus US$0.07.

Similarly, a benchmarking study of 24 firms in aerospace and defence found that, by using CI, three companies obtained outstanding results. The study showed that the industry average:

  • bid success rate was 18 per cent, but the top three won 87 per cent, 75 per cent, and 57 per cent respectively;
  • return for every dollar spent on proposals was US$78, but the top three averaged US$225.

Contrary to popular belief, CI is not a form of spying; it can, and should, be conducted both legally and ethically. The techniques available to professional CI practitioners may be used by any enterprise, large or small. CI can offer significant benefits, is easily concealed, almost impossible to prevent, and carries little risk. Intelligence operations do not have to be expensive or glamorous; even some fairly cheap and simple measures can be highly effective. In essence, companies need to find out what is going on, decide what to do about it, and take action before their competitors.

Government intervention

Unfortunately, most small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) feel that CI does not apply to them, or they fail to appreciate the potential benefits. Additionally, they are well aware that the cost of engaging professional CI researchers can be prohibitive.

In an attempt to overcome these problems, some government agencies have made serious efforts to provide various forms of support. Examples include Enterprise Singapore, the Irish Development Board, and the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry. They recognise that government departments gather much information that concerns economic policy, business decisions, trade opportunities, export activities, and the ability of their companies to compete. They make sure that this information reaches the right people at the right time.


A somewhat different, regional approach (known as economic gardening) was pioneered in Littleton (Denver), Colorado, where the number of job vacancies doubled between 1989 (when the program began) and 2006. Sales tax revenues tripled during the same period. Many other government agencies and academic institutions have since established similar programs. Australian examples include Illawarra Enterprises, in partnership with the University of Wollongong, and Port Macquarie, working with the University of Newcastle.

Economic gardening refers to the provision of government support in order to encourage local economic development. Three critical aspects emerged from the Littleton initiative. The success of the program was directly linked to the provision of the following critical facilities:

  • infrastructure: the development of community assets essential to the conduct of trade as well as those affecting the overall quality of life (for example, transportation, education, and cultural amenities);
  • communication: the promotion and encouragement of interaction and cooperation between entrepreneurs and providers of critical resources (for example, establishing networks, supporting commercial and industrial groups, and liaising with academic institutions);
  • competitive intelligence: the provision of actionable information concerning critical aspects of the business environment.
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For those who are not familiar with the topics, the author's comprehensive glossary of terms used in CI and KM is widely available online, including at the following sites:,,,,,,,,, and

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About the Author

Vernon Prior is a leading practitioner in competitive intelligence and knowledge management. Over the past 20 years he has presented training programs in Australia, Brazil, Brunei, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.

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