Daniel R. Pascheles, PhD, Molekule Consulting LLC, Miami, FL, USA; Claudia A. Piano, ISMPP CMPP™, CMC Connect, McCann Health Medical Communications, Radnor, PA, USA

As medical affairs and medical publication professionals, it is important to understand how competitive intelligence (CI) can help inform our medical communication strategies and plans. However, many do not know where or how to obtain the needed information or do not have enough time to wade through mass amounts of un-contextualized data.

The 2019 ISMPP Annual Meeting Program Committee conducted a short survey asking members what challenges they have faced in collecting CI data and what they would like to see covered at an Annual Meeting parallel session. Survey respondents indicated that access to and/or availability of needed data is problematic. They had trouble quickly and efficiently finding the relevance when poring through vast amounts of data. They also wanted to learn how to ensure the information gathered is accurate, comprehensive, consistent, and timely.

The 2019 Annual Meeting parallel session, titled “Utilizing Competitive Intelligence to Amplify the Impact of Your Publication Plan,” followed the survey and examined various questions that are summarized in this article.

How does the biopharma industry define CI?

CI involves staying abreast of competitor activities and marketplace developments1 by:

  • Monitoring changes in competitor portfolios, competitor research and development (R&D) investments, clinical trial and patent applications, statutory developments in the health sector, mergers and acquisitions, and the positioning of competitive drugs
  • Identifying competitor sales structures and commercial priorities
  • Anticipating potential complaints and legal action when a drug is launched that could impact sales2

This is accomplished by surveying public records, monitoring the internet and mass media (secondary domain intelligence), or speaking with customers, suppliers, partners, employees, industry experts, and other knowledgeable parties (primary human source intelligence).3

CI is not:

  • Market Research
  • Knowledge Management
  • Backwards looking (except when examining retrospective trends)
  • A news clipping service
  • A scientific / business library
  • A spying / dumpster-diving service3,4

Essentially, CI is information ‒ similar to what researchers or journalists might retrieve ‒ analyzed for actionable business implications.3,4

CI is necessary and valuable

The pharmaceutical industry is highly regulated, and information about competitor products and their activities (eg, studies, conferences, and other initiatives) are publicly available to everyone in the industry. Because so much information is public, part of “intelligence” is deciding how much information to publish or keep private (while meeting regulatory requirements).5 Acknowledging the role of intelligence puts a company at a competitive advantage, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry in which the need to mitigate risk (of not maximizing return on investment [ROI]) is high due to the lengthy and expensive R&D cycle.

Executed correctly, CI can help identify the early signs of market development opportunities or the early warning signs of emerging threats, enabling the company to take decisive action to gain a competitive advantage.1

How CI is performed in an ethical manner

Most CI data is gathered from secondary sources, meaning the information has already been publicly presented. For pharmaceutical industry professionals, primary sources ‒ or human intelligence ‒ can often be found internally; a mass of knowledge about competitors and the competitive environment already exists within the organization, which is why it is important to have a CI function that knows how to harvest and manage this knowledge.6 Human intelligence can also be gained by formally interviewing experts or engaging with them at meetings, and even through speaking directly to competitors.

Many CI professionals belong to organizations like SCIP (Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals), which require its members to abide by a code of ethical standards. These standards are also adopted by many vendors voluntarily. Within SCIP’s code of ethics is the requirement to “accurately disclose all relevant information, including one’s identity and organization, prior to all interviews.”7  This level of transparency helps to increase the respect of the profession.

What is the best approach to gathering CI?

Research indicates that there is no single best practice involved in CI gathering. However, there are some common processes based on sound principles, including these four stages3,8:

  1. Planning and direction: Typically entails determining what the key intelligence topics should be, what data needs to be collected, and how the practitioner will conduct his or her analysis. Optimally, the plan will be aligned to agreed strategic objectives.2,9
  2. Collection: Generally refers to gathering raw data that will be used to find intelligence information. Much of the “public intelligence” data can be found from secondary sources (eg, in the public domain), such as market research and analyst reports, drug databases, drug websites, other internet sources, etc. Companies often use external vendors to conduct primary research/gather “human intelligence” by conducting planned interviews or targeted discussions with industry experts or customers at industry events.6
  3. Analysis: Involves assimilating all the collected information and interpreting its relevance. This phase is challenging because the relative importance of gathered information needs to be weighted, and all possible scenarios need to be identified. The insights also need to be converted into actions that can help inform the strategic decision-making process. This is why many companies employ skilled CI functions.1 It is during the analysis phase that such techniques as SWOT and gap analyses, benchmarking, competitor profiling, financial analysis, war gaming, and scenario planning are deployed.6 These techniques help evaluate what the gathered intelligence means for the company and what can be done to address it.
  4. Dissemination: Ensures the right people receive the right intelligence at the right time.6 Typically, this is the stage in which the results of the CI analysis, including useful recommendations and possible courses of action, all supported by logical arguments, are presented to the decision makers.1 Although dissemination is the “final” stage, it does not end here—effective CI requires that the process be ongoing, with regular updates based on new CI insight.6

What are the key drivers of CI? What are the quality metrics?

Vital to the success of a CI effort are the people, the resources, and the processes that drive the intelligence (see Figure 1 below). The importance of having a somewhat standardized process for gathering, interpreting, and disseminating CI has been discussed, but the process will not work unless the people executing it are educated CI practitioners or, at the very least, are consulting with CI professionals. Further, it is critical to have the appropriate resources at your disposal, such as databases, search engines, data management services, news clipping services, and external vendors. Without these tools, it is far too laborious a process to execute in a timely fashion.3

Measuring the success of a CI program consists of evaluating whether the information was accurate, relevant to the strategic objectives, and obtained in a timely fashion (see Figure 1 below). An effective CI effort will result in a competitive advantage by yielding information that can be quickly validated for accuracy and provide much needed insight about competitors or industry trends, which can then be utilized by your company before it becomes common knowledge.1    

Figure 1. CI Approach Based on Sound Principles

Prioritizing your CI efforts

In order to avoid aimlessly poring through collected information and getting irrelevant results, it is important to define the key intelligence topics (KITs) to be addressed by CI (see Figure 2 below). Preferably, this is done prior to collection, but this principle can be applied to CI that has already been generated to help formulate the CI plans.

KITs generally fall under the categories of strategic decisions and actions, early warnings, or descriptions of key players in the marketplace.6 For example, to make a list of KITs, the following are needed: a defined communication strategy, knowledge of threats and weaknesses that could affect the strategy, and identifying the relevant regulatory forces and key competitors.

A Key Intelligence Question (KIQ) refers to a specific bite-sized question; when answered, the KIQ provides the insight required to support the KIT (see Figure 3 below). Knowing the KIQs help to guide the information collection effort. KIQs should be:

  • Relevant
  • Specific
  • Possible to qualify
  • Quantifiable
  • Answerable within agreed parameters of accuracy and timelines

Figure 2. Prioritization KIT/KITs

Figure 3: Example KITs and resulting KIQs

How to identify and map strategic issues to drive an action plan?

A medical affairs or medical publications professional needs the time spent on CI to be focused and productive. That means identifying the top one-three KITs that are aligned with the company’s strategic objectives. For each KIT, it is important to identify the facts that are already available and the outstanding KIQs that need to be answered.3 A relevant example is shown in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4. KIT/KIQ Process Example If there is an in-house CI function, then hopefully those colleagues can help with this process. If not, or if they are too marketing-focused, a good rule of thumb would be to use the template shown in Figure 5 below; this breaks down the essential components of each KIT, enabling the user to map out the planned tactics needed in order to address the identified KIQs.

For example, if the KIT is “Competitor product W will be launching ahead of our Product Z,” and you want to address the KIQ “Are there any aspects of their MOA that could give them a competitive advantage?” then the CI activities that you choose to address the question might include “CI gathering at a medical or scientific conference.”

Figure 5. CI Action Plan Template


Under ideal circumstances, your company will have an in-house CI function that serves the medical affairs and medical publications teams, and the writers of the reports will make the effort to communicate effectively, highlighting key points, simplifying them, and providing context. If a CI function is available for collaboration, letting them know the KITs prior to the data collection will save time for all parties involved. However, if access to a CI function is limited (or non-existent) and the data obtained are not tailored to your needs, this article has hopefully provided some tips to help better utilize the information received.

In summary, CI can be key to generating successful strategies and plans for medical affairs and medical publication professionals, provided that the CI is accurate (evidence-based), relevant (tied to your strategy), and timely (obtained early enough to give you a competitive advantage).


  1. Kahaner L. (1997). Competitive intelligence: how to gather, analyze and use information to move your business to the top. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  2. Badr A, Madden E, Wright S. (2006). The contribution of CI to the strategic decision-making process: empirical study of the European pharmaceutical industry. Journal of Competitive Intelligence and Management. 3(4):15-35.
  3. Pascheles D. (2019). Utilizing competitive intelligence to amplify the impact of your publication plan. Presented at: 15th Annual Meeting of the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP), National Harbor, MD April 15, 2019.
  4. Prescott JE. (1999). The evolution of competitive intelligence: designing a process for action. Proposal Management. Spring 1999. 37-52.
  5. Nikolaos T, Evangelia F. (2012). Competitive Intelligence: concept, context and a case of its application. Science Journal of Business Management. (2): 1-15.
  6. Aspinall Y. (2011). Competitive intelligence in the biopharmaceutical industry: the key elements. Business Information Review. 28(2): 101-104.
  7. SCIP Code of Ethics. Accessed July 8, 2019 from: https://www.scip.org/page/CodeofEthics
  8. Sawka K, Hohhof B. (2008). Starting a competitive intelligence function. Alexandria, VA: Competitive Intelligence Foundation. 1-398.
  9. Querry V. (2019). Turn the spotlight on your competitive intelligence projects. Digimind White Paper. Accessed July 22, 2019 from: https://www.digimind.com/resources/turn-the-spotlight-on-your-ci-project/
  10. Clayton C, Lin A, Pitt J. (2011). Key intelligence topics (KITs) and key intelligence questions (KIQs) in safety signal intelligence. 14th International Conference on Information Fusion Chicago, Illinois, USA, July 5-8, 2011
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