Go into the field
During the technology boom, one early morning flight from Austin to San Jose earned the nickname "the nerd bird." Shuttling businesspeople from one high-tech center to another, that flight and others like it became great places for competitive intelligence professionals to overhear discussions among coworkers or to sneak a peek at a fellow passenger's PowerPoint presentation or financial spreadsheet.
Any public place where employees go, snoops can also go: airports, coffee shops, restaurants and bars near company offices and factories, and, of course, trade shows. An operative working for the competition might corner one of your researchers after a presentation, or pose as a potential customer to try to get a demo of a new product or learn about pricing from your sales team. That operative might simply take off his name badge before approaching your booth at a trade show. Employees must know not to talk about sensitive business in public places, and how to work with the marketing department to make sure the risks of revealing inside information at a trade show don't outweigh the benefits of drumming up business.
Job interviews are another possible leak. Daring competitors may risk sending one of their own employees to a job interview, or they could hire a competitive intelligence firm to do so. Conversely, a competitor might invite one of your employees in for a job interview with no other purpose than gleaning information about your processes.
Put the pieces together
In some ways, trade secrets are easy to protect. Stealing them is illegal under the 1996 Economic Espionage Act. Employees usually know that they're valuable, and non-disclosure agreements may protect your company further. What's more complicated is helping employees understand how seemingly innocuous details can be strung together into a bigger picture— and how a simple company phone list becomes a weapon in the hands of snoops like John Nolan.
Consider this scenario: Nolan once had a client who wanted him to find out whether any rivals were working on a certain technology. During his research of public records, he came across nine or 10 people who had been publishing papers on this specialized area since they were grad students together. Suddenly, they all stopped writing about the technology. Nolan did some background work and discovered that they had all moved to a certain part of the country to work for the same company.
None of that constituted a trade secret or even, necessarily, strategic information, but Nolan saw a picture forming. "What that told us was that they had stopped [publishing information about the technology] because they recognized that the technology had gotten to a point where it was probably going to be profitable," Nolan says. Then, by calling the people on the phone, going to meetings where they were speaking on other topics, and asking them afterward about the research they were no longer speaking publicly about, Nolan's firm was able to figure out when the technology would hit the market. This information, he says, gave his client a two-year heads up on the competition's plans.
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