Need to know: understanding your competition

Can you name the chief executive of the company’s three top competitors?

Most HR business partners’ knowledge about their business decreases by concentric circles: this means that they tend to know a lot about the business area that they support, less about the wider group and very little about the competition.

But it is important for HR to understand the competition and its activity. It’s not enough to simply know who the main competition is, or even know the names of the chief executives of the company’s top three competitors, as it can be incredibly useful to be aware of who the top competitors are for different parts of the business or group. Increasingly, there are competitors in the public sector as well – for example, the post office and health service are no longer the sole providers of mail delivery or healthcare.

Understanding and knowing about your competition can help to clarify how strong or weak a business (and a business area) is and how to identify more general market trends. If you look into how your competitors view your business, and what makes their customers buy from them rather than from you, you can learn a lot about your own business. Take time to consider: how is the competition similar or different to your business, where is the competitor business going and what is its strategy?

You often can find your competition by looking at websites, which will also provide information about senior people at the firms. It’s also important to make sure that once you’ve found the information you keep up-to-date with changes.

You can keep on top of competitor activity by monitoring competitor developments, and adding them to your list of news feeds and press clippings. It can also help to network with your competitors. Some companies will even arrange co-mentoring between competitor organisations – this is not about exchanging trade secrets, but about them understanding more about your company and culture and vice-versa. You might even want to hire one of them at some point in the future.

Understanding your competitors will put you on a much more equal footing with business people and will help you to have a dialogue with them. If you understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of your business versus the competition, it will help you to contextualise your questions and be more strategic about your suggestions. You will be better equipped to draw connections between your suggestions, the competition and the agenda that you are trying to drive forwards.

Jan Hills, director, HR with Guts

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