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business education

A man spies with binoculars.

The difference between competitive intelligence and corporate espionage would seem obvious: one is legally getting the information you need to run your business competitively; the other is creeping around and raking through your competitor's garbage. But it turns out that neither competitive intelligence nor the ethics surrounding the topic are taught much at business schools, according to academics familiar with the topic.

That surprises David Blenkhorn, a professor of marketing at Wilfrid Laurier University's School of Business and Economics, given the need for knowledge in the skirmish for customers in the business world today.

Dr. Blenkhorn says he knows of just three Canadian business schools teaching courses in competitive intelligence: his school in Waterloo, Ont., the F.C. Manning School of Business at Arcadia University in Wolfville, N.S., and the Telfer School of Business at the University of Ottawa.

It's a little different down south. Reza Djavanshir at the Carey Business School at John Hopkins University in Baltimore said competitive intelligence has been taught at U.S. universities since the 1990s. Carey has taught it since 2007. However, the subject of corporate espionage does not come up during class discussions, he says.

"Our students like the ethical and legal emphasis on doing CI [competitive intelligence]."

However, when Dr. Blenkhorn has met MBA graduates from across the country, and they've heard about CI, "they question why the concept is totally new to them and why it hasn't been taught," says the co-author of several books on the subject, who has taught it at universities around the world.

Andrew Crane, a business ethics professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, says few business schools deal with intelligence gathering, because it's not one of the major issues on the radar.

"We're not always necessarily preparing our students that well."

And Dr. Crane, who teaches a course in business ethics, finds that students begin to realize the difference between legal and unethical intelligence gathering is not necessarily obvious.

For instance, his students initially saw nothing wrong with a business employee pretending to be a customer in a competitor's store – as long as the information he or she gained was publicly available. But after a discussion about the issue of lying about who you were, the students reached a different understanding, he said.

As well, there are cultural differences in how intelligence gathering is viewed.

Though he says it's hard to generalize, Dr. Blenkhorn has found that generally there is consensus in North America and Europe on what is ethical and what is not, while elsewhere, such as in some Asian countries and in Russia, "They're very different."

"They're not always based on fundamentally different ethical values, in that most [students from different cultures] still regard [corporate espionage] as wrong. They will just say it's just part of doing business where we are. It becomes normal," Dr. Blenkhorn says.

Whereas students from countries where there's a clear line in the sand will say: "If you did that in our country, you'd be serving jail time."

Courses on CI are more widely taught in the United States and Europe, however it's still a fairly new subject at universities in China, he said. Dr. Blenkhorn once taught a course on competitive intelligence to students from 14 countries at a university in Finland. One of the students from Russia had been taught how to conduct industrial espionage at a university in St. Petersburg.

"He was quite aware of all the under-the-radar, illegal, unethical techniques," Dr. Blenkhorn said. "And then he came to my course and looked at it from a Western perspective."

Students from abroad are often interested in learning about Western thinking about the ethics of gathering competitive intelligence.

Dr. Blenkhorn has taught courses in Shanghai and found students eager to learn about CI. "They wanted to practise it on their competitors from outside China," Dr. Blenkhorn said.

"They kind of considered us in the West to be naive to practise it ethically. We had some good discussions."

However, students in Dr. Blenkhorn's courses have understood that the United States is very seriously against corruption. "The U.S. officials will pursue you and convict and there will be big repercussions if they get hold of you," Dr. Blenkhorn says.

Dr. Blenkhorn's students now also realize that they need to understand the Western rules so that they can work within them. Some large U.S. corporations will not work with suppliers if the company is unethical. "The clout of the U.S. is respected by other countries," Dr. Blenkhorn says.

Still, students may have a good grounding of business ethics from their university studies, but have never really thought about what it means when dealing with a competitor, Dr. Crane says.

"The big objective is: You want to learn about your competitors. How you do it is the big difference," Dr. Blenkhorn says.