Competitive Intelligence: Finding the (right) needle in the needlestack

Part 2 of our competitive intelligence blog series where we take a closer look at how you can ensure your competitive intelligence provides a sustainable competitive advantage.

In the first of our competitive intelligence (CI) blog series we focused on the challenge time poses for CI professionals. The lack of time… the time tasks take… the importance of timely information… and so on. One of the contributing factors to the ‘time-challenge’ is relevance. Competitive Intelligence teams already have an enormous task staying on top of their competitive landscape; if the information that they are returning is irrelevant or duplicate, the task becomes exponentially more difficult. 

You’ve heard of the needle in the haystack – that idiom doesn’t even come close to describing the challenge faced by CI teams in the data-saturated Life Sciences industry. It isn’t the lack of information that’s responsible for these challenges – it is the amount and the veiled similarity of the information that is available. Where surfacing information was once the primary concern of CI teams, it is now about discerning the signal from the noise… separating the wheat from the chaff… finding the (right) needle in the needlestack. 

But, how? Well, the answer is relatively simple… in concept.


Step 1) Federate your information sources

The first step (and probably the most obvious) is to ensure you can access and query your information sources in a single location. Consider the title of this blog – yes, looking for a needle in a needlestack might be daunting – but, it’s a much simpler task than looking for a needle across multiple disparate needlestacks, surely?

Consider what federated searching achieves for a CI team. Currently, you need to search across drug pipeline databases, regulatory publications, industry news, competitive updates, performance analyses,  and much more, to ensure you’re playing your role in maintaining your organization’s competitive advantage. Now, consider if all of your information sources were centralized and could be searched with a single query. You’re simplifying your research, minimizing the risk of missing critical information, reducing the time it takes to research – allowing more time for analysis and strategy development, thereby, improving the ROI of yourself and your team across the organization.


Step 2) Introduce taxonomies 

Federating sources, although extremely beneficial for CI teams, also has its flaws. By centralizing your information sources – you risk duplicating your results per query. Although, much more efficient than searching across multiple sources, there is still further opportunity to utilize technologies to improve overall information relevance. 

Let’s look at one facet of the CI information workflow as an example to highlight what we mean; drug pipeline databases. CI teams need to monitor these databases continuously to ensure that there is a complete understanding of the drug development landscape. However, there doesn’t exist a single universal database that can be held as the font of all drug development knowledge. Following the advice in Step 1, we’ve already consolidated our information databases into a federated and searchable hub. But, these databases often utilize separate or varied vocabularies to identify terms, drug substances, MOAs or even drugs names themselves. How do you guarantee that your query returns the correct results (that might be labeled differently across databases) without missing critical information? 

This is where the power of taxonomies shines. Taxonomies define the relationship between terms and the hierarchies in which they sit. These relationships have been identified by human experts who have manually collated synonymous concepts based on their association – ensuring queries return key information that may not have been explicitly searched for. In this scenario, instead of needing to understand the naming conventions of each individual database that you’d previously federated, you now only need to know a single identifier within the taxonomy and you can return as precise information as possible. Suddenly, you have reduced your needlestack to a refined and relevant set of needles, critical to your workflow. 


Step 3) Ensure it can be searched semantically

The final step, which comes as a direct product of the preceding two, is to make your information sources semantically searchable. What does this mean? Semantic search is search with meaning. The intended meaning of you, the ‘searcher’, who uses natural language and syntax to discern their query in a way that is natural. And secondly, the meaning of the words associated with your search. Traditional boolean queries only result in the specific keywords being searched and the associated expressions separating or defining them. For example, here’s what a boolean search can look like using only three keywords and three expressions: 

Relatively good results if your query requires simple keywords and expressions. But, what if it had a bit more complexity? There were analogous terms or homonymous meanings in your query? The question had multiple relational expressions or was more conversational in tone? This is where semantic search becomes invaluable for you as a CI professional. 

Semantic search returns highly relevant results by leveraging human-created taxonomies in combination with Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques. Irrelevant concepts are discarded, and the information most critical to your workflow is brought to the  surface.

Semantic search is predictive; understanding what you are looking for based on relationships mapped between concepts and their synonyms in taxonomies. It is precise; identifying the true meaning of your query to uncover the information most critical to you. It is powerful; with the capacity to present information visually – ensuring you can spend less time analyzing and more time reacting to the information you find. And finally, but most critically, it is relevant.


Finding the right needle in the needlestack might not be the most poignant of analogies but it does serve to discern one of the great challenges faced by Competitive Intelligence teams moving into the ’20s – that of information relevance. 

Relevancy is key in the modern era due to the abundance of information that is available. CI professionals must be able to discern between what is relevant and what is noise to ensure that they are able to serve their organization’s needs completely. However, as highlighted in this blog, there are plenty of solutions available to help these teams overcome this modern information overload.