Espionage has long been used in military tactics. Businesses have also employed espionage to steal competitive secrets. More recently espionage is not used often due to the strict and severe penalties organizations and individuals will receive. A classic example of modern espionage that changed the face of the modern motorcycle industry is told in an excellent book by Mat Oxley called Stealing Speed.
The novel chronicles the life of Ernst Degner who was a famous motorcycle road racer from East Germany. Degner. Degner rode for MZ, a now defunct motorcycle maker. At the time MZ was the leader in 2-stroke engine technology and was winning the horsepower contest on the world road racing courses with Degner as the company's hero. In addition, Degner became a symbol of the power of the East German communist government shortly after the end of WWII.
As the Japanese motorcycle companies struggled to develop capable 2-stroke machines, the Germans pulled ahead ready to win their first world championship. Suzuki however plotted behind the scenes to help Degner and his family defect to West Germany in exchange for sharing the MZ technologies. Degner took the company's engine and with the help of a West German and Japanese, defected and stole the MZ secrets.
Moving to Japan and sharing the engineering secrets of MZ, Degner helped the Japanese quickly move ahead of the East Germans and allow the Japanese to become powerhouses in the world of motorcycles. As this story illustrates the blatant stealing of corporate secrets, most corporate espionage is less subtle. Honda and Yamaha were known to have spies working in one another's factories. Even today companies continue to work to uncover corporate secrets legally.
Avoiding illegal practices, today's companies can adopt different ways to gather competitive information. Scouring world patent requests allows firms to understand what new designs and technologies competitors are working on. This information is the most useful to understand short and long-term new product plans. In addition, companies often display prototypes which allow potential "sneak peaks" into upcoming products.
Talking to suppliers and retailers also helps to uncover potential "nuggets" of information of competitive maneuvers. Keeping abreast of competitor changes can be monitored by reading local newspapers and websites to identify any upcoming capital investments and management changes. Regularly checking corporate job postings is another method to identify potential maneuvers. For example, if a competitor is posting for several electrical engineers with powertrain experience, they might be developing an electric-powered product.
Stay on the right side of the law, but use as many paths of information gathering as possible to keep your competitors in range. You should never be surprised by competitive maneuvers if you have a strong competitive intelligence process.