A broad definition of competitive intelligence is the action of defining, gathering, analyzing, and distributing Intelligence about products, customers, competitors and any aspect of the environment needed to support executives and managers in making strategic decisions for an organization.
Key points of this definition:
Competitive intelligence is an ethical and legal business practice, as opposed to industrial espionage which is illegal.
The focus is on the external business environment.
There is a process involved in gathering information, converting it into intelligence and then utilizing this in business decision making. CI professionals emphasize that if the intelligence gathered is not usable (or actionable) then it is not intelligence.
A more focused definition of CI regards it as the organizational function responsible for the early identification of risks and opportunities in the market before they become obvious. Experts also call this process the early signal analysis. This definition focuses attention on the difference between dissemination of widely available factual information (such as market statistics, financial reports, newspaper clippings) performed by functions such as libraries and information centers, and competitive intelligence which is a perspective on developments and events aimed at yielding a competitive edge.