In his classic book focused on military strategy The Art of War, Chinese general Sun Tzu said: "keep your friends close and your enemies closer." This is now more possible than ever -- without subterfuge or spying -- using social media.
In most cases you know who your direct competitors are. Sometimes a new challenge springs out and surprises you, but you will usually have an idea of whom your local and international competitors are.
The first step is to ensure that you go to the LinkedIn page for each competing company. You can do this by searching the 'companies' section of LinkedIn for the required company.
Click the 'Follow' button to ensure that you now follow information on this company. This ensures that LinkedIn will populate your news feed with any information it has on this company.
You can easily see the information LinkedIn has on a company by viewing the company page. The latest news, recent hires and fires, growth rates, promotions and job changes, and the companies that LinkedIn believes are operating in the same market. This is a very rich set of data that can be very helpful in understanding what a competitor is up to -- not least the fact that because LinkedIn is focused on what individuals are doing it can be very interesting to find where those who leave are moving to.
Twitter is also a very important tool for monitoring the competition. Ensure that you have a search setup in the name of your competitor so you can scan what the online community is saying about them -- sometimes it will be people from the company and sometime it will be discussion about them.
Google also offers a very useful email alert tool within their Google News service. Just go to news.google.com and search for the company or subject you want to monitor. Google will return the latest news stories, with an option to create an email alert for this search -- you can enter your email address and Google will regularly keep you posted on any news related to the company you are searching for.
All these options are very simple and free. You can monitor the news with Google, the online discussion with Twitter, and the hires and fires with LinkedIn giving an enormous amount of information on what your competitors are up to globally without any cash investment in research.
None of this is spying. It's just intelligence, competitive intelligence.