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Michael Porter: Competitive Strategy

Of all the strategic thinkers we have covered (like Igor Ansoff, Kenichi Ohmae, and Porter’s student, Kathryyn Rudi Harrigan), Michael Porter deserves a special place. His 1980 book, Competitive Strategy, transformed thinking, moving us from the pre-Porter world of strategic thinking dominated by Ansoff, to the post-Porter world that he still dominates.

Porter is an intellectual and an influencer who does not covet the easy quotability of some of his contemporaries. But the rigour of his analysis has made him all the more sought-after. His books have sold in the hundreds of thousands, and his speaking fees are legendary.

Michael Porter
Michael Porter

Short Biography

Michael Porter was born in 1947, in Michigan, and went to Princeton to study for a BSE in Aeronautical Engineering in 1969. He graduated top of his class and was inducted into the two most prestigious honor houses. He then shifted his focus to business, and went to Harvard Business School, where he received an MBA in 1971 and a PhD in Economics in 1973. From there he joined the faculty.

He remains at Harvard today, as a University Professor, and also Founding Director of Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, which he founded in 2001 to further his work and research.

Porter’s breakthrough came with the 1980 publication of Competitive Strategy. Other significant yet accessible books are The Competitive Advantage of Nations (1990) and the 1998 article and essay collection, On Competition. But these are among 15 other successful books and article collections.

But what you are interested in are Porter’s big ideas…

Michael Porter’s Big Ideas

Before Porter, Igor Ansoff dominated thinking on corporate strategy. His approach boiled down to choosing your market, matching your resources to meet the market’s demand, and then improving your competitiveness to increase your market share.

Michael Porter did not reject these ideas. Rather, he opened them out, approaching strategy from the perspective of the whole industry and then, later, as a national endeavour. He considered that earlier strategic thinking had become confused with simple (ahem) operational effectiveness. He argued that improving operational processes merely levelled out competitors, rather than giving them a differentiation that led to competitive advantage.

Let’s survey five big ideas that Michael Porter has given us. All remain core parts of any business education.

Primary and Secondary Activities, and the Importance of the Value Chain

Porter divided corporate activities into Primary Activities and Secondary Activities.

Primary Activities are the value chain from inbound materials to production operations, to outbound goods and their distribution, to the ‘far end of the value chain‘, marketing and sales, to customer care and after sales services. Here, Porter argued, lay the ground for competitive advantage. The key task is to integrate these into one value chain.

Secondary Activities are the business support functions, like IT, HR, Procurement, Facilities Management, and Finance. These cannot create competitive advantage They can merely enable efficiency, or act as a drag on the business.

Porter’s Five Forces

Corporations sit in a competitive environment, which creates five forces.

Michael Porter's Five Forces
Michael Porter’s Five Forces

Porter’s current view is that a company must aim to use these forces to re-cast the rules of its industry, in its own favour.

Sources of Competitive Advantage, and the Three Competitive Strategies

Porter argued that there are two sources of competitive advantage:

  1. Cost – being able to sell the same products or services at a lower price than your competitors, whilst maintaining profit margins
  2. Differentiation – being able to offer products and services which your customers want, but that your competitors cannot (yet) offer

This leads him to his three competitive strategies:

  1. Cost leadership – build the capability to produce at a lower cost than anyone else
  2. Differentiation – find a new product or service, or enhance what you offer to make it different
  3. Niche focus – find a profitable niche, and dominate it

Recently, we see competitors dominating their market with a fourth strategy, based on a third source of competitive advantage: deep loyalty. How does Apple dominate? Not by offering cheaper products, certainly. Although their supply chain efficiencies mean that their margins are exceptional.

And, some would argue, not by differentiation. Whilst they often lead for a short time here, their rivals also innovate, and certainly catch up quickly. Is there much a Mac can do that a PC cannot? Is there much an iPhone can do that a Samsung cannot?

And a company with as many and varied customers as Apple cannot truly be said to serve a niche.

No, I believe the source of Apple’s current dominance is largely the loyalty of its customer base, built on historic innovation, differentiation in multiple niches, and a reputation for excellence.

Diversification

Like Ansoff before him, Porter sees diversification as a shrewd strategy that spreads a corporation’s risk. This maybe through product development, or business acquisition.

In deciding how to diversify, Porter proposes three tests:

  1. Does the new industry, product set, or niche offer attractive returns on investment? Is there the opportunity to build differentiation or cost leadership?
  2. Is the cost of entry proportionate to the likely returns? If not, the risks are too high.
  3. Does the acquisition or the new venture leave the parties better-off? This is basically Ansoff’s concept of synergy.

The National Competitive Environment

In The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Porter fully articulated a line of thinking that placed national conditions at the heart of corporate success. A strong home base with good infrastructure and healthy competition grows successful global companies. Porter’s Diamond Model sets out four factors that affect a nation’s industries.

Michael Porter's Diamond Model
Michael Porter’s Diamond Model

Michael Porter on Competitive Strategy

An old, but excellent video of Porter describing some of his main ideas.

You might enjoy the Strategy Pocketbook

… and the following earlier Pocketblogs:

 

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Lynda Gratton: The Future of Work

What will work be like in the future, and how will we respond to it? These are big questions being asked by the influential and much respected Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, Lynda Gratton. The answers she is uncovering are both obvious and important. We won’t know if her work is ‘right’ until the future arrives, but for now, we would be wise to understand the trends Gratton is uncovering, and respond to them.

Lynda Gratton

Short Biography

Lynda Gratton was born in 1955 and, grew up, and was educated in the north west of England, in Liverpool. She gained her BSc in Psychology from Liverpool University in 1976 and started work there on her PhD. In 1979, she started work with British Airways as Chief Psychologist, while continuing her doctoral studies into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She was awarded her PhD in 1981 and, in the following year moved to management consulting firm PA Consulting.

She stayed at PA until 1989, becoming their youngest Director at age 32. But Gratton valued the autonomy to create time to read, think, and be with her family above the high salary. So she took a post as an Assistant Professor at the London Business School in 1989.

Gratton’s academic career has resulted in praise and awards. She has authored 9 books to date (the ninth is due out in June 2016) and many influential papers, the most widely read being two Harvard Business Review Articles: Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams (Nov 2007) and End of the Middle Manager (Jan 2011).

Gratton’s best-selling books are Hot Spots: Why Some Companies Buzz with Energy and Innovation – And Others Don’t (2007) and The Shift: The Future of Work is already Here (2007), with her new work looking at one of the five forces she sees as shaping our world for the future: The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity (2016)

The Five Forces Shaping our World

We need to start our summary of Gratton’s most important thinking with the forces she identifies as driving change in the world. I think each of us might add one or two of our own, but it is hard to dispute that each of these five will have a big impact. What gives her list credibility is the wide range of big name organisations that collaborated in her research.

Technological Developments

Some of the big developments she points out that will affect us (and some of the other forces, below) are:

  • Cognitive assistants (advanced knowledge systems moving towards artificial intelligence)
  • Cloud and distributed computing – especially linked to mobile devices
  • Advanced robotics
  • Digitisation of knowledge

At some point she projects (as do many computer scientists) connected computers will start to become capable  of creating knowledge without human help. (Note that this is not the same as the potential ‘singularity event’ of computers gaining consciousness, which is at another tier of speculation)

Globalisation

Here we can see trends like labour force mobility, especially in the direction of mega cities that are, increasingly, in the East. This is feeling and fuelled by the emergence of the new economies; the so called BRIC and MINT nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey – along with other less acronymed nations like South Korea and Egypt). Many of the new dominant player will bring new cultural and societal norms to the world of work.

Demographic Changes (and increasing longevity)

The biggest changes will be shifts in life expectancy and the struggles of Western nations in particular to meet expectations around retirement. But as populations age and birth rates decline in the presently less developed nations, the same effect could have far greater implications.

Societal Trends

There are so many trends here – many linked intimately with technology, globalisation and demographics. Women’s social and economic power cannot (and should not) do anything but rise. Freelance work will increase to take advantage of technology and meet the caring needs of people with ageing relatives. Predictions of the demise of family life or the increase in attention given to families from home-based workers seem the most confused – but then the future may not yield neat categories.

Energy

The need to shift to a low Carbon economy to protect the world from rising atmospheric CO2 levels and the inevitable devastating consequences of the global climate changes it will drive will increasingly dominate our futures. This will have complex economic impacts – but nothing compared to what will happen if oceans rise substantially and crops fail around the world. I’d like to see Gratton give more attention to the consequences of water stress and the geopolitical impacts of large mismatches of water availability and need that we can readily predict.

The Three Shifts we can Expect to See in our Lives

These are big forces and Gratton envisages three big shifts in our lives.

Mastery

There are too many generalists, so the law of supply and demand will crush their economic value. This will drive a shift to in-depth mastery and narrow specialisation of workers.  We can easily see how she comes to this conclusion, as the five forces combine to drive and facilitate this shift.

Connectivity

Linked to this is the need and increasing ability for workers to connect with one another globally.  She thinks our work lives will become less competitive and more collaborative. Gratton coins two interesting concepts:

  • Your narrow group of close collaborators, whom she calls ‘the Posse’
  • Your wider group of loosely connected working relationships, which she refers to as ‘the Big Ideas Crowd’

Quality of Experience

From my point of view, her third shift is the most parochial: a move from focusing on standard of living to the quality of our experiences. In Gratton’s timeframe of now to 2025, I doubt this will be a major trend outside the wealthiest parts of the world (and, even here, it may only apply to the wealthy middle and affluent classes). The displacement of work by machines has been heralded for over 100 years and the rise of hedonistic society for many hundreds. I’d like to buy into this one, but it feels most like a consumer business driven rehash of an old trope (Sorry Lynda).

The Five Impacts this will have on Organisations

What I do one hundred per cent buy into is Gratton’s assessment of the big impacts these shifts and forces will have on global-scale organisations. Small, local organisations will lag behind, but even they will need eventually to bow to some of these changes.

Leadership

Connectivity will drive the need for more transparent leadership of our corporations (while many will fight it, fearing the impact of consumer reactions). This will need a more authentic style of leadership from individuals throughout those organisations.

Virtual Teams

Cross border, cross timezone working has grown up over the last 20 years, and will increase. From my perspective, real, empirical research in how to drive high performance from virtual teams is still lagging this trend. This is a hard question, because we evolved to co-operate in small, intimate, and geographically contained teams. We need to find ways to optimise our reactions to an alien environment.

Cross Business Networks

‘Social Capital’ is not just something we acquire as individuals, Gratton suggests. Corporations need connectivity to drive innovation and profitability. I predict that these wider eco-systems may yet morph into the dystopian mega-corporations and global cartels of science fiction.

Partnering with consumers and entrepreneurs

As more workers become independent freelancers, and consumers become more savvy about what they want, corporations will increasingly need to extend their relationships to more fully engage with them.

Flexible Working

You didn’t see this one coming, did you? (Joke) If social, demographic, and lifestyle preferences are shifting, then so too will work patterns. And this will require flexibility from employers.

Lynda Gratton at TEDx

Hear Lynda Gratton talking about how to be ready for the future now, at a TEDx event at the London business School in 2012.

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Business Strategy Tools

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


Over the years, Pocketblog has covered some important business strategy thinkers, so we will start by reviewing what we have.

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

This is the name of Richard Rumelt’s book and it neatly frames any discussion of business strategy by defining what your outcome needs to look like. Take a look at ‘What makes good business strategy?

The Balanced Scorecard

In one of the all-time classic Harvard Business Review articles, Robert Kaplan and David Norton set out to ensure that our business strategies are balanced across a range of different areas of the business. The tool they introduced is nearly ubiquitous in the upper reaches of the management world, and no manager can get away without at least a passing familiarity with the Balanced Scorecard. Take a look at ’Balance is Everything’.

The McKinsey 7S Model

One of my own favourite tools is also about balance, but this time about ensuring all the elements of your business strategy and planning are all aligned. It was developed by consultants at top US firm, McKinsey: Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. The seven S model reminds us that shared values, style, skills, staff, structure, systems, and strategy must all be consistent with one another. Take a look at ‘On Competition: Internal Forces and the 7-S Model’.

The Awesome Michael Porter

Over the years, three blogs have featured the thinking of business strategy specialist, Michael Porter.

‘On Competition: Five Forces’ briefly introduced two of his principal ideas: the five forces model and his three generic business strategies that flow from them.

‘On Competition, again: Porter’s Five Forces’ took a deeper look at the five forces model.

‘On Competition – The Far End of the Value Chain’ focused on the three generic business strategies and his concept of the value chain. Here, I speculated that some businesses have found a fourth, very successful business strategy.

By the way, a recent entry in the Pocket Correspondence course returned to the idea of the value chain. Take a look at ‘The Value Chain’.

The Boston Consulting Group Matrix

Having finished reviewing the archives, let’s take a look at one business strategy tool. This is designed to help us answer a very simple question:

‘We have a number of products (or services) but limited resources to invest in their development and marketing. Which products (or services) should we focus our investment on?’

The folk at Boston Consulting Group who developed the tool suggested that two considerations are paramount in making our judgements:

  1. What is our market share?
    Do we have a dominant market position with this product/service, or a modest share. This dictates the base from which investment can grow or maintain our position.
  2. What is the growth potential of the market?
    Is this product in a growing, static or declining market? Clearly static and declining markets offer far less opportunity to recoup investments.

The result was a simple matrix that plots these two conditions against one-another and identifies four generic strategies. You can click on the image to enlarge it.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Business Strategy Matrix

The Matrix gives us four strategies, three compelling labels for our products/services and one label that is, frankly, honest but lame.

Stars

Place your biggest investment bets on the products which dominate markets with high growth potential. If you are Samsung, you will be investing highly in mobile telephone products because the market continues to expand and you already have a dominant position.

Dogs

Do not invest – arguably, disinvest – in products which have a small share of a static or declining market. There is not much to win and you are not placed to take much of it.

Cash Cows

What do you do if you are a dominant player in a static or declining market? BCG suggested it is like having invested in a cow: you should look after it and milk it while it is healthy. This is how I read the men’s razor market. If you are one of the big players in your region (Gillette, Wilkinson Sword, Bic, for example, here in the UK), then you have a lot of investment in products and marketing, and a strong, valuable revenue stream. Over investment can gain little, as the market will never expand until men grow two heads or we need to shave more of ourselves. But if you don’t invest, you will lose the benefit of your position to your rivals. So, what do we see? Incremental investment in new – but hardly innovative – products. When I started shaving, two blades was new. Now we are up to five. By the time I no longer need to shave (about thirty years or so, I guess) I predict an eight bladed razor will be common.

Question Marks

What to call these pesky products… Does the label attach to the products or the challenge BCG found in labelling them with a cute title? Set aside that curious linguistic conundrum and we face the most difficult challenge of all. Your market is growing, so there is a big prize for the skilled/lucky investor. But your market position is weak, so you have a low chance of success against bigger rival products. Like many good tools, the BCG matrix does not give you all the answers. But it does bring your choices into stark relief.

Further Reading 

From the Management Pocketbooks series:

  1. The Strategy Pocketbook
  2. Business Planning Pocketbook
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On Competition, again: Porter’s Five Forces

Back in the summer of 2011, we did a couple of blogs on the work of Michael Porter – one of the most serious-minded academic thinkers in the realm of corporate strategy.

In the first, ‘On Competition: Five Forces’, we surveyed his five forces model from a high vantage point and also introduced his three sources of competitive advantage.  We then, in ‘On Competition: The Far End of the Value Chain’ questioned whether there are not, in fact other sources of competitive advantage.

The Five Forces

I think it’s time to take a closer look at these five forces, and maybe question the adequacy of that model too.  So what are Porter’s Five Forces?

1. The Bargaining Power of Suppliers

If your business is dependent upon the supply of materials, assets, or people, then your suppliers have power over your business – which is increased as the market dominance of your supplier increases.  You need a strategy to keep your suppliers’ interests aligned with yours, by being as important to them as they are to you.  Dependence on a monopoly or near monopoly supplier is a route to doom.  Consider creating alternative supply sources, alternative inputs, or vertical integration to control your own supply source.

2. The Bargaining Power of Customers

It would be great to be a monopoly supplier of a commodity product.  Few are although, if you can differentiate your product sufficiently – for example, as Apple did with the launches of the iPhone and iPad – then you can simulate that position for a while.  Ultimately, the customer is king or queen: without them, you are doomed.

3. Competitive Rivalry

Existing players in your market will be jostling for customers’ attention and preferential deals for suppliers.  For most people, this is where their conception of competition ends.  Porter knew differently . . .

4. The Threat of New Entrants

When Sea and Atari were slugging it out for dominance of the games console market, who would have predicted the arrival of the Sony Playstation?  Answer: anyone familiar with this model.  They would not necessarily have known it would be Sony or that it would be successful, but the threat was there… As it was some years later, when, Atari gone, Microsoft entered the market to challenge Sega and Sony, with the X-Box.

5. The threat of Substitute Products

Somewhere in my stationery cupboard, I have a bottle of Tipp-Ex (probably set solid) and a pack of acetate sheets.  Is there a better supplier of correction fluid or a superior priced transparent paper?  Who knows?  Who cares?  I don’t use either: I print drafts from my PC and re-print when I’ve made corrections, and I project straight from my PC when I need slides.  I doubt many of my clients retain a working overhead projector (OHP).

Are there More Forces?

There you have it in a nutshell: five competitive forces that allow a business to evaluate its competitive strategy.  It is one of the most successful and widely used management models.

The last fifteen years have emphasised the rightful role of regulation as a competitive force or, rather, sometimes the failure of regulation to curb competitive behaviours (Enron, anybody?) I think we would now have to add regulatory forces to any complete analysis.

But I also have to ask, what about internal forces.  How do the social, cultural, political, operational, technological… forces within the business affect strategy.  To me, this is a big gap.

If only someone could plug it . . .

Happily, they can.
But you’ll have to wait until next week’s Pocketblog for that.

Management Pocketbooks you might Enjoy

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On Competition – The Far End of the Value Chain

Back in August, we met Michael Porter – a professor at Harvard Business School, and an authority on competitive strategy.  In a blog called ‘On Competition – Five Forces’ I described his best known ‘Five Forces Model’ and also his model of three sources of competitive advantage:

Porter's Three Generic Business Strategies

The Whole Picture?

At a recent seminar, I challenged participants to identify any additional business strategy that can deliver competitive advantage.  After all, in my August blog, I did assert that this model is showing its age.

Could a business outcompete rivals with a higher cost product, that does pretty much the same as its competing products, and has no niche focus?  The answer takes us into a fascinating debating point, by way of another powerful model with which Porter is closely associated.

Competitive Advantage

Porter’s 1985 book ‘Competitive Advantage’ gives you a pretty thorough précis of his earlier ‘Competitive Strategy’ in Chapter 1 – focusing on the three strategies – and then takes off.  Competitive advantage, Porter says, comes from understanding the ‘value chain’.  This is the full set of activities that company undertakes, to create value.  It is illustrated below.

Porter's Value Chain

Competitive advantage is about understanding the Five Forces model and the sources of cost advantage and product differentiation in terms of these nine activities.

The Far End of the Value Chain

The five primary activities form a chain of value-adding processes, supported by the four secondary processes that provide the necessary resources to make the value chain work.  Each can be a source of competitive advantage, most obviously through cost differentiation.

I want to focus on Marketing & Sales, and Service.  My argument is that a company can differentiate its product – to give it competitive advantage, through these two, without focusing on a niche, delivering a substantively different product, and with no cost leadership.

Marketing, Sales and Service are about Myth-making

Hello Kitty is a trademark of SanrioIf you can create a compelling narrative about your product, people will want it, to associate themselves with the myth you have created around your brand.  My daughter loves ‘Hello Kitty’ – I don’t know why.  As far as I can tell, the Hello Kitty brand started life as nothing more than a motif, appearing on a range of products.  Now, not just children, but adults too, want goods just because they have the face of a little white cat (with no mouth) on them.

The products are no better, no different (unless you include the motif) and certainly no different functionally, and definitely no cheaper.  There is little niche focus beyond, as far as I can tell, females.  Hello Kitty thrives in most cultures and at many age groups from 2 to forty, at least.

I think the source of Sanrio’s competitive advantage is nothing more than marketing.

Would I fall for such a ruse?

Of course not.  Unlike some grown ups, I would never have Hello Kitty nor any other character on my iPhone case…

‘Hold on Mike, did you say iPhone?’

iPhone certainly has no cost advantage and it now has many competing products that offer the same functionality.  And as a niche, iPhone users are pretty hard to define: old and young, across social and cultural spectra…

So how does marketing create competitive advantage?

It seems implausible that three sources of competitive advantage could be all there is.  Yet I have come to the conclusion that I haven’t yet found an exception.  Despite arguing that marketing is that exception, let me explain.

What does marketing do that creates such loyal followings for Hello Kitty and iPhone (and, indeed, for both – I saw someone with a Hello Kitty iPhone cover, which was the nudge for writing this blog)?

I think the great marketing that Sanrio and Apple create, builds a loyal following for their products.  Many people will identify themselves as iPhone users – in a way that others would not identify themselves as Wildfire or Galaxy users.  What great companies can do is use marketing and service to create a ‘tribe’ of people who are loyal to their brand – or to a part of their brand.

What this relatively new form of marketing is doing is building a niche focus that is defined by the products and services of the company.

So, Porter was right after all.  Now we need to look at this concept of ‘tribes’.  More next week.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

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On Competition: Five Forces

On a high shelf in my study are the books I rarely refer to.  Some turned out to be a disappointment after I bought them, but some, however, are old friends.  It’s just that I no longer need to refer to them much.

Years ago, when I was asked to develop a seminar on business strategy, three of them were my constant companion as as I thought through and planned the session.  And the first model I thought of back then features at the start of Chapter 1 of one of those books, Michael Porter’s ‘On Competition’.  This is, by the way, a hefty hardback (lovely to use).

I’ve been re-reading parts of it in preparation for a new seminar: ‘the Three Hour MBA’.

Michael Porter

Michael PorterThe same model appears in the delightfully neat ‘Strategy Pocketbook’ by Neil Russell-Jones.  In it, Jones describes Porter as ‘one of the most influential strategic thinkers and writers’ and his classic book ‘Competitive Strategy’ is required reading on just about every MBA course.

 

Porter’s Five Forces

Not surprisingly, Michael Porter starts his book (which collects a dozen or so of his best articles) with the model that bears his name: Porter’s Five Forces.

Porter's Five Forces that govern competition

Porter analyses the basis of the power behind each of these five forces, and the barriers to entry of new players or substitute products.  The model forms a basis for developing a strategy that positions your company and influences the forces around it.

Three Strategies

Porter suggests three generic business strategies to position your company to take advantage of your competitive environment.

Porter's Three Generic Business Strategies

Systems Thinking

Perhaps Porter’s model is showing its age.  In the 1980s, the world seemed a simpler place.  Now, we understand far better, how inter-connected things are.  Suppliers are dealing directly with customers and business are making ever-more complex alliances.  How does access to capital (the last couple of years worth of headline news) affect competitive forces, and what about other resources, like people and energy?  And what are the affects the forces of social responsibility and regulation?

So here’s the deal

Porter’s Five Forces is an entry level strategy tool.  It is a valuable insight into the workings of a competitive market and a great starting place.  But do consider the lessons of Richard Rumelt, who argues that a good strategy starts from a robust understanding of the situation, with which this model can help, but needs much more in addition.

Some Management Pocketbooks you might like.

The Strategy Pocketbook

Neil Russell-Jones’ Strategy Pocketbook is stuffed full of handy tips and strategy planning tools, including Porter’s Five Forces and a ‘competitive intensity’ tool that is based on it.  It also has lots of other valuable tools and models.

 

Also take a look at:

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