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Gary Hamel: New Strategist

What is the meaning of corporate strategy? Is it about getting to the front of the queue, keeping your place in the queue, or is it something different. Gary Hamel, once considered by Forbes Magazine to be ‘the world’s leading expert on business strategy’ might argue it is starting the next queue.

Gary Hamel
Gary Hamel

Very Short Biography

There are very few biographical details about Gary Hamel available. He was born in 1954, attended Andrews University. His first job was in hospital administration, but he soon started a PhD at the University of Michigan. There he met long-term collaborator, CK Prahalad. In 1983, Hamel joined the faculty of the London Business School, where he has remained to this day.

However, in 1993, we transferred from a full-time to a visiting professorship and moved to Silicon Valley, co-founding a consultancy firm, Strategos, a couple of years later, with Prahalad. This timing was clearly linked to the publication of their landmark Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, Competing for the Future in July/August 1994. It was followed later that year by the book of the same name, Competing for the Future, which became a massive seller.

This set Hamel up for a string of high-selling books, prominent HBR articles, prestigious consulting assignments, and eye watering fees on the conference circuit.

Following the sale of Strategos in 2008, Hamel founded the Management Innovation Exchange. This is an online community dedicated to innovation and disruptive thinking, that very much chimes with Hamel’s approach to strategy as disruptive. He remains influential and sought after and, as a relatively young man, seems likely to continue to influence strategic thinking for  a number of years.

Hamel’s Big Ideas

What are the ‘Big Ideas’ that managers need to be aware of? And, in particular, how can we separate out Hamel’s ideas from those of long-term collaborator, CK Prahalad, whom Pocketblog has already covered?

Here, I’d like to focus on the flavour of the ideas that seem more to arise from Hamel’s thinking. But I must emphasise that I have no insight into how the two work together andI am aware I may be misinterpreting, so welcome comments.

Core Competencies

The first big idea that Prahalad and Hamel put forward was that of core competencies. Corporations need to stop focusing on what industry thy are in, and start looking at what they can do well, as their source of competitive advantage. Hamel is fond of citing examples like Amazon and Apple, who are in the retail and consumer electronics industries respectively… or were.

Now, Amazon is a dominant player in provision of web servers, cloud storage, and data processing, whilst Apple makes much of its money today as a music vendor and software marketplace provider. It was the asset bases and the skill-sets of their people that allowed each business to grow into new markets and achieve a dominance there.

It seems to me that these examples illustrate Hamel’s particular contribution – he favours taking contrarian lines and looking for the surprising, disruptive directions of thought.

Strategic Intent

Prahalad and Hamel charted a shift in corporate strategy from the 1960s and the focus on portfolios and selecting winning product sets, to the 1980s and the focus on efficiency, continuous improvement, cost-cutting and re-engineering, and Total Quality Management (TQM) – all as means of tweaking the corporation to ever better incremental performance levels.

In the 200s, the focus needed to shift again, and in 1994, they foresaw this, under pressures of globalisation, technology shifts, changes in customer expectations, deregulation, and new entrants into markets. Corporations would increasingly need to answer long term questions about where they will be in the future. And if they don’t have the answers, then someone would surely displace them.

Companies, Hamel and Prahalad said, should no longer seek to optimise their position within a fixed market, but should rather either change the rules of their industry altogether, or go and find new markets to conquer.

Hamel distinguishes between:

  • Rule Makers
    These are the founders of their industries, who built dominance by an audacious and concerted move into a new or emerging space. Henry Ford, whom we covered two weeks ago is a great example.
  • Rule Takers
    These are the fast followers – companies that copied successful Rule Makers and also built a strong presence in the same market, largely by taking an established formula, and applying it well. Some would never catch up their rule maker. Others would find substantial improvements or deploy sufficient hunger, to overtake the incumbent leader.
  • Rule Breakers
    These are businesses that disrupted the rules by which the incumbents play. They do things sufficiently differently to rock the market and change it forever. Some have been driven by technological advances, but others have been equally radical by simply applying new thinking. Virgin Airlines and then EasyJet each disrupt the British Airways near-monopoly n the UK, for example.

Strategy as Revolution

Nowhere is this clearer than in Hamel’s 1996 solo HBR article, ‘Strategy as Revolution‘. It seems to me that this article really set the scene for ten years later when Hamel co-founded the Management Innovation Exchange (MIX). Here, he put forward ten principles to consider, if you want to create a truly innovative strategy. I’ll pick out four:

  1. Distinguish between ritualised, calendar-driven strategic planning from the true practice of challenge and investigation that leads to real strategy.
  2. Harness revolutionary ideas throughout the company, because many of the staunchest defenders of old and comfortable orthodoxies are at the top of the organisation.
  3. Don’t worry about making change. Instead, focus on engagement with the people who can make the change happen.
  4. Embrace surprise: you don’t need to plan the whole route or even be sure of the ultimate destination. The direction is the strategy.

Conclusion

It’s too soon to write a conclusion on Hamel. His focus on disruption has helped many businesses change, but it is not clear whether he is riding the wave, or controlling the wave machine. If you want a constant stream of stimulation and challenge though, it is well worth checking out and even participating in his Management Innovation Exchange.

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Alfred Chandler: Business History

It’s just a few people who could claim to have invented an academic discipline, but one who could, with some justice, is Alfred D Chandler. He was a historian who studied business, and in so doing, he inferred large historical patterns that still inform our thinking.

Alfred Chandler
Alfred Chandler, 1918 – 2007

Short Biography

Alfred DuPont Chandler was born in 1918 into a Delaware family that had commerce in its blood. In one branch of his family was grandfather Henry Poor, of Standard and Poors, and in another was the duPont family. He studied for a Masters degree at Harvard College before the war, where he was a friend of John F Kennedy. After service in a non-combat role, he returned to Harvard to finish his Masters and earn his PhD with a study of Henry Poor and the coming of the American railroads..

An appointment to MIT allowed him to study more large corporations in depth. His analysis of duPont, General Motors, Standard Oil, and Sears Roebuck & Co led to the publication in 1962 of the first of his three most noteworthy books (among over 25 in total): Strategy and Structure.

He also worked for a while at Johns Hopkins University, before returning Harvard in 1970, as the Isidor Strauss Professor of Business History at the Harvard Business School. There, he wrote his second major work, 1977’s The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. This exceptional work won Chandler the Pulitzer Prize for History, and was the first business book to be recognised with a Pulitzer Prize. The title is a deliberate reply to Adam Smith, whose ‘invisible hand’ is the market. We’ll see what Chandler was referring to in a moment.

In 1990, Chandler published the last of his three major books, Scale and Scope: Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism. In this he shows that it is not just scale of operations that bestows big economies and hence competitive advantage. It is also scope – capturing a diverse spread of markets early on. Uncharacteristically, Chandler looked to economics and borrowed the term ‘first mover advantage’.

Having retired from the Harvard faculty in 1989, Chandler continued to work, write and comment on changes in business, and was a visiting professor at numerous institutions. He died in May 2007.

Themes of Alfred Chandler’s Work

Chandler’s approach of wide-ranging comparative analysis to find historical patterns of evolution and change initially encountered a lot of resistance from the academic business community. These academics favoured using economic and quantitative analysis to build their theories, but Chandler was able to change many (though not all) attitudes. Today’s business school focus on case studies and the rise to prominence of academics and writers like Jim Collins.

Strategy before Structure

The primary thesis of Chandler’s ‘Strategy and Structure‘ is that strategy must come before (and therefore dictate) the structure of the corporation. His historical observations led him to conclude that market forces need to drive shifts in the way organisations evolve, and he was able to predict the increasing trend for decentralisation that continues, in the largest businesses, today.

More recently, academic and business commentators have disagreed. Tom Peters observes that it is structure that determines which strategy a corporation will select, and Richard Tanner Pascale argued that Chandler assumed that organisations act rationally. They don’t, and he also notes that organisational structures play a big role in shaping strategy.

Trust Gary Hamel to sort it out, by seeing the subtlety of the competing views. He notes that the two are intertwined: new challenges lead to new structures, and new structures present new challenges. He concludes:

‘Few historians were prescient. Chandler was.’

Arguably, Chandler is, along with Igor Ansoff, one of the founding advocates of the study of business strategy.

Professional Management

Chandler also charted the rise of professional management; first in Strategy and Structure and then, more fully, in The Visible Hand. He saw managerially led corporations in the US rise with the growth of the railways and the need for complex, geographically-spread, systems. These first arose within the railway companies, and then in the corporations that grew nationally, due to the opportunities that long-distance transport offered.

It was the visible hand of an organisation’s managers that replaced Smith’s invisible hand of the market as a major driver of the structure of a modern business.

Further Reading

I rarely cite another website for further reading about our Management Thinkers, but in this case, I am compelled by the excellence of the article at the Strategy + Business site. I have deliberately avoided borrowing from it. If you are interested in Chandler, this should be your next port of call.

 

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C K Prahalad: Strategy Reinvented

C K Prahalad was one of the giants among academics thinking about corporate strategy at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. It may be that his revolutionary ideas form a core of real global transformation in the years to come. Prahalad was instrumental in transforming our understanding of corporate strategy twice, during a sadly short academic career of only 35 years.

C K Prahalad

 

Short Biography

Coimbatore Krishnarao Prahalad was born in 1941 and grew up in Coimbatore, in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He was an exceptional academic student, graduating high school three years early and gaining a BSc in Physics from Chenai’s Loyola College in 1960, at the age of 19. He joined Union Carbide, first as an intern and later was promoted to be its youngest manager. But he left in 1964, to join the first MBA class at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), earning his MBA in 1966.

From there, he joined a manufacturing firm, Indian Pistons, which offered the stability to marry and start his family. But the call of the academy continued and in 1973, with his family, he went to the US and started his DBA research at Harvard – while his wife, Gayatri, started her master’s degree in education.

After Harvard, he took up a teaching post at IIM, and gradually acquired others, coming to base himself at the University of Michigan. There, he was recognised as the outstanding teacher in the business school. There too, he met doctoral student Gary Hamel. Together they built a combative rapport that generated the highly influential 1990 Harvard Business Review paper, ‘The Core Competence of the Corporation’.

They then developed these ideas into the best-selling book, ‘Competing for the Future‘. They continued to work together, and Prahalad also worked with other collaborators, perhaps most notably with marketing academic Venkat Ramaswami to produce ‘The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value With Customers‘, which looked at how some of the emerging big players on the internet were co-opting their customers to generate value for themselves and their peers.

Prahalad’s biggest idea was one that he worked on alone and only time will tell how successful it really is. Wondering how so many billions of people remain in poverty despite the apparent success of our best management and technological developments, he argued that the bottom 5 billion people by wealth still account for a potential market of over $10 trillion. He figured that addressing that market could equally benefit those people and the corporations that do so. His ideas and research were published in 2004, in ‘The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits‘.

Competitive Advantage

In throwing out existing data and process led theories of strategy formation, Prahalad and Hamel developed a simple model of how corporations can achieve competitive advantage. This simplification of their ideas is mine and any errors of interpretation I have introduced are mine too.

Step 1: Corporate Imagination

This is where corporate leaders visualise new markets and how to exploit them ahead of their competitors. They argued that to do this effectively, executives have to:

  1. get away from their natural focus on existing markets
  2. look for new product concepts
  3. be prepared to challenge radically their old assumptions about pricing (this idea would recur in Prahalad’s thinking about how to create markets at the Bottom of the Pyramid)
  4. lead customers by creating expectations, rather than follow them by meeting expectations

Hamel and Prahalad had little time for small scale intrapreneurial innovation. They advocated big, revolutionary changes in markets that would allow a corporation to dominate, such as:

  • adding wholly new functionality to your existing products
  • delivering your proven functionality through new products
  • using existing products to deliver functionality in new ways

To do this, they argue that an organisation must understand its ‘core competencies’ – the abilities it has to create and innovate by bringing together its skills, technologies, assets, and relationships in ways that dominate multiple markets by offering big benefits to customers in a way that competitors find hard to duplicate.

The threat of relying on core competencies, however, is two-fold. Firstly, it may cause market and product diversification into arenas where the corporation has insufficient depth of understanding or presence to be effective. This can lead to large failures. Alternatively, over-focus on core competency leads to a rigidity of thinking that is reinforced by a sense of comfortableness, and leads to a sense of complacency. Such circumstances lead to being replaced in your core markets by insurgent competitors.

Step 2: Implementation

Hamel and Prahalad’s focus on core competencies leads them to focus what they say about implementation on building up core competencies and their supporting infrastructures of assets, resources and technologies.

Step 3: Consolidate your Control of Emerging Markets

You do this through what they call ‘Expeditionary Marketing’ to understand how the parameters of feature-sets, performance, and pricing need to be balanced to penetrate, consolidate and dominate your market.

The Bottom of the Pyramid

How do you build a market among people who are too poor to buy your products? By re-thinking entirely how you deliver your products and the pricing model you use. Prahalad was able to find and research numerous case studies that show how corporations can do this successfully, to create:

  • Affordability – creating offerings that dramatically change what people need to pay and how they can pay for it
  • Accessibility – thinking carefully about the local context, rather than applying first-world distribution models
  • Availability – getting products to where they are needed, when they are needed, in a form that makes it possible for people to buy.

Hear Prahalad speaking about this and more…

You may also like…

The Strategy Pocketbook

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