After studying this section you should be able to do the following:
- Understand that technology is often critical to enabling competitive advantage, and provide examples of firms that have used technology to organize for sustained competitive advantage.
- Understand the value chain concept and be able to examine and compare how various firms organize to bring products and services to market.
- Recognize the role technology can play in crafting an imitation-resistant value chain, as well as when technology choice may render potentially strategic assets less effective.
- Define the following concepts: brand, scale, data and switching cost assets, differentiation, network effects, and distribution channels.
- Understand and provide examples of how technology can be used to create or strengthen the resources mentioned above.
Management has no magic bullets. There is no exhaustive list of key resources that firms can look to in order to build a sustainable business. And recognizing a resource doesn’t mean a firm will be able to acquire it or exploit it forever. But being aware of major sources of competitive advantage can help managers recognize an organization’s opportunities and vulnerabilities, and can help them brainstorm winning strategies. And these assets rarely exist in isolation. Oftentimes, a firm with an effective strategic position can create an arsenal of assets that reinforce one another, creating advantages that are particualrly difficult for rivals to successfully challenge.
Imitation-Resistant Value Chains
While many of the resources below are considered in isolation, the strength of any advantage can be far more significant if firms are able to leverage several of these resources in a way that makes each stronger and makes the firm’s way of doing business more difficult for rivals to match. Firms that craft an imitation-resistant value chain have developed a way of doing business that others will struggle to replicate, and in nearly every successful effort of this kind, technology plays a key enabling role. The value chain is the set of interrelated activities that bring products or services to market (see below). When we compare FreshDirect’s value chain to traditional rivals, there are differences across every element. But most importantly, the elements in FreshDirect’s value chain work together to create and reinforce competitive advantages that others cannot easily copy. Incumbents would be straddled between two business models, unable to reap the full advantages of either. And late-moving pure-play rivals will struggle, as FreshDirect’s lead time allows the firm to develop brand, scale, data, and other advantages that newcomers lack (see below for more on these resources).
Key Framework: The Value Chain
The value chain is the “set of activities through which a product or service is created and delivered to customers.” There are five primary components of the value chain and four supporting components. The primary components are as follows:
- Inbound logistics—getting needed materials and other inputs into the firm from suppliers
- Operations—turning inputs into products or services
- Outbound logistics—delivering products or services to consumers, distribution centers, retailers, or other partners
- Marketing and sales—customer engagement, pricing, promotion, and transaction
- Support—service, maintenance, and customer support
The secondary components are the following:
- Firm infrastructure—functions that support the whole firm, including general management, planning, IS, and finance
- Human resource management—recruiting, hiring, training, and development
- Technology / research and development—new product and process design
- Procurement—sourcing and purchasing functions
While the value chain is typically depicted as it’s displayed in the figure below, goods and information don’t necessarily flow in a line from one function to another. For example, an order taken by the marketing function can trigger an inbound logistics function to get components from a supplier, operations functions (to build a product if it’s not available), or outbound logistics functions (to ship a product when it’s available). Similarly, information from service support can be fed back to advise research and development (R&D) in the design of future products.
When a firm has an imitation-resistant value chain—one that’s tough for rivals to copy while gaining similar benefits—then a firm may have a critical competitive asset. From a strategic perspective, managers can use the value chain framework to consider a firm’s differences and distinctiveness compared to rivals. If a firm’s value chain can’t be copied by competitors without engaging in painful trade-offs, or if the firm’s value chain helps to create and strengthen other strategic assets over time, it can be a key source for competitive advantage. Many of the cases covered in this book, including FreshDirect, Amazon, Zara, Netflix, and eBay, illustrate this point.
An analysis of a firm’s value chain can also reveal operational weaknesses, and technology is often of great benefit to improving the speed and quality of execution. Firms can often buy software to improve things, and tools such as supply chain management (SCM; linking inbound and outbound logistics with operations), customer relationship management (CRM; supporting sales, marketing, and in some cases R&D), and enterprise resource planning software (ERP; software implemented in modules to automate the entire value chain), can have a big impact on more efficiently integrating the activities within the firm, as well as with its suppliers and customers. But remember, these software tools can be purchased by competitors, too. While valuable, such software may not yield lasting competitive advantage if it can be easily matched by competitors as well.
There’s potential danger here. If a firm adopts software that changes a unique process into a generic one, it may have co-opted a key source of competitive advantage particularly if other firms can buy the same stuff. This isn’t a problem with something like accounting software. Accounting processes are standardized and accounting isn’t a source of competitive advantage, so most firms buy rather than build their own accounting software. But using packaged, third-party SCM, CRM, and ERP software typically requires adopting a very specific way of doing things, using software and methods that can be purchased and adopted by others. During its period of PC-industry dominance, Dell stopped deployment of the logistics and manufacturing modules of a packaged ERP implementation when it realized that the software would require the firm to make changes to its unique and highly successful operating model and that many of the firm’s unique supply chain advantages would change to the point where the firm was doing the same thing using the same software as its competitors. By contrast, Apple had no problem adopting third-party ERP software because the firm competes on product uniqueness rather than operational differences.
Dell’s Struggles: Nothing Lasts Forever
Michael Dell enjoyed an extended run that took him from assembling PCs in his dorm room as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin to heading the largest PC firm on the planet. For years Dell’s superefficient, vertically integrated manufacturing and direct-to-consumer model combined to help the firm earn seven times more profit on its own systems when compared with comparably configured rival PCs. And since Dell PCs were usually cheaper, too, the firm could often start a price war and still have better overall margins than rivals.
It was a brilliant model that for years proved resistant to imitation. While Dell sold direct to consumers, rivals had to share a cut of sales with the less efficient retail chains responsible for the majority of their sales. Dell’s rivals struggled in moving toward direct sales because any retailer sensing its suppliers were competing with it through a direct-sales effort could easily chose another supplier that sold a nearly identical product. It wasn’t that HP, IBM, Sony, and so many others didn’t see the advantage of Dell’s model—these firms were wedded to models that made it difficult for them to imitate their rival.
But then Dell’s killer model, one that had become a staple case study in business schools, began to lose steam. Nearly two decades of observing Dell had allowed the contract manufacturers serving Dell’s rivals to improve manufacturing efficiency. Component suppliers located near contract manufacturers, and assembly times fell dramatically. And as the cost of computing fell, the price advantage Dell enjoyed over rivals also shrank in absolute terms. That meant savings from buying a Dell weren’t as big as they once were. On top of that, the direct-to-consumer model also suffered when sales of notebook PCs outpaced the more commoditized desktop market. Notebooks can be considered to be more differentiated than desktops, and customers often want to compare products in person—lift them, type on keyboards, and view screens—before making a purchase decision.
In time, these shifts created an opportunity for rivals to knock Dell from its ranking as the world’s number one PC manufacturer. Dell has even abandoned its direct-only business model and now sells products through third-party brick-and-mortar retailers. Dell’s struggles as computers, customers, and the product mix changed, all underscore the importance of continually assessing a firm’s strategic position among changing market conditions. There is no guarantee that today’s winning strategy will dominate forever.