After studying this section you should be able to do the following:
- Define operational effectiveness and understand the limitations of technology-based competition leveraging this principle.
- Define strategic positioning and the importance of grounding competitive advantage in this concept.
- Understand the resource-based view of competitive advantage.
- List the four characteristics of a resource that might possibly yield sustainable competitive advantage.
Managers are confused, and for good reason. Management theorists, consultants, and practitioners often vehemently disagree on how firms should craft tech-enabled strategy, and many widely read articles contradict one another. Headlines such as “Move First or Die” compete with “The First-Mover Disadvantage.” A leading former CEO advises, “destroy your business,” while others suggest firms focus on their “core competency” and “return to basics.” The pages of the Harvard Business Review declare, “IT Doesn’t Matter,” while a New York Times bestseller hails technology as the “steroids” of modern business.
Theorists claiming to have mastered the secrets of strategic management are contentious and confusing. But as a manager, the ability to size up a firm’s strategic position and understand its likelihood of sustainability is one of the most valuable and yet most difficult skills to master. Layer on thinking about technology—a key enabler to nearly every modern business strategy, but also a function often thought of as easily “outsourced”—and it’s no wonder that so many firms struggle at the intersection where strategy and technology meet. The business landscape is littered with the corpses of firms killed by managers who guessed wrong.
Developing strong strategic thinking skills is a career-long pursuit—a subject that can occupy tomes of text, a roster of courses, and a lifetime of seminars. While this chapter can’t address the breadth of strategic thought, it is meant as a primer on developing the skills for strategic thinking about technology. A manager that understands issues presented in this chapter should be able to see through seemingly conflicting assertions about best practices more clearly; be better prepared to recognize opportunities and risks; and be more adept at successfully brainstorming new, tech-centric approaches to markets.
The Danger of Relying on Technology
Firms strive for sustainable competitive advantage, financial performance that consistently outperforms their industry peers. The goal is easy to state, but hard to achieve. The world is so dynamic, with new products and new competitors rising seemingly overnight, that truly sustainable advantage might seem like an impossibility. New competitors and copycat products create a race to cut costs, cut prices, and increase features that may benefit consumers but erode profits industry-wide. Nowhere is this balance more difficult than when competition involves technology. The fundamental strategic question in the Internet era is, “How can I possibly compete when everyone can copy my technology and the competition is just a click away?” Put that way, the pursuit of sustainable competitive advantage seems like a lost cause.
But there are winners—big, consistent winners—empowered through their use of technology. How do they do it? In order to think about how to achieve sustainable advantage, it’s useful to start with two concepts defined by Michael Porter. A professor at the Harvard Business School and father of the value chain and the five forces concepts (see the sections later in this chapter), Porter is justifiably considered one of the leading strategic thinkers of our time.
According to Porter, the reason so many firms suffer aggressive, margin-eroding competition is because they’ve defined themselves according to operational effectiveness rather than strategic positioning. Operational effectiveness refers to performing the same tasks better than rivals perform them. Everyone wants to be better, but the danger in operational effectiveness is “sameness.” This risk is particularly acute in firms that rely on technology for competitiveness. After all, technology can be easily acquired. Buy the same stuff as your rivals, hire students from the same schools, copy the look and feel of competitor Web sites, reverse engineer their products, and you can match them. The fast follower problem exists when savvy rivals watch a pioneer’s efforts, learn from their successes and missteps, then enter the market quickly with a comparable or superior product at a lower cost.
Since tech can be copied so quickly, followers can be fast, indeed. Several years ago while studying the Web portal industry (Yahoo! and its competitors), a colleague and I found that when a firm introduced an innovative feature, at least one of its three major rivals would match that feature in, on average, only one and a half months (Gallaugher & Downing, 2000). When technology can be matched so quickly, it is rarely a source of competitive advantage. And this phenomenon isn’t limited to the Web.
Tech giant EMC saw its stock price appreciate more than any other firm during the decade of the 1990s. However, when IBM and Hitachi entered the high-end storage market with products comparable to EMC’s Symmetrix unit, prices plunged 60 percent the first year and another 35 percent the next (Engardio & Keenan, 2002). Needless to say, EMC’s stock price took a comparable beating. TiVo is another example. At first blush, it looks like this first mover should be a winner since it seems to have established a leading brand; TiVo is now a verb for digitally recording TV broadcasts. But despite this, TiVo has largely been a money loser, going years without posting an annual profit. And while 1.5 million TiVos have been sold, there are over thirty million digital video recorders (DVRs) in use (DiMeo, 2010). Rival devices offered by cable and satellite companies appear the same to consumers, and are offered along with pay television subscriptions—a critical distribution channel for reaching customers that TiVo doesn’t control.
Operational effectiveness is critical. Firms must invest in techniques to improve quality, lower cost, and generate design-efficient customer experiences. But for the most part, these efforts can be matched. Because of this, operational effectiveness is usually not sufficient enough to yield sustainable dominance over the competition. In contrast to operational effectiveness, strategic positioning refers to performing different activities from those of rivals, or the same activities in a different way. While technology itself is often very easy to replicate, technology is essential to creating and enabling novel approaches to business that are defensibly different from those of rivals and can be quite difficult for others to copy.
Different Is Good: FreshDirect Redefines the NYC Grocery Landscape
For an example of the relationship between technology and strategic positioning, consider FreshDirect. The New York City–based grocery firm focused on the two most pressing problems for Big Apple shoppers: selection is limited and prices are high. Both of these problems are a function of the high cost of real estate in New York. The solution? Use technology to craft an ultraefficient model that makes an end-run around stores.
The firm’s “storefront” is a Web site offering one-click menus, semiprepared specials like “meals in four minutes,” and the ability to pull up prior grocery lists for fast reorders—all features that appeal to the time-strapped Manhattanites who were the firm’s first customers. (The Web’s not the only channel to reach customers—the firm’s iPhone app was responsible for 2.5 percent of sales just weeks after launch)(Schneiderman, 2010). Next-day deliveries are from a vast warehouse the size of five football fields located in a lower-rent industrial area of Queens. At that size, the firm can offer a fresh goods selection that’s over five times larger than local supermarkets. Area shoppers—many of whom don’t have cars or are keen to avoid the traffic-snarled streets of the city—were quick to embrace the model. The service is now so popular that apartment buildings in New York have begun to redesign common areas to include secure freezers that can accept FreshDirect deliveries, even when customers aren’t there (Croghan, 2006).
The FreshDirect model crushes costs that plague traditional grocers. Worker shifts are highly efficient, avoiding the downtime lulls and busy rush hour spikes of storefronts. The result? Labor costs that are 60 percent lower than at traditional grocers. FreshDirect buys and prepares what it sells, leading to less waste, an advantage that the firm claims is “worth 5 percentage points of total revenue in terms of savings” (Fox, 2009). Overall perishable inventory at FreshDirect turns 197 times a year versus 40 times a year at traditional grocers (Schonfeld, 2004). Higher inventory turns mean the firm is selling product faster, so it collects money quicker than its rivals do. And those goods are fresher since they’ve been in stock for less time, too. Consider that while the average grocer may have seven to nine days of seafood inventory, FreshDirect’s seafood stock turns each day. Stock is typically purchased direct from the docks in order to fulfill orders placed less than twenty-four hours earlier (Laseter, et. al., 2003).
Artificial intelligence software, coupled with some seven miles of fiber-optic cables linking systems and sensors, supports everything from baking the perfect baguette to verifying orders with 99.9 percent accuracy (Black, 2002; Sieber & Mitchell, 2002). Since it lacks the money-sucking open-air refrigerators of the competition, the firm even saves big on energy (instead, staff bundle up for shifts in climate-controlled cold rooms tailored to the specific needs of dairy, deli, and produce). And a new initiative uses recycled biodiesel fuel to cut down on delivery costs.
FreshDirect buys directly from suppliers, eliminating middlemen wherever possible. The firm also offers suppliers several benefits beyond traditional grocers, all in exchange for more favorable terms. These include offering to carry a greater selection of supplier products while eliminating the “slotting fees” (payments by suppliers for prime shelf space) common in traditional retail, cobranding products to help establish and strengthen supplier brand, paying partners in days rather than weeks, and sharing data to help improve supplier sales and operations. Add all these advantages together and the firm’s big, fresh selection is offered at prices that can undercut the competition by as much as 35 percent (Green, 2003). And FreshDirect does it all with margins in the range of 20 percent (to as high as 45 percent on many semiprepared meals), easily dwarfing the razor-thin 1 percent margins earned by traditional grocers.
Today, FreshDirect serves a base of some 600,000 paying customers. That’s a population roughly the size of metro-Boston, serviced by a single grocer with no physical store. The privately held firm has been solidly profitable for several years. Even in recession-plagued 2009, the firm’s CEO described 2009 earnings as “pretty spectacular,” while 2010 revenues are estimated to grow to roughly $300 million (Schneiderman, 2010).
Technology is critical to the FreshDirect model, but it’s the collective impact of the firm’s differences when compared to rivals, this tech-enabled strategic positioning, that delivers success. Operating for more than half a decade, the firm has also built up a set of strategic assets that not only address specific needs of a market but are now extremely difficult for any upstart to compete against. Traditional grocers can’t fully copy the firm’s delivery business because this would leave them straddling two markets (low-margin storefront and high-margin delivery), unable to gain optimal benefits from either. Entry costs for would-be competitors are also high (the firm spent over $75 million building infrastructure before it could serve a single customer), and the firm’s complex and highly customized software, which handles everything from delivery scheduling to orchestrating the preparation of thousands of recipes, continues to be refined and improved each year (Valerio, 2009). On top of all this comes years of customer data used to further refine processes, speed reorders, and make helpful recommendations. Competing against a firm with such a strong and tough-to-match strategic position can be brutal. Just five years after launch there were one-third fewer supermarkets in New York City than when FreshDirect first opened for business (Shulman, 2008).
But What Kinds of Differences?
The principles of operational effectiveness and strategic positioning are deceptively simple. But while Porter claims strategy is “fundamentally about being different,” how can you recognize whether your firm’s differences are special enough to yield sustainable competitive advantage (Porter, 1996)?
An approach known as the resource-based view of competitive advantage can help. The idea here is that if a firm is to maintain sustainable competitive advantage, it must control a set of exploitable resources that have four critical characteristics. These resources must be (1) valuable, (2) rare, (3) imperfectly imitable (tough to imitate), and (4) nonsubstitutable. Having all four characteristics is key. Miss value and no one cares what you’ve got. Without rareness, you don’t have something unique. If others can copy what you have, or others can replace it with a substitute, then any seemingly advantageous differences will be undercut.
Strategy isn’t just about recognizing opportunity and meeting demand. Resource-based thinking can help you avoid the trap of carelessly entering markets simply because growth is spotted. The telecommunications industry learned this lesson in a very hard and painful way. With the explosion of the Internet it was easy to see that demand to transport Web pages, e-mails, MP3s, video, and everything else you can turn into ones and zeros, was skyrocketing.
Most of what travels over the Internet is transferred over long-haul fiber-optic cables, so telecom firms began digging up the ground and laying webs of fiberglass to meet the growing demand. Problems resulted because firms laying long-haul fiber didn’t fully appreciate that their rivals and new upstart firms were doing the exact same thing. By one estimate there was enough fiber laid to stretch from the Earth to the moon some 280 times (Kahney, 2000)! On top of that, a technology called dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM) enabled existing fiber to carry more transmissions than ever before. The end result—these new assets weren’t rare and each day they seemed to be less valuable.
For some firms, the transmission prices they charged on newly laid cable collapsed by over 90 percent. Established firms struggled, upstarts went under, and WorldCom became the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history. The impact was felt throughout all industries that supplied the telecom industry. Firms like Sun, Lucent, and Nortel, whose sales growth relied on big sales to telecom carriers, saw their value tumble as orders dried up. Estimates suggest that the telecommunications industry lost nearly $4 trillion in value in just three years, much of it due to executives that placed big bets on resources that weren’t strategic (Endlich, 2004).
- Technology can be easy to copy, and technology alone rarely offers sustainable advantage.
- Firms that leverage technology for strategic positioning use technology to create competitive assets or ways of doing business that are difficult for others to copy.
- True sustainable advantage comes from assets and business models that are simultaneously valuable, rare, difficult to imitate, and for which there are no substitutes.
Questions and Exercises
- What is operational effectiveness?
- What is strategic positioning?
- Is a firm that competes based on the features of technology engaged in operational effectiveness or strategic positioning? Give an example to back up your claim.
- What is the “resource-based” view of competitive advantage? What are the characteristics of resources that may yield sustainable competitive advantage?
- TiVo has a great brand. Why hasn’t it profitably dominated the market for digital video recorders?
- Examine the FreshDirect business model and list reasons for its competitive advantage. Would a similar business work in your neighborhood? Why or why not?
- What effect did FreshDirect have on traditional grocers operating in New York City? Why?
- Choose a technology-based company. Discuss its competitive advantage based on the resources it controls.
- Use the resource-based view of competitive advantage to explain the collapse of many telecommunications firms in the period following the burst of the dot-com bubble.
- Consider the examples of Barnes and Noble competing with Amazon, and Apple offering iTunes. Are either (or both) of these efforts straddling? Why or why not?