This is “Introduction”, section 2.1 from the book Getting the Most Out of Information Systems: A Manager's Guide (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. You may also download a PDF copy of this book (4 MB) or just this chapter (413 KB), suitable for printing or most e-readers, or a .zip file containing this book's HTML files (for use in a web browser offline).

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you. helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

2.1 Introduction

Learning Objectives

After studying this section you should be able to do the following:

  1. Define operational effectiveness and understand the limitations of technology-based competition leveraging this principle.
  2. Define strategic positioning and the importance of grounding competitive advantage in this concept.
  3. Understand the resource-based view of competitive advantage.
  4. 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 declared, “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 advantageFinancial performance that consistently outperforms industry averages., 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 at the end of 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 effectivenessPerforming the same tasks better than rivals perform them. 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 problemExists 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 before the first mover can dominate. 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.John Gallaugher and Charles Downing, “Portal Combat: An Empirical Study of Competition in the Web Portal Industry,” Journal of Information Technology Management 11, no. 1–2 (2000): 13–24. 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.P. Engardio and Faith F. Keenan, “The Copycat Economy,” BusinessWeek, August 26, 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. Rival digital video recorders 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.

Different Is Good

In contrast to operational effectiveness, strategic positioningPerforming different tasks than rivals, or the same tasks in a different way. 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.

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. 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. 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.L. Croghan, “Food Latest Luxury Lure,” New York Daily News, March 12, 2006.

Figure 2.1 The FreshDirect Web Site and the Firm’s Tech-Enabled Warehouse Operation

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. As for freshness, 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 the morning of delivery in order to fulfill orders placed the prior night. The firm buys what it sells and shoplifting can’t happen through a Web site, so loss from waste and theft plummets.

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.J. Black, “Can FreshDirect Bring Home the Bacon?” BusinessWeek, September 24, 2002; EIUEB, 2008. 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.

Buying direct from suppliers, paying them in days rather than weeks, carrying a greater product selection, and avoiding the “slotting fees” (payments by suppliers for prime shelf space) common in traditional retail all help FreshDirect to negotiate highly favorable terms with suppliers. 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.H. Green, “FreshDirect,” BusinessWeek, November 24, 2003. And FreshDirect does it all with margins in the range of 20 percent, easily dwarfing the razor-thin 1 percent margins earned by traditional grocers.EIUEB, 2008; D. Kirkpatrick, “The Online Grocer Version 2.0,” Fortune, November 25, 2002.

Technology is critical to the FreshDirect model, but it’s the collective impact of the firm’s differences, 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 straddlingWhen a firm attempts to match the benefits of a successful position while maintaining its existing position. two markets (low-margin storefront and high-margin delivery), unable to gain optimal benefits from either. 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.R. Shulman, “Groceries Grow Elusive for Many in New York City,” Washington Post, February 19, 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,”Michael Porter, “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review 74, no. 6 (November–December 1996): 61–78. how can you recognize whether your firm’s differences are special enough to yield sustainable competitive advantage?

An approach known as the resource-based view of competitive advantageThe strategic thinking approach suggesting that if a firm is to maintain sustainable competitive advantage, it must control an exploitable resource, or set of resources, that have four critical characteristics. These resources must be (1) valuable, (2) rare, (3) imperfectly imitable, and (4) nonsubstitutable. 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!Leander Kahney, “Net Speed Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” Wired News, March 21, 2000. On top of that, a technology called dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM)A technology that increases the transmission capacity (and hence speed) of fiber optic cable. Transmissions using fiber are accomplished by transmitting light inside “glass” cables. In DWDM, the light inside fiber is split into different wavelengths in a way similar to how a prism splits light into different colors. 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 values tumble as orders dried up. Estimates suggest that the telecommunications industry lost nearly four trillion dollars in value in just three years,L. Endlich, Optical Illusions: Lucent and the Crash of Telecom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). much of it due to executives that placed big bets on resources that weren’t strategic.

Key Takeaways

  • 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

  1. What is operational effectiveness?
  2. What is strategic positioning?
  3. 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.
  4. What is the “resource-based” view of competitive advantage? What are the characteristics of resources that may yield sustainable competitive advantage?
  5. TiVo’s got a great brand. Why hasn’t it profitably dominated the market for digital video recorders?
  6. Examine the FreshDirect business model and list reasons for its competitive advantage. Would a similar business work in your neighborhood? Why or why not?
  7. What effect did FreshDirect have on traditional grocers operating in New York City? Why?
  8. Choose a technology-based company. Discuss its competitive advantage based on the resources it controls.
  9. 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.
  10. Consider the examples of Barnes and Noble competing with, and Apple’s offering iTunes. Are either (or both) of these efforts straddling? Why or why not?