Sunday, November 24, 2013

A New Approach to Competitive Advantage: The Strategically Balanced Corporation

Corporations are established and developed based on a combination of vision, strategy and execution. Amongst these three, strategy sets the pathway to accomplish the vision through execution. Strategy differentiates one firm from the other, not necessarily in terms of performance but more in terms how it seeks to achieve its vision. Firms are commonly viewed as specialized, diversified, integrated, local, global, and so on. Strategy, in its core elements, has not altered much over the years but the environmental information and internal awareness that sets the tone for strategy has not only become more complex but also volatile. The number of players has also significantly increased in any industry. The corporations are finding it increasingly difficult to develop unique strategies. Strategy, in this context, is not about which industry or business to operate in but is about how to achieve competitive advantage in any chosen business or industry.

For good measure, we do have a few strategic templates from management gurus; the principal ones being the theory of generic competitive strategy by Michael Porter and the theory of core competence by C K Prahalad. There are also several theories for firms and organizations to become effective and competitive, for example, the model of balanced scorecard by Robert Kaplan and David Norton, the theory of constraints by Eliyahu Goldratt and the theory of reengineering by Michael Hammer. All these theories, developed in the 1980s and 1990s, do not take into account the perfect spread of information and options that is now available for strategists and firms. Every leader, for example, is aware of the generic strategies of cost leadership and differentiation, and even the sub-strategies to achieve them. What strategy officers must now focus is on developing an elegant balance amongst multiple strategic options. This blog post proposes a paradigm of strategically balanced corporation.
Strategic balance
An optimal strategy is one that is open to environmental opportunities but also one that hedges against environmental uncertainties. It also plans execution based on available resources or resources that can be acquired to execute the strategy. This requires that the strategy must always balance rewards and risks on one hand and aspiration and attainability on the other. Seeking this balance is a delicate and complex process; with strategists requiring to be both conservative and aggressive as the situation demands. The concept of strategic balance is relevant for mono-product firms as well as for multi-product and multi-business firms. The concept is also not necessarily limited to only products or services but covers all the essential parts of a firm’s value chain such as products and services that are delivered, the manufacturing or delivery process used, the customer outreach methods, the human resources deployed, and so on.   
Research has focused on firms adopting certain extreme strategies. For example, it has been well researched if market share and profitability are correlated. It has also been researched if specialized and conglomerated businesses have unique sustainability characteristics. There is, however, practically negligible research on what constitutes a strategic balance and whether strategic balance leads to superior performance. In this context, this blog post creates a fundamental platform to understand and analyze strategic balance. We may define strategic balance as a firm-specific balance that exists by design amongst various key components of a firm’s value chain and between strategic options that exist in respect of each component of the value chain. Strategic balance must not be misconstrued as striking a middle ground; rather it should be seen as a quest for optimality of a firm. The concept of strategic balance is amplified below.
Value balance
There is a concept, in some schools, that it is not important for a firm to operate across all segments of the value chain. This school of thought argues that a firm could just develop and stick to a core competence and stick to it. An analogy could be that a firm could be a design house but could manufacture and market products with external alliances as successfully as a fully integrated firm. Such outsourcing hypothesis could be true to an extent but not to a sustainable extent. Corporate history has enough chapters of firms which mimicked a full value chain operation on certain basic internal strengths and a large extent of external support but withered away when the alliance partners denied support or failed to respond to growth opportunity because of lack of internal capabilities. As a matter of fundamental principle, a firm which does not ensure value chain balance with appropriate attention to key components such as R&D, manufacturing, supply chain, marketing, human resources and information technology would be suboptimal and sub-sustainable in a competitive world. By no means, this is an all-inclusive listing of value chain components.    
Portfolio balance
Every firm exists and grows based on products and services in a particular business, be it hospitals or healthcare business and automobiles or transportation business. The notion that portfolio concepts are valid for only diversified businesses is archaic. Even a business of coffee chains can apply and benefit from portfolio balance concepts. Once a business is defined, and however narrowly the business is defined, there would be creative ways to in-build a portfolio into the products or services. A portfolio approach is based on the strategic truism that a service or a product offers more than the product or service functionality to the customer. A restaurant may serve only food but it can provide umpteen choices in terms of culinary streams to its customers. Even Starbucks, known for its pioneering coffee line of business, has multiple beverages, hot and cold, besides several eats and food accessories as its portfolio. The strategic challenge lies in developing the right balance between specialization and diversification. Any business provides the opportunity of strategic portfolio balance;  a company manufacturing only heavy trucks can offer a wide portfolio from bare chassis to fully built custom application vehicles on one hand and from civilian to defence vehicles. Strategic portfolio balance ensures an optimal exploitation of environmental opportunity and appropriate hedging against volatility.
 Manufacturing balance
Manufacturing represents a part of value chain which converts a proven design into a saleable product or service. Manufacturing can vary between complete integration and complete outsourcing. The former is highly resource intensive with high fixed overheads that could be highly catastrophic in the event of a precipitous demand downturn. The latter is certainly resource-lean with low overheads but could be highly vulnerable in the event of a sharp and sudden demand uptick. Each industry offers a paradigm of optimal manufacturing balance. A highly evolved industry where each component or material has also evolved into its own industrial structure provides several solutions for manufacturing optimality. On the other hand, a newly developing industry has fewer degrees of freedom to offer. The former implies an established quality and cost base that could afford higher outsourcing. The latter could have doubtful engineering and quality fundamentals that could demand greater control over manufacture through integration. An automobile manufacturer outsourcing differing components based on differentiated internal capabilities is an example of the former. On the other hand, a coffee chain seeking control over coffee plantations, roasting technologies and coffee making is an example of the latter. Strategic manufacturing balance ensures optimal quality, cost and delivery capabilities for a firm.
Marketing balance
The best of design and manufacturing optimality could come to naught with strategic marketing imbalance. Marketing balance is not about regional marketing effort allocations or domestic-export balance. It is about striking the right balance between the product and the sales channel, between different marketing channels and between sales and service.  Some of the technical marvels, Tata Nano car to quote an example, have failed to fulfill the potential of design and manufacturing brilliance due to marketing sub-optimality. Had Tata Nano been marketed through an exclusive car dealer network, with appropriate emphasis between different marketing approaches and a special after-sales package, potentially Nano would have caught the imagination of the target market segments. By way of another example, the best of marketing cannot make up for strategic imbalances in either design or manufacturing. Godrej Interio comes across as a prime example of lack of strategic portfolio balance (dependence on all-steel design and manufacture, as is Godrej wont) adversely influencing the final low-business outcome, despite some great strategic market balance. These examples also illustrate how a strategic balance amongst the various components of a value chain is also extremely important for a firm to achieve sustainable successful performance. 
Talent balance

Firms are a complex cascading network of leaders, managers and executives on one hand, and another equally complex network of organization, teams and individuals. Adding further complexity is the network of businesses, functions and processes. Across all this complexity, two components stand out:  individuals and teams. Organizations are often unable to comprehend and convey whether it is the individual performance or the team performance that determines performance. Talent management thought keeps swinging between the typical Western practice of individual superstar performance and the equally typical Oriental practice of consensual team performance. This leads to somewhat strange positions taken by leadership experts wholly deprecating either ‘we’ or ‘I’ in performance management. The concept of strategic talent balance requires that individual performance be treated as important as team performance. For organizations to be successful, meritocracy based on individual performance (and individual recognition) and organizational harmony based on team performance (and team recognition) must co-exist. Without overwhelming each other, ‘I’ as well as ‘We’ are equally important for strategic talent balance.
Strategically balanced corporation
The aspects discussed above are illustrative and not comprehensive. The value chain of a firm varies significantly, multi-functionally, depending on the industry. It is important for a firm to understand and map out its value chain in its entirety and then select the components that are critical for performance. The next step would be option mapping for each function and establishing the optimum strategic balance in each case. Exercises of long range planning which seek certain goals and develops strategies to execute towards the goals would not be effective unless they are set in the perspective of strategic balance. Strategists (whether they are chief executive officers, chief functional officers or chief strategic officers) must also be balanced professionals without any biases as to what constitutes the appropriate strategies; for example, some tend to seek diversification and some seek specialization preferentially as a pre-experienced panacea for success. Such biases limit the openness and effectiveness in developing true strategic balances.
A strategically balanced corporation is able to move through the economic and business cycles successfully while exploiting opportunities with agility. The journey of a small-cap startup through the phase of mid-cap company to the goal of a blue-chip company is based on strategic balance adding strength and resilience to exploit opportunities and withstand uncertainties. A strategically balanced mid-cap or blue chip firm leads to the evolution of a conglomerate. While a conglomerate provides much flexibility to define varied businesses under its fold (for example, salt to software and chips to ships), it is essential that each business or firm under the conglomerate umbrella is a strategically balanced corporation. The seeding, screening and weeding of individual businesses adopted by big conglomerates, from time to time, is proof enough of the need for the individual firms to be strategically balanced and sustainably effective. If research were to be undertaken on the performance of strategically balanced corporations, the results would surely support superior performance by, and superior competitive advantage for, such firms.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on November 24, 2013   


1 comment:

Unknown said...

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