Competitive Advantage and the Resource Based View of the Firm

Managing Knowledge for Sustained Competitive Advantage: Designing Strategies for Effective Human Resource Management

As a follow up to my previous post titled Competitive Advantage – The Human Capital Approach, I wanted to take a second to talk a little bit about the Resource Based View of the firm that I mentioned in the previous post. ┬áBefore I continue, if you are interested in this topic, definitely take a look at the book titled Managing Knowledge for Sustained Competitive Advantage: Designing Strategies for Effective Human Resource Management (affiliate link).

Most organizations don’t place a high enough focus on human capital management as a component of competitive advantage. In order for an organization to be successful in any market, they must create value for their clients. This value can be created using a new strategy, new technology or some other ‘gimmick’ but in order to sustain this value (and the competitive advantage it brings), organizations must develop and maintain an engaged, knowledgeable and creative workforce (Afiouni, 2007).

To create a workforce that provides sustainable competitive advantage and value creation, an organization must create an environment that allows their human capital to grow, much like money sitting in an interest bearing account does. This growth, expressed within people as increased knowledge, increased motivation, increased engagement, etc can be used to create competitive advantage that would be very difficult for competitors to imitate (Afiouni, 2007; Agarwal & Ferratt, 2001; Luftman & Kempaiah, 2007).

Out of the many theories of organizational behavior, one aligns itself well with the human capital view of people within an organization. This theory, called the Resource Based View (RBV), suggests that the method in which resources are applied within a firm can create a competitive advantage (Barney, 1991; Mata, Fuerst, & Barney, 1995; Peteraf, 1993; Wernerfert, 1984). The resource based view of firms is based on two main assumptions: resource diversity and resource immobility (Barney, 1991; Mata et al., 1995). According to Mata et al. (1995), these assumptions are defined as:

  • Resource diversity (also called resource heterogeneity) pertains to whether a firm owns a resource or capability that is also owned by numerous other competing firms, then that resource cannot provide a competitive advantage.
    • As an example of resource diversity, consider the following: a firm is trying to decide whether to implement a new IT product. This new product might provide a competitive advantage to the firm if no other competitors have the same functionality. If competing firms have similar functionality, then this new IT product doesn’t pass the ‘resource diversity’ test and therefore doesn’t provide a competitive advantage.
  • Resource immobility refers to a resource that is difficult to obtain by competitors because the cost of developing, acquiring or using that resource is too high.
    • As an example of resource immobility, consider the following: a firm is trying to decide whether they should buy an ‘off-the-shelf’ inventory control system or have one built specifically for their needs. If they buy an off-the-shelf system, they will have no competitive advantage over others in the market because their competition can implement the same system. If they pay for a customized solution that provides specific functionality that only they implement, then they will have a competitive advantage, assuming the same functionality isn’t available in other products.

These two assumptions can be used to determine whether an organization is able to create a sustainable competitive advantage by providing a framework for determining whether a process or technology provides a real advantage over the marketplace.

The resource based view of the firm suggests that an organization’s human capital management practices can contribute significantly to sustaining competitive advantage by creating specific knowledge, skills and culture within the firm that are difficult to imitate (Afiouni, 2007; Mata et al., 1995). In other words, by creating resource diversity (increasing knowledge and skills) and/or resource immobility (a culture that people want to work in), sustainable competitive advantage can be created and maintained.

In order to create human capital resource diversity and immobility, an organization must have adequate human capital management practices, organizational processes, knowledge management practices and systems, educational opportunity (both formal and informal) and social interaction (i.e., community building) practices in place (Afiouni, 2007; Barney, 1991; Mata et al., 1995; Schafer, 2004).

NOTE: I am finishing up a White paper on the topic of Competitive Advantage & Human Capital and hope to have it available within the next week or so…check back soon.

References

  • Afiouni, F. (2007). Human Resource Management and Knowledge Management: A Road Map Toward Improving Organizational Performance. Journal of American Academy of Business, Cambridge, 11(2), 124.
  • Agarwal, R., & Ferratt, T. W. (2001). Crafting an HR strategy to meet the need for IT workers. Association for Computing Machinery. Communications of the ACM, 44(7), 58.
  • Barney, J. B. (1991). Firm resources and sustained competitive advantage. Journal of Management, 17(1), 99-120.
  • Luftman, J., & Kempaiah, R. M. (2007). The IS Organization of the Future: The IT Talent Challenge. Information Systems Management, 24(2), 129.
  • Mata, F. J., Fuerst, W. L., & Barney, J. B. (1995). Information technology and sustained competitive advantage: A resource-based analysis. MIS Quarterly, 19(4), 487.
  • Peteraf, M. (1993). The cornerstones of competitive advantage: A resource-based view. Strategic Management Journal, 14, 179-191.
  • Schafer, M. (2004). Why Workforce Management Is Back In Style. Optimize, 67.
  • Wernerfert, B. (1984). A resource based view of the firm. Strategic Management Journal, 5, 171-180.

[tags] competitive advantage, technology, resource based view of the firm, human capital, organization [/tags]

Competitive Advantage – The Human Capital approach

I was asked recently to describe how an organization can use its human capital to create competitive advantage.

I fell into the trap of using Porter’s descriptions and other schemes of describing what it is and how to achieve it and while I was talking I saw eyes glazing over and people losing interest very quickly. I had to find another way to describe competitive advantage and quickly.

The ‘usual’ definition of competitive advantage goes something like this (from QuickMBA):

When a firm sustains profits that exceed the average for its industry, the firm is said to possess a competitive advantage over its rivals. The goal of much of business strategy is to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.

Michael Porter identified two basic types of competitive advantage:

  • cost advantage
  • differentiation advantage

A competitive advantage exists when the firm is able to deliver the same benefits as competitors but at a lower cost (cost advantage), or deliver benefits that exceed those of competing products (differentiation advantage). Thus, a competitive advantage enables the firm to create superior value for its customers and superior profits for itself.

That’s an awful lot of big words that really don’t provide a lot of actionable information, especially if you are trying to understand how to use people to create sustainable competitive advantage.

I hit upon the following definition and example and these seemed to stick fairly well…these aren’t mind-blowing but they were effective. My definition:

In order to gain competitive advantage, you must do something different than your competitors in such a way as to make it difficult (hopefully impossible) to imitate.

The above definition was easier for the audience to understand but they still wanted an example to help clarify and solidify what it really means to gain competitive advantage.

After thinking for a few minutes, I came up with the following example….maybe its not the best but it definitely helped the audience get a good grasp of how to use their human capital to create sustainable competitive advantage.

Suppose you’re the owner of an American football team and you’re trying to find a way to ensure that your team wins. What do you do?

Do you…

  • Spend millions on the best technology?
  • Spend millions on a new stadium?
  • Move your team to a new city and hope it works out?

These things might help attract a larger fan base and perhaps bring you more revenue but will they help you win? In football, the superfluous things such as technology,stadiums, etc mean nothing if the team is a losing every game. People won’t pay to see your team play if they lose. So what do you do?

You hire the best coaching staff and players that you can. Your coaching staff spends months (years?) ‘training’ and coaching these players to create a cohesive team that works well together. The coaching staff understands the strengths and weaknesses of the individual players and develops offensive and defensive schemes to take advantage of the strengths and hide the weaknesses.

Now…any other team can imitate the plays that your coaches develop. They can try to imitate the coaching style and the players…but they will fail. Unless they take your players/coaches from you, they will never be able to fully imitate your team.

Your competitors can always try to hire better people and develop better schemes but if you are doing your job as the owner of the football team you should be constantly evaluating your team to ensure that you have the right people with the right training in the right places to ensure success.

The ability to create a unique team is one of the most cost-effective ways to create real sustainable advantage in the marketplace (and in my opinion, the only way).

You can try to use technology, marketing or other approaches but unless you develop those approaches internally they will not provide sustainable advantage because your competitors can use the same approaches to match your every move.

Using the people within your organization to create advantage is one of the most overlooked methods in business today. In most organizations I’ve been a part of, the organization try to mold people to fit the organization rather than create an organizational model that fits the strengths and weaknesses of its people.

I’m planning on expanding on this topic a bit more in later posts by discussing a theory called the Resource Based View of the Firm. This theory states that by creating resource immobility and resource diversity, a firm can create sustainable competitive advantage. Check back for more.

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