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Building Competitive Advantage Through People

Forget capital; it’s relatively easy to obtain nowadays. Today’s scarce, sought-after strategic resource is expertise, which comes in the form of employees. Although organizations have changed mightily from the days of hierarchical, top-down management, they still have a long way to go. In addition to issues of company structure and who should be involved in strategic decision making, there are questions of how the value that companies create should be distributed, now that employees, as well as shareholders, control a scarce resource. And then there are the intangible yet crucial changes that must occur in senior managers’ ways of thinking — and in the atmosphere and culture of the company.

Reorienting old-school senior managers away from capital and toward knowledgeable employees will be difficult, but Christopher Bartlett of Harvard Business School and Sumantra Ghoshal of London Business School have several recommendations for human-resource professionals, who, Bartlett and Ghoshal maintain, will be key players in the design, development and delivery of strategy. Their task is threefold. First, they must build up the company by acquiring and retaining highly skilled employees. Second, they must find a way to embed individual-based knowledge in the company, making it accessible and useful not just to one unit or one function, but to the entire organization. That is the linking task. Finally, there is the bonding task: HR managers must create an engaging, motivating and bonding culture that will attract and keep talented employees.

With people in ascendancy over capital, say the authors, it is time to recall what a company actually is: a social institution designed to engage people in the achievement of a valuable and meaningful purpose.

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