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The Past and Future of Competitive Advantage

The quest for competitive advantage often inspires executives to imitate the strategies of the most successful companies. Interestingly, however, precisely opposite factors are considered sources of competitive advantage at different points in time. Henry Ford's emphasis on focus has been touted as the key to success right alongside General Motors' product-line breadth. IBM's vertical integration was considered an unassailable source of competitive advantage a generation ago; today, everyone admires the outsourcing flexibility inherent in the nonintegrated business models of Cisco Systems and Dell Computer.

But strategists whose anecdotal understanding of competitive advantage runs only as deep as "If it's good for Cisco, it must be good for everybody" are likely to succeed only in building yesterday's competitive advantages. If history is any guide, the practices and business models that constitute advantages for today's most successful companies confer those advantages only because of particular factors at work under particular conditions at the particular time. Harvard Business School's Clayton Christensen, a leading thinker on disruptive technologies, alerts managers to the imperative of understanding the context that supports a particular competitive advantage. He explains why, for example, pharmaceutical companies' current focus on ever larger mergers is moving them in exactly the wrong direction at exactly the wrong time. He blames their strategists (and investment bankers) for not thinking deeply about cause and effect in competitive advantage.

He also notes that the very existence of competitive advantage sets in motion creative innovations that, as competitors strive to level the playing field, cause the advantage to dissipate. That does not mean the search for competitive advantage is futile. Rather, it suggests that successful strategists need to cultivate a deep understanding of the processes of competition and progress and of the factors that undergird each advantage. Only then will they be able to see when old advantages are poised to disappear and how new advantages can be built in their stead.

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