The term ‘Core Competence’ as applied to the competitive advantage of a business has only existed since 1990 when the Harvard Business Review published Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad’s paper; ‘The Core Competence of the Corporation.’ Reacting against the decentralised business portfolio strategy then being followed (and still followed today) by many large corporations, they argued that instead of a portfolio of businesses housed in standalone strategic business units (SBUs), companies should identify their portfolio of competences and plan to these.
The corporate world of 1990 was one where western companies were beginning to feel they had stemmed the growth in competition from lost cost, high quality Japanese imports. The western companies were catching up in these areas and the competitive advantage enjoyed by the Japanese through the 70s and 80s was diminishing.
The Japanese responded with wave after wave of new products in new markets. Honda diversified from cars and motor cycles to buggies, lawn mowers, boats and more. Other Japanese companies diversified in similar ways.
As in the 70s and 80s, the western companies were slow to react. Hamel and Prahalad identified that this was not because they had worse management or lesser technical capabilities. It was because top management lacked the vision to exploit the depth of technological capability their companies possessed; it’s ‘core competence.’
That core competence is defined as something that you do better than anyone else. The larger the company the closer to ‘world class’ the core competence should be. It produces a core product or an efficiency which is not an end product. Hence Honda’s core competence was (is) in engines and power trains; once they had identified this, the diversification of their product range around the core competence became a logical step.
For other companies it is different. For example, Black and Decker’s core competence is in small electric motors. Having recognised this, their product range grew to include a multitude of products from lawn mowers to vacuum cleaners and from power tools to electric can openers. Core competencies open the way to many different markets and in thinking about how to exploit these markets, an environment which encourages innovation is created (Honda call it ‘the power of dreams’).
Hamel and Prahalad laid down three tests to identify a core competence:
- · It provides potential access to a wide range of markets
- · It provides a significant contribution to perceived customer benefit of the end product
- · It is difficult to imitate
Therefore, being world-class at producing an ordinary component will not bestow competitive advantage. A core competence makes a disproportionate contribution to customer value and must be judged relative to the competition. It is something your competitors envy and wish they had.
Back to 1990 and Hamel and Prahalad identified how, in trying to match the new, core competence based competition coming from Japan, western companies mistook what was happening and some even deliberately (but unknowingly) lost or gave away their own core competence.
Where Honda recognised their core competence was in engines and power trains, Chrysler saw them as just another component and outsourced their manufacture. Short-term, in doing so Chrysler created a more competitive product but in the medium to long-term such a move contributed nothing to maintaining and developing the skills required to retain product leadership.
Hamel and Prahalad saw such decentralisation as ‘the tyranny of the SBU’ – the enemy of core competence. SBUs tend to the present focusing on maximising today’s sales, tending to be tactic not strategy led. What competencies they have tend to be hoarded and a reluctance to lend talented people to other SBUs develops. New opportunities are neither explored nor developed.
The job of management should be to develop an organisation-wide ‘strategic architecture’ – a road map to the future identifying which competencies to build and what technology they need. Core competencies are corporate resources and SBUs should have to bid for them just as they bid for capital resource. Reward systems and career paths should break free of SBU silos and key employees should be weaned off the idea that they belong to one particular strand (SBU) of the business.
Hamel and Prahalad described this diversified company as a large tree with trunk and limbs as its core products, the smaller branches as strategic business units and the leaves, flowers and fruit as the end products. The root system that nourishes, sustains and stabilises the tree is the core competence.
“If you look only at the leaves of a tree,” they said, “you won’t notice its strength. In the same way, you may fail to see the strength of your competitors if you look only at their end products.”
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, February 2013