On Competition

By Lear, Robert W. | Chief Executive (U.S.), March 1999 | Go to article overview

On Competition


Lear, Robert W., Chief Executive (U.S.)


Try adding this up. Take Michael Porter, a distinguished teacher at Harvard Business School, a prolific writer, and a constant speaker on corporate strategy. Take 10 of his Harvard Business Review articles published over the last 15 years and add two new ones plus an introduction. Put them all together in a 467-page book. And what do you get? I say, you get taken for $35.95 because Michael Porter's On Competition is a dull, repetitive, academic bore.

I'll admit that I am modestly biased against anthologies and compendiums. Too often, they have simply been thrown together and have not been edited for duplication and temporal changes. Too often, the great man who wrote the articles says the same things over and over again. And they are always too long and too inclusive.

This is no exception. Porter is like the man who was asked what time it was and replied with a complete history of the watch-making industry. Porter has told me more about competitive strategy than I wanted to know. He trots out his "diamond" illustrations, reiterates his basic principles, and uses the same line of reasoning in article after article.

Porter is very good at analyzing a successful company and divining the things they seem to do right. His examples, when current, are pertinent and well-described. But it makes me wonder, has he ever started with the "right" principles and then convinced a company to become a Southwest Airlines, an Ikea, a Jiffy Lube, or a Vanguard mutual fund? Is he only good at foretelling the past? In contrast, a strategy writer like Peter Drucker is at his best in predicting future trends and postures. Porter doesn't seem to have the same knack.

There are a couple of bright spots. The article on "End Gaming" did offer suggestions on how to play the game better. The article on "Green and Competitive" had some meaningful examples and illustrations. The new article on "Competing Across Locations" had fresh reports from Honda, Novo, and Hewlett-Packard. In opposition, the other new article on "Clusters and Competition" was 90 pages of academic drivel and extraneous charts.

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