Competing With Your Supplier is Not a Best Practice

Fortune’s Geoff Colvin writes in the July 21 edition about Gary Reiner, GE’s CIO, in Information Worth Billions: General Electric’s CIO Tells How He Makes Infotech Pay In a Big Way.

Reiner reports directly to Jeff Immelt, GE’s CEO. Immelt wants three things from him—one of which is sourcing. Says Reiner:

"…we were one of the first to do e-auctioning. Our job would be to commoditize the item as much as possible and then leverage IT to have our suppliers bid for the business.

Of course, Reiner says that though GE loves to buy through reverse auctions, it hates to sell that way.

"…the more commodity-like the part or service is, the easier it is to auction; and the more differentiated, the less easy it is to auction…we try to make more of our business portfolio be products and services that are non-commodity—that are differentiated. So we are not as auctioned on the sell side as we are on the buy side.

All well and good. And of course (insert here your favorite paragraph on the fabulous track record of GE, Jack Welch, etc.).

And yet, and yet…

I’m left with the inescapable feeling that Reiner—and Immelt, and GE—view business as being exclusively and exhaustively about competition. Including competing with your suppliers. And competing with your customers.

With suppliers, it’s about extracting the best price from an auction. With customers, it’s about extracting the best price by avoiding an auction.

In both cases, it’s about extracting maximum price in a zero-sum transaction whose boundaries are limited to product features, product quality, and price. What’s good for me is not good for you, and vice versa. We are inextricably opposed.

If that sounds perfectly obvious and normal to you, then think about what’s missing.

A relationship. An approach of collaboration. A view that this transaction isn’t a carefully negotiated one-night stand, but rather a joint journey. A view that gets beyond mere product characteristics and price. A sense of commitment to customers or suppliers. A feeling of responsibility for the health of both parties. A willingness to pool information, rather than use it as a wedge.

That’s some of what’s missing.

Let’s call GE’s view the “competition-centric” view. It was given intellectual expression and validity by Michael Porter in his 1978 classic Competitive Strategy. In that book, Porter laid out quite clearly the nature of business: it was to compete. And the nature of competition was equally clear. There were five competitive dynamics facing the firm: two of those five were the competitive struggle between the firm and its customers, and the firm and its suppliers.

In other words—business, by this view, is quite specifically about competing with your customers (and suppliers).

This view is not “wrong” per se. It helped a lot of companies—including GE—to survive and prosper.

But this is not your father’s business world. Nor Jack Welch’s. Not any longer.

Today’s "flat" business world—30 years after Porter—is about extended enterprises, not hard-walled corporations. It’s about supply chains, not about monolithic vertically integrated organizations. Best practices today are about collaboration, not competition; about influencing, not managing; about commercial relationships, not competitive ones. It’s about 1+1=3, not "do unto others before they do unto me."

Those who succeed today aren’t those who play “hardball,” but those who learned early on to play nicely in the sandbox with others. Because in today’s business world, there is no longer any separation worth the name; in a globally scaled world, everyone outsources pretty much everything. A competitor today is a collaborator tomorrow and a customer or supplier on alternate Tuesdays.

Exhibit 1: the auto industry. Toyota has a genuine cost advantage over Detroit because it has always treated its suppliers as an extended organization—not as enemies to be kept at bay and bled nearly dry. That collaborative advantage is the competitive truth—not the self-serving excuses (by Welch, among others) about health care and pension costs (which were after all freely signed into contracts by Detroit management without a gun to its head).

Yet the dominant business ideology in the West continues to be—competition. These antiquated belief systems are increasingly at direct odds with the horizontal, extended, diffuse, globally interdependent world we now live in.

And of course, that’s how it works. Beliefs die hard—well after the conditions that birthed them are long gone. Ideology is the last vestige of a changing world.

Competing with your customers? If that was ever a “best practice,” it should now be relegated to an increasingly bygone world. It’s not “bad” or “wrong”—it just doesn’t work as well anymore. And that trend is only increasing.

 

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