Customer Strategy? Or Strategy vs. Customers? Part 1 of 2.

The October 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review is out; in snailmailboxes, anyway (at HBR, no early advantage is given to electronic subscribers, unlike most other publications.)

The issue provides such a juicy entrée to business thinking that I can’t cover it with one blog posting. Look for the Part 2, next posting, which will pit Amazon against credit card companies.

But first—let’s talk business and global warming. The entire Forethought section this issue is devoted to “the climate business and the business climate.”

No fewer than 7 articles address the issue, led by the reigning king of corporate strategy, Michael Porter, co-authoring with Forest Reinhardt. Porter’s life’s work has been to cement the link between strategy and competition. It’s hard to overstate the effect his work has had, even on those who don’t know him by name. The term “sustainable competitive advantage” is, in large part, his handiwork.

After cementing that worldview in business, Porter applied it to countries, then to non-profits; and now to global warming. What, you might ask, does corporate strategy have to do with global warming?

Porter gives a quintessentially Porterian answer. First, you might be able to make money on it (what with higher energy prices, green policies, et al).

But that can be just operational. The bigger reasons for companies to think climate, says Porter, are strategic. You might be able to stake out a position in an emerging market; or prevent a competitor from doing so. Walmart’s emission reduction programs don’t just save money; they “will be strategic if [Walmart can]…reduce emissions in a way that is difficult for its smaller rivals to replicate.”

As Porter and Reinhardt put it:

While many companies may still think of global warming as a corporate social responsibility issue, business leaders need to approach it in the same hardheaded manner as any other strategic threat or opportunity.

I submit there is something profoundly wrong with this logic.

There is something wrong with business thinking when the core guiding strategic concept is the pursuit of continued competitive domination by corporate entities. When the best thinking business can bring to bear on global warming boils down to the dictum to view it like "any other strategic threat or opportunity."

In a world that is networked, globalized, outsourced and inter-dependent, the last thing we need is an old ideology centered on companies “built to last” who are all about “playing hardball” to achieve “sustainable competitive advantage.” That mode of thinking has proven itself incapable of dealing with the economic issues of "the commons" time and time again, on a less-than-global scale. Why should it prove any better when the stakes really are global?

Is that really the best we can do for a guiding set of beliefs? I think not.

I am not suggesting that companies ought to be do-gooders. Nor am I suggesting that companies ought to calculate political pressure and react according tof the relative power of broader constituencies and their enlightened self-interest (an approach responsible for “business ethics” being perceived as an oxymoron). I am not suggesting “co-opetition” as a solution.

I am suggesting we need an entirely different business ethos—a logic as powerfully and concisely stated and as deeply embedded at the heart of business as competition was when Porter wrote in the late 70s—but an ethos based on relationships, networks, synergy, inter-dependency, collaboration, customer-supplier relations, and mutuality.

Do the other 6 articles in HBR’s forethought section offer that ethos? Not really. One talks about the stakeholder pressures that will be brought to bear on companies; another about the value of transparency. All are stuck in the same root assumption: business is about the sustained competitive advantage of companies.

Elsewhere in the same HBR issue, however, there lurks a clue about a viable alternative approach.

Stay tuned to this blog for Part 2.