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Strategic Flexibility and Competitive Advantage  

Kathryn Rudie Harrigan

Concerns regarding strategic flexibility arose from companies’ need to survive excess capacity and flagging sales in the face of previously unforeseen competitive conditions. Strategic flexibility became an organizational mandate for coping with changing competitive conditions and managers learned to plan for inevitable restructurings. They learned to reposition assets and capabilities to suit their firms’ new strategic aspirations by overcoming barriers to change. Core rigidities flared up in the form of legacy costs, regulatory constraints, political animosity, and social resistance to adjusting firms’ strategic postures; managers learned that their firms’ past strategic choices could later become barriers to adapting corporate strategy. Managerial insights concerning how to modify firms’ resources changed the way in which they were subsequently regarded. Enterprises saw assets lose their relative productivity and value as mastery of specific knowledge become less germane to success. Managers recognized that their firms’ capabilities were mismatched to market or value-chain relationships. They struggled to adapt by overcoming barriers to change. Flexibility problems were inevitable. Even if competitive conditions were not impacted by exogenous change forces, sustaining advantage in a steady-state competitive arena became difficult; sustaining advantage in dynamic arenas became nearly impossible. Confronted with the difficulties of changing strategic postures, market orientations, and overall cost competitiveness, managers embraced the need to combat organizational rigidity in all aspects of their firms’ operations. Strategic flexibility affected enterprise assets, capabilities, and potential relationships with other parties within firms’ value-creating ecosystems; the need for strategic flexibility influenced investment choices made to escape organizational rigidity, capability traps and other forms of previously unrecognized resource inflexibility. Where entry barriers once protected a firm’s strategic posture, flexibility issues arose when the need for endogenous changes occurred. The temporary protection afforded by imitation barriers slowed an organization’s responsiveness to changing its strategy imperatives—making the firm rigid when adaptiveness was needed instead. A firm’s own inertia to change sometimes created mobility barriers that had to be overcome when hypercompetitive conditions arose in their traditional market arenas and forced firms to change how they competed. Where exogenous changes drove competitive conditions to become more volatile, attainment of strategic flexibility mandated the need to downsize the scope of a firm’s activities, shut down facilities, prune product lines, reduce headcount, and eliminate redundancies—as typically occurred during an organizational turnaround—while simultaneously increasing the scope of external activities performed by an enterprise’s value-adding network of suppliers, distributors, value-added resellers, complementors, and alliance partners, among others. Such structural value-chain changes typically exacerbated pressures on the firm’s internal organization to search more broadly for value-adding innovations to renew products and processes to keep up with the accelerated pace of industry change. Exploratory processes of self-renewal forced confrontations with mobility or exit barriers that were long tolerated by firms in order to avoid coping with the painful process of their ultimate elimination. The sometimes surprising efforts by firms to avoid inflexibility included changes in the nature of firms’ asset investments, value-chain relationships, and human-resource practices. Strategic flexibility concerns often trumped the traditional strengths accorded to resource-based strategies.

Article

From Absorptive Capacity in International Business to Strategic Flexibility of Multinational Corporations  

Carine Peeters

Both the absorptive capacity (AC) and international business (IB) literatures are interested in knowledge processes and learning in organizations. Although originating from different streams of research, AC and IB were thus meant to meet and reinforce each other. Fundamentally, the role of AC in IB is to condition the performance outcome of firms’ internationalization efforts. Firms benefit from their IB activities conditional on being able to absorb new knowledge and learn. In other words, multinational corporations (MNCs) need to have the necessary AC to overcome their liabilities of foreignness and outsidership. Short of AC, the costs and challenges of entering foreign markets and operating across countries are likely to outweigh potential performance gains. Moreover, AC plays a role in the technological upgrade and economic development of nations, as it helps firms in emerging economies to benefit from spillovers of foreign direct investments by MNCs from more economically advanced economies. And national governments can play an important role to facilitate this effect by developing appropriate economic and innovation policies that support knowledge creation and learning. Firms can also proactively develop AC. For instance, MNCs can nurture a broad knowledge base that can be leveraged in different contexts and opt for a decentralized structure with mechanisms that help subsidiaries access the knowledge base of the parent organization. They can also practice specific routines to identify and access relevant knowledge from their external environment, transfer that knowledge in their organization, and assimilate it in their own knowledge creation processes. Moreover, MNCs can adopt human resources management practices that help raise the capacity and motivation of their employees to acquire and exploit new knowledge. Ultimately, the most important contribution of AC in IB might be to help MNCs develop the strategic flexibility that enables them to thrive in dynamic environments. High-AC MNCs may indeed be in a better position than other firms to (a) build diverse options to prepare for uncertain evolutions in the market, (b) access flexible resources to allocate to new courses of actions, and (c) redeploy resources across options over time. Unpacking the exact mechanisms as well as boundary conditions for the role of AC in building strategic flexibility offers ample opportunities for future research on a highly relevant topic for MNCs.

Article

Learning Identity, Flexibility, and Lifelong Experiential Learning  

Mai P. Trinh

The world is changing faster than ever before. Recent advances in technology are constantly making old knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) obsolete while also creating new KSAs and increasing the demand for jobs that have never existed before. These advances place tremendous pressure on people to learn, adapt, and innovate in order to keep up with these changes. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) has been widely and effectively applied in various settings in the last four decades. This theory posits that learning is a proactive process, coming from the holistic integration of all learning modes in the human being: experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting. Learners must own and drive this process, because ownership of their own experiential learning process empowers learners to do far more than an external person—whether a parent, a teacher, or a friend—can accomplish. More than just a way to learn, experiential learning is a way of being and living that permeates all aspects of a person’s life. Given the demands of the fast-changing world we live in, what do individuals need to do to make sure they stay ahead of the change curve, remain fit with the changing environment, survive, and thrive? At the individual level, a number of important competencies need to be developed, including learning identity and learning flexibility. At the system level, learning and education as a whole must be treated differently. Education should be an abductive process in which learners are taught to ask different types of questions and then connect new knowledge with their own personal experiences. The outcome of education, likewise, should be adaptive and developmental. Instead of promoting global learning outcomes that every student needs to achieve, educators need to hold each student individually responsible for incrementally knowing more than he or she previously knew, and teach students not only how to answer questions but also how to ask good questions to extract knowledge from future unknown circumstances. Helping students foster a learning identity and become lifelong learners are among the most important tasks of educators in today’s fast-changing world.

Article

The Application of Real Option Approach in International Business Research  

Tailan Chi and Yan Huang

The real option theory (ROT), a theory on investment decision making under uncertainty, has been applied to analyzing a broad range of questions in international business (IB). In the face of uncertainty, any discretion that the managers of a multinational enterprise (MNE) have over the timing, scale, speed, and sequence of investing or using the firm’s resources, in the forms of physical or intellectual capital or managerial time and effort, can be a real option. Such options confer upon the managers the right, but not the obligation, to exploit the upside potential while limiting the downside risk. Uncertainty, irreversibility, and absence of immediate and complete preemption are three necessary conditions for a real option to create value. Uncertainty offers opportunities to gather more information in the future, and such information can help managers make better decisions or alter prior decisions for improvement. Irreversibility is defined as the proportion of the investment committed to a project that cannot be recouped if the project is abandoned. Preemption refers to the revocation of the decision-making discretion that nullifies the option. It is possible to distinguish seven types of real options that have been examined in IB studies: (a) option to defer, (b) option to abandon/exit, (c) option to exchange, (d) option to grow/scale up, (e) option to contract/scale down, (f) option to switch, and (g) compound options. These types of options are found to influence a firm’s international market-entry strategies (e.g., location, timing, scale, speed, and mode) and the configuration and organization of the firm’s geographically dispersed production network. ROT has also been integrated with other economic theories, such as transaction cost economics and resource-based view, to better understand these decisions. Although ROT assumes a strong form of rationality on the part of the decision maker, it is also possible to incorporate cognitive or cultural biases into the theory and give the theory’s analysis greater realism. ROT represents a theoretical approach that can be integrated with various economic and noneconomic theories. More work in such theoretical integration can potentially help researchers gain deeper or more complete understandings of IB questions. Extant studies in IB typically analyze only a single type of option in isolation. But the global production network of a MNE typically has a portfolio of different types of options embedded, and the different types of options inevitably interact. The study of interactions among two or more types of options under different sources of uncertainty is likely to yield new insights on the strategy and organization of the MNE.

Article

Product and Innovation Portfolio Management  

Vinícius Chagas Brasil and J.P. Eggers

In competitive strategy, firms manage two primary (non-financial) portfolios—the product portfolio and the innovation portfolio. Portfolio management involves resource allocation to balance the important tradeoff of risk reduction and upside maximization, with important decisions around the evaluation, prioritization and selection of products and innovation projects. These two portfolios are interdependent in ways that create reinforcing dynamics—the innovation portfolio is the array of potential future products, while the product portfolio both informs innovation strategy and provides inputs to future innovation efforts. Additionally, portfolio management processes operate at two levels, which is reflected in the literature's structure. The first is a micro lens which focuses on management frameworks to boost portfolio performance and success through project-level selection tools. This research has its roots in financial portfolio management, relates closely to research on new product development and marketing product management, and explores the effects of portfolio management decisions on other organizational functions (e.g., operations). The second lens is a macro lens on portfolio management research, which considers the portfolio as a whole and integrates key organizational and competitive concepts such as entry timing, portfolio management resource allocation regimes (e.g., real options reasoning), organizational experience, and the culling of products and projects. This literature aims to set portfolio management as higher level organizational decision-making capability that embodies the growth strategy of the organization. The organizational ability to manage both the product and innovation portfolios connects portfolio management to key strategic organizational capabilities, including ambidexterity and dynamic capabilities, and operationalizes strategic flexibility. We therefore view portfolio management as a source of competitive advantage that supports organizational renewal.