Competitive Advantage of Nations

Competitive Advantage of Nations

by Michael E. Porter

ISBN: 9780684841472

Publisher Free Press

Published in Business & Investing/Popular Economics

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Sample Chapter


Chapter 1

The Need for a New Paradigm

Why do some nations succeed and others fail in international competition? This question is perhaps the most frequently asked economic question of our times. Competitiveness has become one of the central preoccupations of government and industry in every nation. The United States is an obvious example, with its growing public debate about the apparently greater economic success of other trading nations. But intense debate about competitiveness is also taking place today in such "success story" nations as Japan and Korea. Socialist countries such as the Soviet Union and others in Eastern Europe and Asia are also asking this question as they fundamentally reappraise their economic systems.

Yet although the question is frequently asked, it is the wrong question if the aim is to best expose the underpinnings of economic prosperity for either firms or nations. We must focus instead on another, much narrower one. This is: why does a nation become the home base for successful international competitors in an industry? Or, to put it somewhat differently, why are firms based in a particular nation able to create and sustain competitive advantage against the world's best competitors in a particular field? And why is one nation often the home for so many of an industry's world leaders?

How can we explain why Germany is the home base for so many of the world's leading makers of printing presses, luxury cars, and chemicals? Why is tiny Switzerland the home base for international leaders in pharmaceuticals, chocolate, and trading? Why are leaders in heavy trucks and mining equipment based in Sweden? Why has America produced the preeminent international competitors in personal computers, software, credit cards, and movies? Why are Italian firms so strong in ceramic tiles, ski boots, packaging machinery, and factory automation equipment? What makes Japanese firms so dominant in consumer electronics, cameras, robotics, and facsimile machines?

The answers are obviously of central concern to firms that must compete in increasingly international markets. A firm must understand what it is about its home nation that is most crucial in determining its ability, or inability, to create and sustain competitive advantage in international terms. But the same question will prove to be a decisive one for national economic prosperity as well. As we will see, a nation's standard of living in the long term depends on its ability to attain a high and rising level of productivity in the industries in which its firms compete. This rests on the capacity of its firms to achieve improving quality or greater efficiency. The influence of the home nation on the pursuit of competitive advantage in particular fields is of central importance to the level and rate of productivity growth achievable.

But we lack a convincing explanation of the influence of the nation. The long-dominant paradigm for why nations succeed internationally in particular industries is showing signs of strain. There is an extensive history of theories to explain the patterns of nations' exports and imports, dating back to the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo in the eighteenth century. It has become generally recognized, however, that these theories have grown inadequate to the task. Changes in the nature of international competition, among them the rise of the multinational corporation that not only exports but competes abroad via foreign subsidiaries, have weakened the traditional explanations for why and where a nation exports. While new rationales have been proposed, none is sufficient to explain why firms based in particular nations are able to compete successfully, through both exporting and foreign investment, in particular industries. Nor can they explain why a nation's firms are able to sustain their competitive positions over considerable periods of time.

Explaining the role played by a nation's economic environment, institutions, and policies in the competitive success of its finns in particular industries is the subject of this book. It seeks to isolate the competitive advantage of a nation, that is, the national attributes that foster competitive advantage in an industry. Drawing on my study of ten nations and the detailed histories of over one hundred industries, I will present in Part I a theory of the competitive advantage of nations in particular fields. In Part II, I will illustrate how the theory can be employed to explain the competitive success of particular nations in a number of individual industries. In Part III, I will use the theory to shed light on the overall patterns of industry success and failure in the economies of the nations we studied and how the patterns have been changing. This will serve as the basis for presenting a framework to explain how entire national economies advance in competitive terms. Finally, in Part IV, I will develop the implications of my theory for both company strategy and government policy, The book concludes with a chapter entitled "National Agendas," which illustrates how the theory can be used to identify some of the most important issues that will shape future economic progress in each of the nations I studied.

Before presenting my theory, however, I must explain why efforts to explain the competitiveness of an entire nation have been unconvincing, and why attempting to do so is tackling the wrong question. I must demonstrate that understanding the reasons for the ability of the nation's firms to create and sustain competitive advantage in particular industries is addressing the right question, not only for informing company strategy but also for achieving national economic goals. I must also describe why there is a growing consensus that the dominant paradigm used to date to explain international success in particular industries is inadequate, and why even recent efforts to modify it still do not address some of the most central questions. Finally, I will describe the study that was conducted so, that the reader will understand the factual foundations of what follows.


There has been no shortage of explanations for why some nations are competitive and others are not. Yet these explanations are often conflicting, and there is no generally accepted theory. It is far from clear what the term "competitive" means when referring to a nation. This is a major part of the difficulty, as we will see. That there has been intense debate in many nations about whether they have a competitiveness problem in the first place is a sure sign that the subject is not completely understood.

Some see national competitiveness as a macroeconomic phenomenon, driven by such variables as exchange rates, interest rates, and government deficits. But nations have enjoyed rapidly rising living standards despite budget deficits (Japan, Italy, and Korea), appreciating currencies (Germany and Switzerland), and high interest rates (Italy and Korea).

Others argue that competitiveness is a function of cheap and abundant labor. Yet nations such as Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden have prospered despite high wages and long periods of labor shortage. Japan, with an economy supposedly built on cheap, abundant labor, has also experienced pressing labor shortages. Its firms have succeeded internationally in many industries only after automating away much of the labor content. The ability to compete despite paying high wages would seem to represent a far more desirable national target.

Another view is that competitiveness depends on possessing bountiful natural resources. Recently, however, the most successful trading nations, among them Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Italy, and Korea, have been countries with limited natural resources that must import most raw materials. It is also interesting to note that within nations such as Korea, the United Kingdom, and Germany, it is the resource-poor regions that are prospering relative to the resource-rich ones.

More recently, many have argued that competitiveness is most strongly influenced by government policy. This view identifies targeting, protection, export promotion, and subsidies as the keys to international success. Evidence is drawn from the study of a few nations (notably Japan and Korea) and a few large, highly visible industries such as automobiles, steel, shipbuilding, and semiconductors. Yet such a decisive role for government policy in competitiveness is not confirmed by a broader survey of experience. Many observers would consider government policy toward industry in Italy, for example, to have been largely ineffectual in much of the postwar period, but Italy has seen a rise in world export share second only to Japan along with a rapidly rising standard of living.

Significant government policy intervention has occurred in only a subset of industries, and it is far from universally successful even in Japan and Korea. In Japan, for example, government's role in such important industries as facsimile, copiers, robotics, and advanced materials has been modest, and such frequently cited examples of successful Japanese policy as sewing machines, steel, and shipbuilding are now dated. Conversely, sustained targeting by Japan of industries such as aircraft (first targeted in 1971) and software (1978) has failed to yield meaningful international positions. Aggressive Korean targeting in large, important sectors such as chemicals and machinery has also failed to lead to significant market positions. Looking across nations, the industries in which government has been most heavily involved have, for the most part, been unsuccessful in international terms. Government is indeed an actor in international competition, but rarely does it have the starting role.

A final popular explanation for national competitiveness is differences in management practices, including labor-management relations. Japanese management has been particularly celebrated in the 1980s, just as American management was in the 1950s and 1960s. The problem with this explanation, however, is that different industries require different approaches to management. What is celebrated as good management practice in one industry would be disastrous in another. The small, private, and loosely organized family firms that populate the Italian footwear, textile, and jewelry industries, for example, are hotbeds of innovation and dynamism. Each industry has produced a positive trade balance for Italy in excess of $1 billion annually. However, these same structures and practices would be a disaster in a German chemical or automobile company, a Swiss pharmaceutical producer, or an American commercial aircraft manufacturer. American-style management, with all the flaws now attributed to it, produces highly competitive firms in such industries as software, medical equipment, consumer packaged goods, and business services. Japanese-style management, for all its strengths, has produced little international success in large portions of the economy such as chemicals, consumer packaged goods, or services.

Nor is it possible to generalize about labor-management relations. Unions are very powerful in Germany and Sweden, with representation by law in management (Germany) and on boards of directors (Sweden). Despite the view by some that powerful unions undermine competitive advantage, however, both nations have prospered and contain some of the most internationally preeminent firms and industries of any country.

Clearly, none of these explanations for national competitiveness, any more than a variety of others that have been put forward, is fully satisfactory. None is sufficient by itself in rationalizing the competitive position of a nation's industries. Each contains some truth but will not stand up to close scrutiny. A broader and more complex set of forces seems to be at work.

The numerous and conflicting explanations for competitiveness highlight an even more fundamental problem. That is, just what is a "competitive" nation in the first place? While the term is frequently used, it is unusually ill defined. Is a "competitive" nation one in which every firm or industry is competitive? If so, no nation comes close to qualifying. Even Japan, as we will see, has large sectors of its economy that fall far behind the world's best competititors. Is a "competitive" nation one whose exchange rate makes its goods price competitive in international markets? But surely most would agree that nations such as Germany and Japan, that have experienced sustained periods of a strong currency and upward pressure on foreign prices, have enjoyed remarkable gains in standard of living in the postwar period. The ability of a nation's industry to command high prices in foreign markets would seem to be a more desirable national target.

Is a "competitive" nation one with a large positive balance of trade? Switzerland has roughly balanced trade and Italy has had a chronic trade deficit, but both nations have enjoyed strongly rising national income. Conversely, many poor nations have balanced trade but scarcely represent the sorts of economies most nations aspire to Is a "competitive" nation one with a rising share of world exports? A rising share is often associated with growing prosperity, but nations with stable or slowly falling world export shares have experienced strong per capita income growth so that world export share clearly does not tell the whole story. Is a "competitive" nation one that can create jobs? Clearly, the ability to do so is important, but the type of jobs, not merely the employment of citizens at low wages, seems more significant for national income. Finally, is a "competitive" nation one whose unit labor costs are low? Low unit labor costs can be achieved through low wages such as those in India or Mexico, but this hardly seems an attractive industrial model. Each of these measures says something about a nation's industry, but none relates clearly to national economic prosperity.


The search for a convincing explanation of both national and firm prosperity must begin by asking the right question. We must abandon the whole notion of a "competitive nation" as a term having much meaning for economic prosperity. The principal economic goal of a nation is to produce a high and rising standard of living for its citizens. The ability to do so depends not on the amorphous notion of "competitiveness" but on the productivity with which a nation's resources (labor and capital) are employed. Productivity is the value of the output produced by a unit of labor or capital. It depends on both the quality and features of products (which determine the prices they can command) and the efficiency with which they are produced.

Productivity is the prime determinant in the long run of a nation's standard of living, for it is the root cause of national per capita income. The productivity of human resources determines their wages, while the productivity with which capital is employed determines the return it earns for its holders.


Excerpted from "Competitive Advantage of Nations" by Michael E. Porter. Copyright © 1998 by Michael E. Porter. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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