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Staying Alive

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Peter Vogel        

LAST month I talked about developing your competitive advantage. The goal in developing a competitive advantage is to take your uniquecharacteristics and combine them to make a contribution that no one else can make. Strictly speaking, that’s not the only way to gain a competitive advantage. If you owned some resource that no one else had access to (and that your customers or clients wanted), then you could also have a competitive advantage.

However, in our business, it’s difficult to imagine anything you can own that others won’t have, eventually. Right now, for instance, I probably know more about XML in Office 2003 than anyone outside of Microsoft. I can expect that advantage to last for about two months after Office 2003 is released. Of course, I could try to keep learning more about Office 2003 to stay ahead of everyone else but—quite frankly—how much is there to learn here? I also suspect that there are lots of people who can learn this material faster than I can.

The only thing you have that no one else has, or will ever have, is you. The combination of personality, experience, aptitudes, skills, and knowledge that make you up is the only basis for a long-term competitive advantage. That’s what will allow you to make a unique contribution to your clients/customers.

A related but more dangerous idea to what I’ve been discussing is described as “core competencies.” The idea behind core competencies is that there’s a set of things that you can do well that are critical to your business. When pondering core competencies, you have two goals:

• Your first goal is to constantly improve your core competencies so that you’re getting better and better at what makes you special. Nothing wrong with that.

• Your second goal is to structure every part of your business around your core competencies.

By structuring your business around a set of skills that you’re constantly enhancing, you can make a contribution that no one else can. You become a lean, mean core competency machine. Here’s where the problem arises.

To a certain extent, working on my core competencies is part of what I do to ensure that my consulting practice will continue to thrive. There are, for instance, a wide variety of consulting jobs that I won’t take. It took me a while to figure it out, but I should only take two kinds of jobs: those that take advantage of my core competencies,Editorial Smart Access

and those that provide me with an opportunity to develop my core competencies. For any other job, I won’t get better at the things that I do (and I’ll make a contribution that someone else could have done better).

So why are core competencies dangerous? The problem with concentrating on your core competencies is that you can become an evolutionary dinosaur. Dinosaurs are regarded as evolutionary failures because, basically, they’re not around to defend themselves. That’s not really fair to the dinosaurs. Among other accomplishments, dinosaurs dominated their ecological system for a considerably longer time than humans have. In their environment, dinosaurs were incredibly efficient.

So, why are we here and the dinosaurs aren’t? The ecological system changed and the dinosaurs didn’t. The dinosaurs were very well adapted to their environment. So well adapted that when the ecology changed the dinosaurs couldn’t survive. If you concentrate on configuring your job or business around your core competencies, you may do very well—until the environment changes. At that point you may find yourself out of work and unable to deal with the new environment. To survive you need to be inefficient.

You can count on change. To deal with change you need to waste time trying out things that don’t work. You need to waste time checking out new technologies and new skills. You need to have an input system that feeds you information about things that you don’t know about, don’t care about, and can’t use right now. To make it sound more like fun (which it is)—you need to have the world constantly telling you about what’s going, on and you need to be constantly trying out new things that aren’t part of your core competencies.

Most of the stuff that you try won’t work, and the stuff that does work, you won’t be very good at. But, when the world changes, you’ll be ready.

An off-topic note: Way back in 1999, we mentioned Koolrp.ZIP, a collection of Access 2.0 reports that demonstrated a variety of report tricks (including building a table of contents for a report). We were never able to find the author of the reports and, without that permission, couldn’t distribute the collection ourselves. Instead, we could only direct readers to a CompuServe forum. That forum is now gone, but we still get requests from readers for the file. The good news is that Koolrp.ZIP can be found download files for this month.

 

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