Staying Alive

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

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

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

A related but more dangerous idea to what I’ve beendiscussing is described as “core competencies.” The idea behind corecompetencies is that there’s a set of things that you can do well that arecritical to your business. When pondering core competencies, you have twogoals:

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

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

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

To a certain extent, working on my core competenciesis part of what I do to ensure that my consulting practice will continue tothrive. There are, for instance, a wide variety of consulting jobs that I won’ttake. It took me a while to figure it out, but I should only take two kinds ofjobs: those that take advantage of my core competencies,Editorial Smart Access

and those that provide me with an opportunity todevelop my core competencies. For any other job, I won’t get better at thethings that I do (and I’ll make a contribution that someone else could havedone better).

So why are core competencies dangerous? The problemwith concentrating on your core competencies is that you can become an evolutionarydinosaur. Dinosaurs are regarded as evolutionary failures because, basically,they’re not around to defend themselves. That’s not really fair to thedinosaurs. Among other accomplishments, dinosaurs dominated their ecologicalsystem 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? Theecological system changed and the dinosaurs didn’t. The dinosaurs were verywell adapted to their environment. So well adapted that when the ecologychanged the dinosaurs couldn’t survive. If you concentrate on configuring yourjob or business around your core competencies, you may do very well—until theenvironment changes. At that point you may find yourself out of work and unableto deal with the new environment. To survive you need to be inefficient.

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

Most of the stuff that you try won’t work, and thestuff 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 mentionedKoolrp.ZIP, a collection of Access 2.0 reports that demonstrated a variety ofreport tricks (including building a table of contents for a report). We werenever able to find the author of the reports and, without that permission,couldn’t distribute the collection ourselves. Instead, we could only directreaders to a CompuServe forum. That forum is now gone, but we still getrequests from readers for the file. The good news is that Koolrp.ZIP can befound download files for this month.

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