"On Competition" (2008) is an updated version of Porter's 1998 earlier work by the same title. It begins with an excellent updated version of his 1979 Harvard Business Review "The Five Forces that Shape Strategy" article (covered in a separate review), continuing to explain why many firms evolve away from their original competitive strategies, and separate chapters on diversification's track record, the competitive advantage of nations, problems within American health care (covered in another review), industry clustering, IT's role in competition, and likely surprises for new CEOs. While there is considerable worthwhile material within this new edition, it is also hampered by considerable dated material - the chapter on IT is 25 years old and that on the Internet was written in 2001; meanwhile, the material on clustering (2000) omits analysis of China, and that on the competitive advantage of nations is oblivious to the contributions made by the PRC's industrial policies.
Following his "The Five Forces that Shape Strategy" chapter, Porter continues by pointing out that many firms lose their way over time, adding product lines, product extensions, even new new businesses that make it difficult to understand what is underlying strategy is. Reconnecting can be helped by answering questions such as Which of our offerings is the most profitable, distinctive? and Which our customers are most profitable? A company's history can also be instructive - What was the founder's vision?, What were the products and customers that made the company.
Losing sight of strategy often occurs through becoming caught up in the race of operational excellence, and managers mistaking 'customer focus' to mean they must serve all customer needs or respond to every request from distributors. However, the desire to grow has the most perverse effect on strategy. Extending product lines, adding new features, making acquisitions all broaden the position. Porter points out that Maytag, for example, expanded into refrigerators and stoves and acquired other brands with disparte positions (Jenn-Air, Admiral, Magic Chef). Maytag sales grew to about 5X from '85 levels by '94, but its return on sales dropped from 8-12% to less than 1% before being was acquired by Whirlpool. (Porter notes that Maytag was faced with homogenization through shared design, distribution and/or customer service, or for-going any advantage of its acquisitions.) Similarly, Neutrogena expanded into products such as eye-makeup remover, shampoo) where it was not unique, and ended up diluting its image.
Porter conducted an extensive longitudinal analysis of large firms and their acquisitions, concluding that they mostly destroyed shareholder value. The most obvious instances involved acquisitions in weak industries with low records of return on investment. An even more obvious strategy doomed to fail - paying a premium. Reasons for making acquisitions include obtaining a market premium for stabilizing earnings (if accomplished), taking advantage of restructuring opportunities (a 1-time benefit), transferring expertise (G.M.'s rationale for buying Hughes Aircraft and its electronic skills), or sharing activities (eg. distribution). It would have been particularly interesting to learn Porter's thoughts on recent auto acquisitions (Mercedes-Benz of Chrysler, Ford of Jaguar and Volvo, G.M. of Hummer, Saab), but this section preceding those happenings.
A likely surprise for new CEOs is learning that they cannot run the firm's day-to-day operations. Symptoms include becoming buried in meetings, becoming a bottleneck, people using the CEO's name to validate positions (eg. "Chuck thinks . . ."), staff overly trying to please the CEO.