The Last Competitive Advantage

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Your best people can be poached. Your technology can be stolen. Your processes can be mimicked. Your supply chain can be replicated. Possessing a unique method, asset, or idea used to be enough to ensure your organization’s long-term success, but not anymore. A massively interconnected and globalized world has transformed what used to be competitive advantages into short-term advantages. There remains only one true competitive advantage: a culture that propels its company towards its goals. 

So, if you think that corporate culture is just about team building sessions and whether or not you can wear shorts to work on Friday, please read on.

Think of culture as a biologist would. In the biological sense, a culture provides and maintains an environment for a living thing to grow. An ideal environment for bacteria might not be an ideal environment for fungus. A particular type of living thing requires a particular type of culture. Similarly, in the business world, the type of environment (culture) you create will promote and facilitate the attainment of your business’s goal. Is your organization’s goal to gain market share by lowering your product’s price? Or, is your goal to develop the highest quality product on the market and charge a price premium for it? The attainment of each of these goals requires a different type of organizational culture.

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Most would say that Google is succeeding in this regard. But Google did not accomplish this goal with only one technological breakthrough or one phenomenal programmer. They accomplished it by creating and maintaining a culture that is conducive to the development of cutting-edge and user-friendly software. An effective corporate culture is the secret behind the company’s continued success. It is a competitive advantage, from which springs all its other competitive advantages.

People often characterize Google’s culture as innovative, but they can’t point to one element of the company that is responsible for it. That’s because there isn’t just one. Google’s culture is the product of consciously chosen attitudes, policies, values, aesthetics, leaders, texts, and technologies that all work together to propel the company towards its goal. Building this culture took a long time. It was difficult and expensive. But now it is nearly impossible for any other company to copy it.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, don’t run around hiring programmers or deciding which new product to launch. Their primary job as leaders at this point is to make strategic decisions and maintain the culture they’ve worked so hard to create. They know that their most important competitive advantage is the culture that they have engineered because it is a magnet for high-quality talent and practically secretes the software innovations necessary to maintain its leadership in the industry.

So, if your company is still coasting on one brilliant idea, customer relationship, or employee, beware. Now is the time to begin investing in an effective corporate culture uniquely built to help you reach your goals. It is not cheap. It is not easy. It takes conscious effort, time—not just months, but years—and significant resources to build and maintain. If you want to set your company apart from all the others, take culture seriously and start investing in it now.

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