Category Archives: research

Can Your Alliance Network Lift a Stealth Bomber Off the Ground?

Does this airplane look familiar?
1940s Stealth Bomber Image
Source: Wikipedia
As I recently wrote on Harvard Business Review blog network, it should, because it’s a predecessor of the famous Stealth Bomber, a prototype completed by Jack Northrop’s company in 1948. In his time, Northrop — the inventor of the flying wing concept — was considered to be the aerospace genius, but he was not able to deliver on his promise to the U.S. military. The revolutionary airplane you never got beyond the prototype.
In 1980, Jack Northrop, then age 85 and confined to a wheelchair, visited a secure facility to see the first B-2 Stealth Bomber — the most advanced military aircraft capable of flying at extremely high altitudes and avoiding radar detection.
1980s Stealth Bomber Image
Source: Wikipedia
Even after 40 years of technological development and use of sophisticated computer design tools, the new bomber looked like a replica of Northrop’s original design for the flying wing. Reportedly, after seeing the aircraft, Northrop said he now realized why God had kept him alive for so long.
So why did one model fail and the other succeed?  Part of the explanation can be found by comparing the different networks of alliances that Northrop’s company formed in the forties and in the seventies.
In 1941, his alliance network looked small and simple hub-and-spoke system. Otis Elevators worked on design, General Manufacturing and Convair provided production facilities. Notice that the partners don’t work with one another and the U.S. Army Corps was actually brought in to arbitrate a dispute between Northrop and Convair.
Northrup's Alliance Network, 1940s
In 1980, the alliance network was more complex and highly integrated.  Network partners worked with one another, jointly negotiating technical standards. Vought Aircraft designed and manufactured the intermediate sections of the wings, General Electric manufactured the engine, whereas Boeing handled fuel systems, weapons delivery and landing gear.   In addition, each main partner formed individual ties with other subcontractors specific to their areas of responsibility.
Northrup's Alliance Network, 1970s
As we discuss in our new book “Network Advantage”, networks like this have two main benefits.  First, alliance partners are more likely to deliver on their promises.  If information flows freely among interconnected partners, how one firm treats a partner can be easily seen by other partners to whom both firms are connected. So if one firm bilks a partner, other partners will see that and will not collaborate with the bilking firm again.
Second, integrated networks facilitate fine-grained information exchanges because multiple partners have relationships where they share a common knowledge base. This shared expertise allows them to dive deep into solving complex problems related to executing or implementing a project.
This is not to say that the hub-and-spoke network of the 1940s doesn’t have its uses. In fact, they are usually more effective at coming up with radical innovation than are complex, integrated networks. In a hub-and-spoke configuration it’s more likely that your partners will know stuff you don’t already know and combining new, distinct ideas from multiple spokes leads to breakthrough innovations for the hub firm.
But Northrop’s hub and spoke portfolio was not useful in 1940s, because he already had an innovative blueprint for the bomber. All Northrop needed to do was to build reliable manufacturing systems that would execute his ideas based on incremental improvements made by multiple partners at the same time.  That scenario called for the integrated network of the 1970s.
The key to choosing between the two types of network is to ask: do you already have a final idea that needs to be implemented with incremental improvements? Is it important that all of your partners trust each other and share knowledge in implementing your idea? If so, then the integrated alliance portfolio is right for you. If you are exploring different options and it is not critical that your partners trust one another, work together to develop and/or implement them, then the hub and spoke portfolio is the best.
You can read more about this and other network-related stories in my new book “Network Advantage: How to Unlock Value from Your Alliances and Partnerships”

Samsung Beats Blackberry in the Global Alliance Game

To the investors of Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of Blackberry, the recent years have been really disappointing. It lost the fight to Apple and Samsung. There may be several explanations to this failure, but one which particularly stands out is the failure of RIM to build a strong alliance network. Alliances and partnerships are the sources of “network advantage”–the ability to improve operating efficiency and increase product innovation by combining resources and knowledge with partners. We discuss how companies can benefit from their relationships with customers, competitors and suppliers in a new e-book “Network Advantage: How to Unlock Value From Your Alliances and Partnerships”. The print version of the book is available from January, 2014.

Let’s look at the alliance network of RIM. This picture is built by looking at the RIM’s alliance announcements between 2008 and 2011. Since these alliances happened a while ago, their positive or negative effects should be felt by now.

RIM is the firm at the centre of the picture and it has 4 (four!) alliance partners only. The alliance with the Royal Bank of Canada and Thompson Reuters (Woodbridge is its parent company) provided venture capital fund services to invest in mobile applications and services in Canada. The alliance with TiVo aimed at providing mobile television entertainment services for BlackBerry users globally. The alliance with NII Holdings Inc was to provide Blackberry Smartphone services in Latin America.

Did these alliances make sense? They sure did. But network advantage doesn’t come to firms who simply build alliances, it comes to firms who build better (and more) alliances than competition. 
Let’s compare RIM’s alliance network to what Samsung is doing with its alliances. Below is the picture of Samsung’s alliance network based on the announcements between 2008 and 2011:

Samsung works with Kia motors to build the car around its Galaxy tab, manufactures 4 G communication infrastructure in Russia, collaborates with Telstra to develop Internet TV for mobile devices, works with Nanosys to build better screens and batteries for smartphones using the nanotechnology. It works with Intel and Juniper on mobile security solutions and works with Korean Telecom (plus Intel) to transmit 3D signal through the mobile grid. It works with Dreamworks and Technicolor (Thompson) to develop 3D movies and viewing equipment. We might soon have 3D video enabled mobile phones!!!… Not to mention the fact that Samsung uses apps from Android platform for its phones. 
In short, the alliance network of Samsung allows it more (and cheaper) opportunities to innovate not only in hardware but also in content.
The sad story of RIM did not begin this year. It began several years ago when it failed to build a big enough network of alliances and partnerships to counter the network of Samsung (and of course the network of Apple). Samsung has excelled at the global alliance game and extracted its Network Advantage. Kudos to Samsung and condolences to RIM. May your company not repeat the RIM’s mistakes!

How to make your company more creative? Hire a senior executive who worked abroad.

Creativity is an important driver of competitive advantage for companies. One way your company can be more creative is to hire executives who worked abroad. These people are likely to offer non traditional solutions to your problems.

I recently did a study with Frederic Godart, Will Maddux and Adam Galinsky. We looked at how foreign working experience of fashion designers affected creativity of their collections. We found that fashion critics and buyers were more likely to view a designer’s fashion collection as creative, if this designer worked (or is currently working) abroad.

Apparently, working outside of your home country changes the way you think: by looking at how different people in different cultures solve problems differently, your brain learns to think about how to approach any business problem differently. If a problem is solved in France in one way, perhaps the Italians solve it in a different way. And you can perhaps think of the third way to solve the same problem–by combining the French and the Italian approach. Karl Lagerfeld is even reputed to work in Italy and France during the same day!

Working abroad also shapes your personal network. If you work in one country and then go work to another country, you become a bridge between professional communities in both countries. For example, a fashion designer who works in France gets to know other French designers and when she moves to work to Japan, she can get to know Japanese designers. If she still stays in touch with her French friends, she will know what is going on in French fashion world while she is working in Japan. And this knowledge will help her combine French and Japanese fashion influences in the future collections. Our study shows that such collections are seen as being very creative.

So, next time you are looking for a senior executive to fill a job that requires creativity and ability to innovate, look up their Linked-In profile. Does it indicate that the person worked in several different countries? If so, she or he is worth looking at, as this person is likely to be indeed creative.