Most businesses are familiar with the term “competitive advantage”--this is when an organization does something better than its competitors, resulting in increased profitability. Often we consider physical resources as being the drivers of competitive advantage. A company that has better raw materials can produce higher quality products, products with superior technology outsell competitors' offerings, and lean firms that can produce products more efficiently see the benefits of lower costs and higher profits.
But what if your firm's biggest resource is actually its people?
Stanford researcher Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that organizations can gain a competitive advantage over other firms through their people. That is, when firms hire high quality employees, train them well, empower them to make decisions, treat them fairly, and reward them properly, the result is higher performance and stronger employee commitment. This is especially true in today's knowledge-based and service-based economy, in which the efforts of individual employees can make a big difference in organizational outcomes.
How can your firm achieve this competitive advantage through people? Empirical research from dozens of studies of organizations over the past two decades can guide us. This research demonstrates some of the key components that enhance employee capabilities and motivation. Some are quick and inexpensive to implement, such as the use of structured interviews for hiring, while others require a more long-term strategy, such as creating a culture of empowerment.
No matter your timeline or budget, most firms can benefit from even a few small changes to their management to most effectively leverage their workforce.