Disappearing Competitive Advantage. Is This Productivity?

Technology and competitive advantage. Sometimes it’s like one of those shell games. Does technology make our work better? Does it make it easier.

I have a theory. A lot of technology we work with (as in personal computers, etc.) gives us competitive advantage over a short term, until expectations catch up.

For example, hard as this will be to believe today, in the late 1970s and early 1980s working with word processing was an easy way to get competitive advantage. Some of the very big companies had it, and it was available in the university basements, but clients and professors didn’t take it for granted. So knowledge of, and access to, word processing was a huge competitive advantage. I was early on that curve, and it helped me a lot.

Soon that competitive advantage disappeared. The world got it. You can cut and paste, and move paragraphs. Fine. So write more. Write better. Has productivity increased?

And spreadsheets? Does anybody here remember financial modeling languages, such as Empire? Before spreadsheets boomed in the early-to-middle 1980s, I personally gained a lot of consulting mileage on pouring financial analyses out of a DEC TOPS-20 computer running the Empire financial modeling. The rest of the world assumed a whole lot of work was necessary to produce a whole lot of outcome, even when varying just a few of the input factors. It was easy to produce quantity output without much effort. And people were impressed. I had a real early adopter advantage.

But soon after that people in business recognized the power and utility of VisiCalc, SuperCalc, and then, in 1983, Lotus 1-2-3. Then came Microsoft Excel in 1984 (amazing fact: Excel was not always the market leader in spreadsheets; it was originally the upstart, dwarfed by Lotus 1-2-3).

So that competitive advantage disappeared. In a few years everybody in business assumed spreadsheets. Where the spreadsheet was a competitive advantage early on, it became an expectation. Now we want budgets. Lots of budgets.

In 1975, most of the business world did budgets on yellow pads with calculators. By 1985, we were all working with spreadsheets. Has productivity increased?

I was also an early adopter of desktop publishing. I had one of the first Macs. In 1985 McGraw-Hill took one of my early books straight to press from LaserWriter output, which we thought at the time was a first. I used desktop publishing for consulting reports, early documentation of software, marketing literature; and it, too, was clear competitive advantage.

But that too got old. It became second nature. Everybody took it for granted, so the bar went up, expectations were raised, and soon we all expected documents to look better. Has productivity increased?

And yes, slides. During my brief stint at McKinsey Management Consulting, in 1981, there was a whole department full of artists who did nothing but create the slides to go along with the consulting. The early Persuasion software on the Mac was a huge competitive advantage for me when it came out, about 1986, when I was on my own in consulting. Is PowerPoint (or Keynote) a competitive advantage anymore?

I was on CompuServe and the Source and AppleLink by 1984, and email was a competitive advantage. And it was faster, easier, and better.

I did Palo Alto Software’s first website at pasware.com in 1985, and that was competitive advantage.

I could go on with this theme.

Did the work get easier? Yes, for sure; but expectations got higher too.

Did we end up spending the same amount of time, just doing more of it?

Did productivity increase?

And, with that in mind, let me ask you: what about cell phones? What about my iPhone or your Blackberry, giving us both instant access to email at all times? What about instant messaging? Blogging? Facebook? Are we working today with equivalent new things that give us competitive advantage, but that will eventually raise the bar and become commonplace?


  • Frank says:

    I remember Empire, VisiCalc (on both an Apple ][ and TRS-80!), and Multiplan (predecessor to Excel), etc. We used Empire (running on a VAX) back in the early 80s not only for budgets, but also as a network modeling and capacity planning tool for the first public packet switching data network.

    Your comment about productivity is a great one. Before Empire, budgets were a one or two pass exercise, simply because of the manual effort involved to make changes and roll them up.

    With Empire, we created DCL scripts (batch files) to automatically consolidate department budgets. Once management found out how “easy” it was to tweak budgets and have them automatically roll-up, the changes were incessant. Did running a budget model one hundred times improve the quality of the budget? I doubt it.

  • Hmm says:

    You think you could at least tweet and digg your own article even once to get the count started.

  • Steve says:


    Lotus 123 was still the marketshare leader in spreadsheets until the early 90's. It's funny. When I joined Lotus in the early 80's people would ask me if it was some kind of yoga company.

    Then from the mid-80's until the late 80's we were almost like Google is today – everyone knew about us. I went back to my small hometown in Kansas in 1988 and because I was from Lotus I was treated like a returning hero.

    Then, of course, Micrsoft took over office applications and IBM acquired Lotus. Now when I tell people I used to work for Lotus they ask "was that some kind of yoga company?"


  • Luke Walsh says:

    Interesting point. The goal of any good productivity tool, online or off (PPT, Y! Calendar, Google SS, etc), is to make a person's life and work easier, and to do more in less time.

    Yet you've hit on the irony of this pursuit of the best tool – once the tool moves from early adopters to the mass market, everyone winds up working harder and faster to remain competitive in other ways.

    There is a tool that will stop all this nonsense, at least temporarily. It's a tool I like to call "the weekend". Well, sometimes.. 🙂

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