Sunday, October 31, 2010

Alternative Strategies

We're talking about the Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS) (see previous posts for background).  The second approach in the BOS is to look across alternative strategies to identify potential blue oceans. An example in the automotive industry would be manufacturers of expensive luxury cars vs. low budget, practical cars. Two different groups of customers exist within a larger industry. The luxury car makers (BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar) compete with each other, but not with the low budget car manufacturers. A blue ocean strategist might combine some of the luxury features with more practical aspects in an intermediate-priced car--and potentially creating a new market.

An example of a company that merged alternative strategies in an industry is Curves, a popular women's fitness company. They looked across strategies in the fitness industry and came up with a combination of health club and home exercise program.  They reasoned that women who were struggling to stay fit avoided health clubs where they were intimidated by complicated exercise machines and hated being scrutinized by men. Women who used home exercise videos could work out in private at a fraction of the cost of a health club and with little or no equipment.

The reason women switch from home exercise to health clubs is because of the difficulty of sticking to an exercise routine at home alone. Curves combined the advantages of the two exercise strategies and eliminated all other aspects (complicated machines, pools, spas, locker rooms). They established a club for women where  hydraulic exercise machines (simple and nonthreatening) are arranged in a circle to promote socializing. Few mirrors are on the walls to remind customers of their less-than-perfect bodies.  Women move around the room to different machines at their own pace. The routine can be completed in 30 minutes. The cost is more than a home exercise video, but a fraction of a normal health club membership.  They created a blue ocean--one that has been highly successful.

What might be a situation in science analogous to the automotive and fitness examples described above?  We might consider the expensive, complicated research program vs. a research field that uses inexpensive, simpler methods.  For example, we might combine molecular biology (with expensive instruments, complicated or meticulous laboratory techniques, specialized knowledge) and ecology (with few or no instruments, simple or less demanding methods, and basic knowledge).  We might also combine basic and applied research approaches.  An ecologist might be studying how "nurse" plants facilitate establishment and growth of other plant species (by trapping seeds or ameliorating environmental conditions).  The initial interest is in understanding how natural ecosystems function and specifically plant-plant interactions.  By incorporating molecular techniques into a basic ecological study, one might gain better insight into the underlying mechanism of facilitation.  Different genotypes within a nurse species might vary in their "nurse" characteristics due to morphological or other features.  Such genotypic differences could be exploited to identify suitable nurse plant material for use in ecosystem restoration projects at sites where environmental conditions are stressful to the target species to be restored.  The genotypes identified in the laboratory would then be field tested and evaluated using standard ecological methods.  The results could be used to guide restoration of disturbed or degraded ecosystems.  Ecosystem restoration sites could be prepared by introducing the selected nurse genotype(s), which might promote natural recruitment of the target species or modify the site for later planting (reducing overall project costs).  The work would address basic science questions related to plant-plant interactions, but also address important applied aspects.  An ecologist might team up with a molecular biologist and perhaps seek funding from sources that they would not normally consider or be successful with separately. Or, the ecologist could acquire the knowledge and some basic equipment to incorporate a few molecular techniques into their repertoire.

In the past, scientists trained in different disciplines rarely talked, much less interacted to address a research question.  Although this segregation is dissolving, many ecologists, geologists, microbiologists, etc. are still working primarily within their disciplines and do not seek partnerships with those outside their specialty.  However, that interface between scientific disciplines is one place where blue oceans exist.  If you take a look at major breakthroughs in science, often one sees the collaboration of two or more disciplines.  Many of our most difficult scientific and societal challenges (environmental pollution, climate change) will require multi-disciplinary teams combining disparate knowledge, methods, and approaches to come up with viable solutions. 

So to summarize:  the key is to identify alternative strategies (e.g., scientific disciplines) that when combined lead to a blue ocean--one in which there is little or no competition--at least in the beginning.  Once your approach or idea is published, others will follow.  However, you will have a head-start on the crowd and hopefully will be well-established as a leader in this new field by the time the competition catches up.

Image credit: (modified from a photo by M. Smith)

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