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 / Autumn 2011 / Issue 64(originally published by Booz & Company)


How to Be a Truly Global Company

Many multinational business models are no longer relevant. Skillful companies can integrate three strategies — customization, competencies, and arbitrage — into a better form of organization.

During the high-growth years between 1992 and 2007, the globalization of commerce galloped at a faster pace than in any other period in history. Now, amid the chronic unemployment and anti-trade rhetoric of the post-financial-crisis world, some observers wonder whether globalization needs a time-out. However, the experience of multinational companies in the field suggests the opposite. For them, globalization isn’t happening rapidly enough. Whereas GDP growth has stalled in the industrialized world, consumption demand is still expanding in China, India, Russia, Brazil, and other emerging markets. The 1 billion customers of yesterday’s global businesses have been joined by 4 billion more. These customers reside in a much larger geographic area; three-quarters of them are new to the consumer economy, and they need the infrastructure, products, and services that only global companies provide.

The problem is not globalization, but the way our current institutions are set up to respond to this new demand. The prevailing corporate operating model does not work well with the structural changes that have taken place in the global economy.

Most companies are still organized as they were when the market was largely concentrated in the triad of the old industrialized world: the U.S., Europe, and Japan. These structures lead companies to continue building their global strategies around the trade-offs and limits of the past — trade-offs and limits that are no longer accurate or relevant.

One of the most prevalent and pernicious of these perceived trade-offs is the one between centrally driven operating models and local responsiveness. In most companies, an implicit assumption is at play: If you want to gain the full benefits of economies of scale — and to integrate common values, quality standards, and brand identity in your company around the world — then you must centralize your intellectual power and innovation capability at home. You must bring all your products and services into line everywhere, and accept that you can’t fully adapt to the diverse needs and demands of customers in every emerging market.

Alternatively (according to this assumption), if you want locally relevant distribution systems, with rapidly responding supply chains and the lower costs of emerging-market management, then you must decentralize your company and run it as a loose federation. You must move responsibilities for branding and product lineups to the periphery, and accept different trade-offs: more variable cost structures, fewer economies of scale, more diverse and incoherent product lines, and more inconsistent standards of quality.

Some companies try to use strict cost controls to manage these trade-offs. They put in place a decentralized operating model with some central oversight, usually augmented by outsourcing. But this is a tactical move based on expediency, rather than a global strategy. This approach leads to suboptimal results in today’s complex world.

Other false trade-offs are visible in the tension many companies experience between their current business model and the needs of the emerging markets they are entering. They wonder:

• Whether to serve existing customers in their home countries or new customers in emerging countries.

• Whether to meet competitive quality standards demanded by consumers in wealthy countries or offer just the “good enough” features that poorer customers can afford.

• Whether to pursue a strategy of premium or discount pricing.

• How to attract and retain resources and talent, which are perceived as draining away from emerging markets to the industrial world whenever employees are permitted to migrate.

• Whether, in using resources strategically, to follow the typical Western orientation (toward reducing labor and accumulating capital) or the view from emerging markets (where labor is inexpensive, capital is difficult to accumulate, and therefore it is worth investing in building large workforces for growth).

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  1. Jeffrey R. Immelt, Vijay Govindarajan, and Chris Trimble, “How GE Is Disrupting Itself,” Harvard Business Review, October 2009: Inside story of the GE Healthcare initiative to overcome “glocalization” and innovate within emerging economies.
  2. Jon R. Katzenbach and Jason A. Santamaria, “Firing up the Front Line,” Harvard Business Review, May–June 1999: On Marriott’s strategy.
  3. Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi, The Essential Advantage: How to Win with a Capabilities-Driven Strategy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011): The capabilities system resembles this article’s unity of platform.
  4. C.K. Prahalad, “The Innovation Sandbox,” s+b, Autumn 2006: Why arbitrage does not mean thoughtless substitution, but rather creative low-cost alternatives that transform conventional business practice.
  5. C.K. Prahalad and Hrishi Bhattacharyya, “Twenty Hubs and No HQ,” s+b, Spring 2008: First publication of the customization concept, with an operating model for transforming the headquarters–local office relationship.
  6. Ellen Pruyne and Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Pathways to Independence: Welfare-to-Work at Marriott International,” Harvard Business School Case Study 9-399-067: More detail about Marriott.
  7. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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