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


How to Be a Truly Global Company

The pricing structures reflected these realities. In India, for example, Reliance Industries Ltd. (a large nationwide conglomerate) sold Nokia and Motorola handsets for as little as $10, lowered call rates to two cents per minute for these phones, and sold prepaid cards that customers could use both to pay for and to ration their telephone use. It took skillful collaboration among cell phone manufacturers and carriers to accomplish the arbitrage needed for them to offer such prices. Manufacturers such as Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung offered their products, product knowledge, and R&D capability at a reduced cost; carrier companies such as Vodafone, China Mobile, and Airtel invested in cell phone towers and switching equipment with minimal return at first. Then Airtel in India took a hugely innovative step. Realizing that its own capital for network expansion was constrained, it brought in Ericsson, Siemens, Nokia, and IBM as network equipment and IT vendors, convincing them to forgo their ordinary fee structures. Instead, Airtel paid these companies on the basis of usage and revenue. Airtel thus converted fixed infrastructure costs to variable costs and improved its ability to offer low prices to customers.

Another form of arbitrage, deploying the most inexpensive marketing and distribution channel available, was an essential factor in creating a mass mobile phone market. Reaching people in remote Chinese or Indian villages was a huge challenge. Little grocery shops, often housed in temporary structures, were often the only commercial channels available to consumers there. These stores sold everyday-use products such as soap, cigarettes, and matchboxes. Instead of creating a new channel of dedicated telephone stores, the phone companies established partnerships with these outlets; they stocked and sold the prepaid cell phone cards. This would never have happened if the telcos had followed their old pricing and distribution models.

Bringing the Elements Together

Some companies recognize the benefits of customization; they are moving into new geographies through gateway countries. A growing number of companies are uniting around platforms of competencies. And, of course, many companies practice arbitrage. But until they join the few pioneers that combine these three elements, most companies will not get the full payoff of the new operating model. Indeed, the three cases described in the previous section are successful precisely because they integrated all three elements.

For example, GE Healthcare had to drop the price of its ultrasound machines by more than 90 percent in order to have its products accepted in emerging markets. Its solution involved not just customization, but arbitrage: It used an ordinary laptop computer instead of proprietary hardware. These machines did not have many of the features of their expensive counterparts, but they could perform such simple tasks as spotting stomach irregularities or enlarged livers or gallbladders. This made them critical tools for doctors at rural clinics. The laptop-based design, in turn, drew heavily on GE’s platform of competencies: specifically, experience with other projects that had shifted from using custom hardware to using standard computers. The new devices also incorporated breakthrough ideas from scientists in the GE system with deep knowledge of ultrasound technology and biomedical engineering.

Similarly, the McDonald’s story did not only involve unity around a platform. The company also saw the power of customization. Today, McDonald’s offers rice burgers in Taiwan, vegetarian entrees in India, tortillas in Mexico, rice cakes in the Philippines, and wine with meals in many European cities. McDonald’s also extended its already impressive arbitrage capabilities through sophisticated sourcing and distribution practices, tailored to each location’s opportunities.

The arbitrage in the Chinese and Indian mobile phone story also depended on the other two elements. Although the prices were low, the equipment was standard quality; networks had to seamlessly integrate with the world’s telecommunications systems. The companies involved, including the vendors such as Siemens, Motorola, and Ericsson, drew upon their platforms of proprietary knowledge to make it work. Everyone customized relentlessly, varying the payment plans, the amounts coded into phone cards, and the services offered to support the different needs and interests of telecom users in each country.

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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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