It’s a whole new year and I figured that it is about time that I added to this sleeping blog. I’ve been a little occupied with schoolwork recently so forgive my extended hiatus.
There are many themes that emerge during the new year: hope, peace, luck…and the most common and reused: change. Many people associate new beginnings with change, perhaps because beginnings are usually associated with something different or new. Change is inevitable, and through it we have reached the heights (or depths) that we have now.
Change can come in many forms and ranges from simple choice about what new brand of soap to use to decisions that will define one’s life. It is not always planned, in fact, sometimes it just comes without warning. Changes are not always easy to accept, and the decisions often associated with them are difficult to make. One thing is for sure though, change is ever occurring, and will come whether you welcome it or not.
If you think that the choice you have to make with every change is difficult, try to imagine the kind of decisions corporations have to consider in order to address change. A recent discussion I had with one of my Japanese students rekindled my concerns for the electronics giant Sony. For the fourth straight year, the Japanese company has posted losses. Analysts attribute these losses with the rough global economy, a strong Yen and the myriad of natural disasters that have occurred recently.
My student, however, had a different take on the matter. While the previous setbacks have hampered the company’s competitive edge, he believed that the real reason behind the company’s losses was the very philosophy of Sony in the making of its products. I am inclined to agree with this perspective, as the economic downturn has affected most if not all of Sony’s competitors as well, and yet some of them were not as devastated by it. The March 11, 2011 earthquake and the Thailand floods both came fairly recently; the company has been losing revenue long before these happened. The brand’s products, while still maintaining the high quality that is esteemed for, has failed to engage the new market environment that has emerged in the recent years. The big question is: why?
According to my student, Sony’s TV line has maintained its adherence as a premium brand, and it prides itself with producing top-of-the-line products that emphasize durability and quality. Although these qualities are what many consumers look for in their products, this philosophy may not be applicable in the current consumer electronics paradigm.
Technology, more specifically consumer electronics technology, has been on steroids in the past decade. Electronics companies shell out new versions or iterations of similar products every year; not because they are trying to exploit the consumer, but because the technology is changing so fast that it is necessary to phase out older products in order to remain competitive. Unlike real estate and automobiles, electronic gadgets or appliances are relatively inexpensive, and as such, the typical consumer can more easily purchase new ones more often.
While Sony does try to keep up with this paradigm, it has admittedly slowed down in its innovations as opposed to its many competitors. Features that were supposed to make their brand unique are often released too late in that other companies have developed similar or superior features on their products. In addition to this, the company does not fully exploit its broad selection of products and services by not having enough interdependence among them. Sony has a lot to learn from Apple’s integration of its entire product line.
The final flaw in Sony’s approach to getting a better market share is that most of its products are often mediocre when compared to its more affordable counterparts. There are few points that make most of its products stand out, and for this reason many of the consumers do not feel the worth of a premium price. While some of its AAA products feature aesthetics and functions that are outstanding, there are not too many people who can afford a $30,000 TV.
For the company to survive and recover from its losses, Sony must understand that there is a need to change its approach when it comes to the development of its products. Times have changed, the market has changed and the paradigm has shifted. Many lessons can be learned from its many, many competitors and the company needs to avoid making the same mistakes that its rivals make (3DS vs PS Vita release prices). Quality has always been part of their identity, but in the age of fast-moving products, Sony must also address the speed of the technology’s growth while it strives to maintain its image as an electronics manufacturer that has quality worthy of a premium.
I’ve read many posts regarding hyperspecialization recently, and I’d like to have my take in the matter. When Henry Ford pioneered the assembly line that arguably stepped up the speed of the industrial revolution, he created a system that fostered efficiency through the collective effort of specialists. One group of people was in charge of welding, another painting, another quality control. Each had specific training that was very particular to the task they had. This highly successful system lasted with the turn of the millennium, and defines nearly all aspects of production and even other industries today.
Specialization does speed up production simply due to the division of labor. Due to the system of assigning particular tasks, it becomes easier to complete a job. Outside the production line, specialization is manifested in nearly all collective efforts: doctors cut you up, the nurse puts on your bandages and medical technicians operate your respirator. This system has proven effective, though there are downsides to it.
For one thing: it limits capabilities and development to a single field or discipline. Yes, it does not necessarily mean bad, but in situations that we have today like the financial crisis and major unemployment, it can be difficult to acquire work when there is a severe lack of opportunity. In the case of the Philippines, many trained doctors actually end up getting retrained to become nurses in order for them the get a job. This is just one of many other instances where having specialized knowledge can be an issue.
For what its worth though, specialization, and its offspring hyperspecialization, can still create opportunities despite the thinning of qualifications. Experts are still respected and needed, and their presence is still very well received in corporations. Quite often, companies shell out large sums of money in order to avail of the services of consultants who have a wider knowledge about narrower levels of specialization. In this case, we can see that there is an increase in the competitiveness among specialists, and therefore can lead to better output.
With the apparent solution to the lack of opportunity being a push to more general training, it may not be a mistake to go in the opposite direction. Hyperspecialization can increase one’s chances of retention or even promotion even in companies that are having difficulties. In the principles of human resources, one well-experienced, highly talented individual is worth more than even fifty ordinary individuals. Of course the competition will be tougher, but those that do make the cut will definitely deserve it.