Given that almost anything a firm possesses can be considered a resource or capability, how should you attempt to narrow down the ones that are core competencies, and explain why firm performance differs? To lead to a sustainable competitive advantage, a resource or capability should be valuable, rare, inimitable (including nonsubstitutable), and organized. This VRIO framework is a foundational tool for internal analysis.1VRIO analysis is at the core of the resource-based view of the firm. Wernerfelt, B. (1984). A resource-based view of the firm. Strategic Management Journal, 5, 171–180. Barney, J. B. (1991). Firm resources and sustained competitive advantage. Journal of Management, 19, 99–120. It is developed to remind managers of the questions to ask when evaluating their firms’ resources and capabilities. The four questions of VRIO, which focus on value, rarity, imitation, and organization, are illustrated below:
If each question can be answered with a “yes,” then the resource or capability being evaluated can be the source of a competitive advantage for the firm.
If you ask managers why their firms do well while others do poorly, a common answer is likely to be “our people.” But this is really not an answer. It may be the start of an answer, but you need to probe more deeply—what is it about “our people” that is especially valuable? Why don’t competitors have similar people? Can’t competitors hire our people away? Or is it that there something special about the organization that brings out the best in people? These kinds of questions form the basis of VRIO and get to the heart of why some resources help firms more than others.
A resource or capability is said to be valuable if it allows the firm to exploit opportunities or negate threats in the environment. Union Pacific’s extensive network of rail-line property and equipment in the Gulf Coast of the United States is valuable because it allows the company to provide a cost-effective way to transport chemicals. Because the Gulf Coast is the gateway for the majority of chemical production in the United States, the rail network allows the firm to exploit a market opportunity. Delta’s control of the majority of gates at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) gives it a significant advantage in many markets. Travelers worldwide have consistently rated CVG one of the best airports for service and convenience. The possession of this resource allows Delta to minimize the threat of competition in this city. Delta controls air travel in this desirable hub city, which means that this asset (resource) has significant value. If a resource does not allow a firm to minimize threats or exploit opportunities, it does not enhance the competitive position of the firm. In fact, some scholars suggest that owning resources that do not meet the VRIO test of value actually puts the firm at a competitive disadvantage.2Barney, J. B. (1991). Firm resources and sustained competitive advantage. Journal of Management, 17, 99–120.
A resource is rare simply if it is not widely possessed by other competitors. Of the criteria this is probably the easiest to judge. For example, Coke’s brand name is valuable but most of Coke’s competitors (Pepsi, 7Up, RC) also have widely recognized brand names, making it not that rare. Of course, Coke’s brand may be the most recognized, but that makes it more valuable, not more rare, in this case.
A firm that possesses valuable resources that are not rare is not in a position of advantage relative to competitors. Rather, valuable resources that are commonly held by many competitors simply allow firms to be at par with competitors. However, when a firm maintains possession of valuable resources that are rare in the industry they are in a position of competitive advantage over firms that do not possess the resource. They may be able to exploit opportunities or negate threats in ways that those lacking the resource will not be able to do. Delta’s virtual control of air traffic through Cincinnati gives it a valuable and rare resource in that market.
How rare do the resources need to be for a firm to have a competitive advantage? In practice, this is a difficult question to answer unequivocally. At the two extremes (one firm possesses the resource or all firms possess it), the concept is intuitive. If only one firm possesses the resource, it has significant advantage over all other competitors. For instance, Monsanto had such an advantage for many years because they owned the patent to aspartame, the chemical compound in NutraSweet, they had a valuable and extremely rare resource. Because during the lifetime of the patent they were the only firm that could sell aspartame, they had an advantage in the artificial sweetener market. However, meeting the condition of rarity does not always require exclusive ownership. When only a few firms possess the resource, they will have an advantage over the remaining competitors. For instance, Toyota and Honda both have the capabilities to build cars of high quality at relatively low cost.3Dyer, J. H., Kale, P., & Singh, H. (2004, July–August). When to ally and when to acquire. Harvard Business Review, 109–115. Their products regularly beat rival firms’ products in both short-term and long-term quality ratings.Dyer, J. H., & Hatch, N. (2004). Using Supplier Networks to Learn Faster. Sloan Management Review, 45(3), 57–63. Thus, the criterion of rarity requires that the resource not be widely possessed in the industry. It also suggests that the more exclusive a firm’s access to a particularly valuable resource, the greater the benefit for having it.
An inimitable (the opposite of imitable) resource is difficult to imitate or to create ready substitutes for. A resource is inimitable and nonsubstitutable if it is difficult for another firm to acquire it or to substitute something else in its place. A valuable and rare resource or capability will grant a competitive advantage as long as other firms do not gain subsequently possession of the resource or a close substitute. If a resource is valuable and rare and responsible for a market leader’s competitive advantage, it is likely that competitors lacking the resource or capability will do all that they can to obtain the resource or capability themselves. This leads us to the third criterion—inimitability. The concept of imitation includes any form of acquiring the lacking resource or substituting a similar resource that provides equivalent benefits. The criterion important to be addressed is whether competitors face a cost disadvantage in acquiring or substituting the resource that is lacking. There are numerous ways that firms may acquire resources or capabilities that they lack.
As strategy researcher Scott Gallagher notes:
“This is probably the toughest criterion to examine because given enough time and money almost any resource can be imitated. Even patents only last 17 years and can be invented around in even less time. Therefore, one way to think about this is to compare how long you think it will take for competitors to imitate or substitute something else for that resource and compare it to the useful life of the product. Another way to help determine if a resource is inimitable is why/how it came about. Inimitable resources are often a result of historical, ambiguous, or socially complex causes. For example, the U.S. Army paid for Coke to build bottling plants around the world during World War II. This is an example of history creating an inimitable asset. Generally, intangible (also called tacit) resources or capabilities, like corporate culture or reputation, are very hard to imitate and therefore inimitable.”4Retrieved January 30, 2009, from http://falcon.jmu.edu/~gallagsr/WDFPD-Internal.pdf.
The fourth and final VRIO criterion that determines whether a resource or capability is the source of competitive advantage recognizes that mere possession or control is necessary but not sufficient to gain an advantage. The firm must likewise have the organizational capability to exploit the resources. The question of organization is broad and encompasses many facets of a firm but essentially means that the firm is able to capture any value that the resource or capability might generate. Organization, essentially the same form as that taken in the P-O-L-C framework, spans such firm characteristics as control systems, reporting relationships, compensation policies, and management interface with both customers and value-adding functions in the firm. Although listed as the last criterion in the VRIO tool, the question of organization is a necessary condition to be satisfied if a firm is to reap the benefits of any of the three preceding conditions. Thus, a valuable but widely held resource only leads to competitive parity for a firm if they also possess the capabilities to exploit the resource. Likewise, a firm that possesses a valuable and rare resource will not gain a competitive advantage unless it can actually put that resource to effective use. Many firms have valuable and rare resources that they fail to exploit (the question of imitation is not relevant until the firm exploits valuable and rare resources).
SWOT and VRIO
As you already know, many scholars refer to core competencies. A core competency is simply a resource, capability, or bundle of resources and capabilities that is VRIO. While VRIO resources are the best, they are quite rare, and it is not uncommon for successful firms to simply be combinations of a large number of VR _ O or even V _ _ O resources and capabilities. Recall that even a V _ _ O resource can be considered a strength under a traditional SWOT analysis.
Imagine that you are a top manager for Starbucks and you want to understand why you are able to be successful against rivals in the coffee industry. You make a list of some of Starbucks’ resources and capabilities and use VRIO to determine which ones are key to your success. These are shown below.
You look at your list and decide to pick a few of the entries to evaluate with VRIO, as shown below:
According to the evaluation above, Starbucks’ brand helps it compete and succeed against rivals, as does its excellent customer service. However, simply having a lot of locations globally isn’t enough to beat rivals—McDonald’s and Subway also have thousands of worldwide locations, and both serve coffee. Starbucks succeeds against them because of their brand and customer service.
Management 2020 text remixed from multiple sources under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. View a complete list of original sources.