The Long-Term Fix to US Competitiveness

Participants at a Harvard Business School event were urged by professors Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin to chart a new path forward to improve US competitiveness.
by Stephanie Schorow & Harvard Gazette

At an event at Harvard Business School that was three parts analysis and one part rally, participants tried to chart a new path forward for the sluggish US economy—a move that may require a new definition of "competitiveness."

Highlighting the panel discussions Wednesday on "US Competitiveness: Paths Forward," an HBS initiative, was an appearance by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who was brought in by wheelchair but rose to his feet to speak about how the city could be a model for the nation.

"I believe that for America to be more competitive, it must be more collaborative," Menino said. "This approach delivered results for our city. It will also deliver results to our country."

The mayor cited development of the South Boston waterfront and the creation of summer jobs for youth. "Just look at what happened after the Marathon attack," he said. "City, state, and federal official worked together to collect evidence, keep our city safe, and bring the bombers to justice. Everyone put their egos aside.

"Sometimes I wonder if Washington is capable of doing the same," Menino added. "We have to put away this Democrat-Republican nonsense. They get elected to help people, but it's criminal those people in Washington don't work together, don't speak together."

Likewise, Michael E. Porter, Bishop William Lawrence University Professor, and Jan W. Rivkin, Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Business Administration, each led spirited discussions on how HBS alumni could play an active role in the national debate, countering the "circus" in D.C.

“People who should be allies are at cross-purposes with each other.”

"We are trying to understand what we can do to actually move the needle on both the quality of the debate and the facts underlying the debate and the political choices and compromises that we can make," said Porter.

While many people say the country needs to be more competitive, "we don't have a robust and common understanding of competitiveness," he said. "What this means is that people who should be allies are at cross-purposes with each other."

The US Competitiveness Project put forth this definition: "The United States is a competitive nation to the extent that firms operating in the U.S. can compete successfully in the global economy while supporting high and rising living standards for the average American."

Republicans may focus on the global economy angle, Democrats on the living standards, but "competitiveness occurs when we do both together," Porter said.

Rivkin put the issue in historical context: "We worried at the beginning of the Industrial Age that the advent of mass production would mean there would be no jobs for the vast majority of the population, but we reinvested and gained productivity and expanded the economy."

Innovation has driven the country's strength in world markets and quality of life, said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration, a panel moderator. "But that strength has to be nurtured."

She added, "We count on start-ups for job growth in America. Start-ups turn out to be more successful when they are also linked to a rich ecosystem of partnerships and collaborations."

Three panelists outlined some of those collaborations. Mary L. Fifield, president of Bunker Hill Community College, described that school's partnership with a consortium of local businesses to create the Learn and Earn program, in which students work a day or two a week at a major corporations, receive mentorship, and are matched with a "work buddy." The model should be scaled up to include the state's other 14 community colleges, she said.

Gregory Bialecki, secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, acknowledged that government is used to making rules, not partnerships, and that state officials must now learn to "be more collaborators and not order givers."

Gerald Chertavian, founder and CEO of Year Up, focused on how education must respond to workforce needs. Today 6.7 million 16-to 24-year-olds with a high school education are out of school and out of work, he said. Yet, "Thirty percent of jobs in this country are middle-skilled jobs, which means you need a high school degree but not necessarily a four-year degree."

Any discussion of the US economy must include an analysis of the debt, and Robert Kaplan, the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development Emeritus, cheerfully admitted he would provide "the gloomy panel" with David Walker, founder and CEO of Comeback America Initiative. The picture they painted was gloomy, indeed.

"The bottom line is that the government has grown too big, promised too much, waited too long to restructure, and it needs to restructure sooner rather than later," Walker said. He said the government lacks three things taught in every management 101 class: a plan, a budget, and metrics for performance. "We're zero for three - that's called a strike out."

About the Author

Stephanie Schorow writes for the Harvard Gazette, where this article first appeared.
Katie Koch writes for the Harvard Gazette, where this article first appeared.

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Tim Gieseke
    • President, The EcoCommerce Company
    I agree with all said, but I think the underlying component to a plan, a budget, metrics and collaboration is shared governance. I don't mean nice and get-along sharing for its own sake, but shared governance that emerges from the integration of business, government and citizens. In my agro-ecocommerce work, I created a shared governance compass to provide context. Think of the points of a compass using public, private, practitioner and policy-maker aspects and how this creates four sectors of governance.
    • AdeloVant
    • Technology Innovation Analyst, retired
    Republicans focus on businesses' special interest.
    Democrats focus on social fringe special interest.

    Most politicians / C*Os (not all) have not focused on the special interest of US for decades.
    Republican, Democrat, Independent ... politicians / C*Os treat each other as sycophants.

    We The People are naturally collaborative; but our politicians, C*Os, and social reward systems (respect, recognition, benefits, awards, pay ...) remain focused on personal-profit not community achievements. We The People are (IMO) viewed as the cancer / problem, which can only be solved by more political aggrandizing hubris and outrageous odorous oratory prose that pits People against People as realistic problem cures. Most politicians / C*Os (not all) say far too much and do nothing that might be wrong (or possibly right).

    Remove all ideologues (delusional liberals ... conservative bigots) from local and national governments. Then remove corporate, religious ... institutional special interest edits (hooks, pork ...) of laws.

    Then start rebuilding We The People enfranchisement with an annual voters holiday for all elections.
    The first Wednesday in November (not a long weekend holiday) set as annual Voters' holiday would be a good start to making US far more collaborative, enfranchised, and competitive.

    Unrepresented people are slaves and unaccountable leaders are masters, cannot make a collaborative, enfranchised, and competitive community.
    • Will Wilkin
    • Co-Owner-Operator, Made In USA Solar LLC
    Every word in this article rings true as a great starting point for thinking about reviving American prosperity. But as Americans we should be careful about putting so much faith in "major corporations" that have in fact become international enterprises with zero loyalty to the USA. This is where the article lacks the necessary dimension of recognizing how disastrous so-called "free trade" policies have been: offshoring and outsourcing American manufacturing to make the top executives and shareholders richer than ever as reward for dismantling America's productive economy. The "circus in Washington" is the coin-operated government wherein both parties have been bought by these globalized corporations. To give the illusion of democratic choice, the 2 major parties throw us irrelevant culture war while behind the scenes they are in lock-step letting the globalized corporations write disastrous "
    free trade" policies.
    • Peter Lee
    • Mg Consultant, Remuneration Data Specialists Pte Ltd
    I agree that COLLABORATION is the key.

    The much vaunted pay-for-performance syndrome with all its pitfalls has over-emphasised the importance of individualism & has been used even in lots of context where teamwork & collaboration is what is needed, causing internal divisiness and anti-synergistic outcomes.

    America needs to re-examine the value that "the individual is king" and realise that it is killing work & business productivity; the reality is that for most work and business situations, it should be "one for all & all for one" instead. The hang-up over socialist idealogies need to be re-examined.
    • Malefetsane
    • Manager: Internal Audit, SekelaXabiso (South Africa)
    The topic of dicussion is very relevant and has come at a right time. I would like to focus on one aspect of the solution that the thought leaders have touched on - education.

    I believe that the USA focuses too much on training and producing graduates in fields that do not contribute significantly in building economies i.e. the focus is on producing lawyers, bankers and business consultants. Now, when you few engineers, scientists, technologists and technicians where will the lawyer get clients; whose money will the banker be investing; and to whom will the business consultant be giving advisory services?

    Increase student enrollment and throughput in areas that matter economically and this will help American firms to become relevant beyond the borders of this country. Don't the Silicon Valley be obsolete first before you come with another brilliant economic idea.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    A collaborative spirit can bring about wonderful results. One plus one is two but one and one is eleven as well.When we leave our political games behind and move together to compete globally, that's what happens.
    Alas! politics has become a dirty game and each group tries level best to show down the other even when the issue is something non- political, economy-related for example and hence nothing to do with political ideologies ! We quarrel unnecessarily and who loses? The Nation. Politicians need to rise above their selfish motives and instead deal with issues objectively. Unity is strength..
    This state of affairs does not relate to US only. Other countries are sailing in similar boats and they too need to derive lesson from what the thoughts in this research paper teach.