Competitive research strategy: Analysing factors toward leading research

Research world is very competitive, especially today, where resources (such as articles and technical/scientific reports) are abundant, and relatively easy and cheap to access. Like in industry, to be competitive in research, we need to have a strategy.

Competitive research strategy: Analysing factors toward leading research

Research world is very competitive, especially today, where resources (such as articles and technical/scientific reports) are abundant, and relatively easy and cheap to access. Like in industry, to be competitive in research, we need to have a strategy.

In this post, a method to analyse factors to design a competitive research strategy will be presented and discussed. The method is directly inspired by the Porter’s five forces to analyse industry competitiveness [1].

The presented method to analyse factors affecting competitive research is very structured and we argue that there are six forces that directly shape our research instead of five forces like those in Porter’s strategy for competitive industry.

By the end of this post, we will understand how to analyse factors that affect our research. And then, based on the factor analyses we can define a competitive research strategy so that we can perform leading research that satisfy our goals.


READ MORE: Is research expensive?


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What is strategy for conducting research?

Talking about strategy, Michael Porter is the first name to think about. He has formulated an elegant explicit structure (framework) to analyse five factors or forces that shape the competitiveness of an industry [1].

From the forces analyses, a company can design a strategy to become competitive in their respective industry and then can have high profit margin.

The work of Porter is directly built on top of the conceptual formulation of corporate strategy proposed by Andrews in [2].

In the conceptual corporate strategy, Andrew formulates a strategic planning to involve the analysis of the structure of a target industry and the position of a target company with respect to the target industry and its competitors.

Then, Porter elaborates and defines the “structure” as five forces framework that can be used to systematically analyse the competitiveness of a target industry.

That is, this post will be based on Porter’ five forces framework. From this framework, we will tailor and modify to fit a specific industry of research.

Unit of analysis and business

The basic unit of analysis in this post is research industry. Meanwhile, the basic unit of business is the research nature of organisation/business, that are commercial industry, academia/university, private research centre and government research centre.

These four different businesses have significant business operation differences among them, at least in term of:

  • Profit or non/semi-profit organisation.
  • Government-backed or private organisation.
  • Research focus with respect to technology readiness level (TRL) levels.

A non-profit or government-backed research business or operation will focus on novelty of the science to make a new groundbreaking invention. Usually, this groundbreaking invention is low level TRL research (TRL 1-3).

A Low-level TRL for fundamental research requires capital intensive of which likely to be funded by government. There will be a significant period in order to bring this fundamental research results into a market-ready products to sell and create profits.

Commonly, government-funded research activities do not have high pressure from shareholder (which in this case the government itself) to produce results that can bring profits to an organisation within a relatively short period of research.

On the other hand, profit organisations, such as commercial industry, commonly focus on high level TRL (TRL 6-9) research. Because the commercial industry needs to create high-quality products with competitive advantages and to market the products for profits. In addition, very often, the amount of research fund in industry will be less than fund availability by government (except for giant and rich companies).

In addition, research activities performed by profit organisations are usually highly driven by market needs and by competitions to improve products competitiveness and profit margin. Hence, there are high-pressure on the organisation to produce results within a relatively short research period.

That is why those three differences in the business operation characteristics mentioned above will significantly influence the affecting forces acting on the research activities and shape the competitive strategy for the research.

Competitive strategy

Strategy is not about to be “the best”! [1]

The reason is that “the best” in research (and in everything) is relative. It can be the best in terms of most cost-efficient research or the best ground-breaking results or the best research team or the best ready-to-market research or other criteria.

That is, strategy is about positioning!

Strategy is to decide where we want to position our research focus and goal.

Do we want to position our research activity and goal to be the most efficient research with limited funding and time availability but maximum impact to products and generate high profit margin to the company?

Do we want to position our research as a ground-breaking and fundamental discoveries research with a full funding from a government?

Do we want to position our activities as applied research that can directly improve the quality and performance of a market-ready products and can be done within a not very long period?

And other alternative research focus and goal that we want to position our research on.

We need to select our position (focus and goal) in order to then set up the competitive strategy for our research.

We cannot focus on all types of research activities. Otherwise, we do not have a strategy!

To understand our research performance with respect to our research positioning strategy (focus and goal), we need to benchmark our research performance with, of course, our direct competitor as well as with respect to the average performances of the similar research field in the same business or organisation types.

If our research performance, in term of output productivity, is below our research industry standard regardless whether our research produces expected results, then this underperformance may indicate our research activity is not efficient.

For Government, in order to assess whether their research activities (either funding other organisations to perform the research or perform the research by government institutions) have a good impact for the country, there are at least two important indicators to look at:

  • The research is performed inside the countries using their local people and resources (including materials, technology and other type of research facilities).
  • The research outputs help industries growth and then improve the average salary of the worker within the industry specifically, and the nation generally.

READ MORE: Research as value and economy creation activities


Analysing the factors (forces)

As mentioned before, this analysis of factors, shaping our research strategy, is based on the Porter’s five forces [1]. The five forces factors are adjusted to represent specific stakeholder terms in research industry.

Specifically, for research there are six forces instead of five. The additional factor or forces is the government.

We argue that in research, government has a tight role in research compared to with industry. With industry, government is a separate entity acts as the regulator between consumers and industries (as producers).

However, in research, government also involve as player and is an entity that is tightly coupled with certain research organisation, such as public research institute and universities that are considered as large organisation.

Figure 1 below shows the six factors or forces that affect the competitiveness of our research. In figure 1, the six factors are state-of-the-art research in the fields, competition from other research groups/institutes, the bargaining power of researcher, the bargaining power of funder, threats that the field is obsolete and the government.

Figure 1: The six factors or forces that affect the competitiveness of our research.

In general, the basic behaviour of each six factor or force is as follows:

  • State-of-the-art research in the fields

This force is the natural factor that shape research. Every research pursues the novelty aspect in their field. However, this force will be directly limited by the amount of available funding, the limitation of research facilities and their researcher. In addition, time is also critical as there is a chance that other research groups may publish their results first.

  • Competition from other research groups/institutes

The force of research competitors puts pressure on the time availability for performing research. If research require a long time, there may be a possibility that other research group may get results first and then published them and cause our research to be absolute and is not publishable anymore.

  • The bargaining power of researcher

Researcher capabilities, such as experiences, and facilities/equipment can be the bargaining power for generating fund. The more experience and prominent, a researcher in the field, the higher the chance of getting fund. Regarding research facilities, usually, government or funder are keen to provide fund or support research for a group with good research facilities. Because good research facilities will bring high possibility to produce a good research as well.

  • The bargaining power of funder

Funder has a limited amount of money to support research. However, usually there is also a high expectation from the funder to get the best research results. of course, the amount of the fund will affect the ability of a research to give expected results. This trade-off between the amount of funding availability and expected results will affect the strategy for research.

  • Threats that the field is obsolete

Many research activities are related to improving a product/functionality performance (TRL 7-9). This product or functionality may be absolute in near future due to for example no demand of the product due to a substitute. And hence, the value of the research may become low, for example, commercially.

On the other hand, fundamental research in, for example physics, math, chemistry and biology/medicine, may have results that are long lasting, such as a physic law. However, performing fundamental scientific research (TRL 1-3) usually require a great amount of fund and time.

  • The government.

In research, government has a central and integral role. Especially, government should have a strong involvement in fundamental research (TRL 1-3) and applied research toward a working prototypes or demonstrator (TRL 4-6). Government can directly affect research activities within a country regardless of in what business/organisation the research activities are carried out. In addition, government also can indirectly affect the other factors via the government’s research vision and policy.


READ MORE: The most important tools for research


Analysing the factors (forces) for each basic unit of business

We will briefly discuss the impact of each force on each unit business of analysis (commercial industry, academia/university, private research centre and government research centre) to give some ideas on how these forces acting on different research business as follows.

State-of-the-art research in the fields

Commercial (for profit) industry. State-of-the-art research may be not the main focus for commercial industry. Because, very often, they focus on applied and mature research to improve their product performances as well as reducing operational cost (TRL 7-9). The main focus is to be able to improve the profit margin of the product. Time and fund for the research will be limited and are narrowly focused on their specific product performances or functionality. The research fund exclusively comes from the industry profits.

Academia/university. In academia, i.e. university, the focus is to produce state-of-the-art research results and heavily address the scientific aspects on the research (TRL 1-3). In addition, since the main research activities are at low TRL level, pressure to produce results that are directly mature or market-ready is low.  In addition, a huge support from government from public funding makes it possible to pursue the fundamental state-of-the-art aspect in research.

Private (for profit) research centre. Private research centres are usually focus on applied research (TRL 4-6). This applied research focuses on producing a proof of concept or functional prototyping or demonstrator built on top of the results from fundamental research activities (TRL 1-3). In this case, the state-of-the-art knowledge follows the results from the previous fundamental research and improve on top of it by adding more engineering aspects on the knowledge to produce the functional prototype or demonstrator. The funding usually comes from both public (government) and private organisation supporting commercial industries that may not have research capabilities to improve their product.

Government research centre. Government concerns on the fundamental state-of-the-art research to achieve their long-term development and economic goals. Government-backed research has a long-term vision and long period to perform research. The state-of-the-art research is instrumental for the nation’s leadership in both technology and economic. In addition, government also interested in policy related research that will affect the research ecosystem in the country.

Competitions from other research groups/institutes

Commercial (for profit) industry. Competition has a significant role in shaping the research strategy in industry. Lose in the competition could mean the end of a company and its work force. Efficient and focus research should be pursued to be able to improve their product in short time with low research cost to keep good profit margin of the products. Research should be expected at least several month period to produce results.

Academia/university. There are research competitions in academia. However, the worst case of the competition does not mean the closure of university. Research competitions are mainly to claim the leadership of research in a research group. This research leadership will significantly help in getting funding in future, either from government or industry.

Private (for profit) research centre. The impact of research competition for private research centre is also significant but is still less compared to commercial industries. However, losing in research competition may lead to lower-rate chance of wining future research projects from industry (and also government) and can threat the existence of the private research institute.

Government research centre. The competition for government research has a very high impact on the nation’s economy and technology leadership. However, this impact will be realised after, may be, more than 10 years. Losing the competition in research from another country, in long term will be very detrimental. For example, when a government lose the competition of AI research to other countries, then in future many top AI industries may not invest in the country and reallocate their investments to another country with leading AI research.

Bargaining power of researcher

Commercial (for profit) industry. In industry, usually those who carry the research and development activities are salaried employees (engineer and researcher). For these employees, they mostly will follow what the company assigned them to do. Except for special experience researchers, they may negotiate a salary adjustment when there are strategic projects that they need to lead on.

Academia/university. In academia, there are two main researcher types, the academic, such as professors and the research fellows. Research fellows as an employee typically do not have too much bargaining power. However, for professors, especially those that lead the fields, will have some bargaining power to negotiate a research contract.

Private (for profit) research centre. Very often, since this research organisation very often focuses on working demonstrator or prototyping (acting as a bridge from fundamental research to market-ready product research), they will depend on industry and government to get project as well as their research competency will depend on other fundamental research results obtained from other research groups. This dependency will reduce their bargaining power in negotiatiing research contract.

Government research centre. Government research institutes mostly only receive direct funding from the Government. Hence, this factor/force may have low influence on government research centre.

In general, for research facilities (including equipment), if a research group has a niche research facility, regardless of what business or organisation it is, this research group can have significant power to negotiate a research contract as there may be a possibility that only their research group with their special and/or specific facilities are capable to perform specific research activities.

Bargaining power of funder

Commercial (for profit) industry. The main source of funding of commercial industry is from their profit after selling their products or services. Hence, the main limitation for their funding is how well their products or services are sold to customers and how much their profit margin. In most companies, except for very large (rich) companies such as Google, Toyota, and other tech and manufacturing giants, there will be limited research and development budget. Hence, in this situation (for small company) the force of bargaining power of funder will be very large and otherwise for giant and rich companies.    

Academia/university. Academia or university is mostly a stable organisation (except for very few) that has a stable income, either from tuition fee, government funding and research projects. The pressure to get research projects to generate income for paying the salary of the staff may not be as high as in commercial industries and private research centres. Very often, the acquisition of external research projects is required for researcher or academic career progression and not for the survival of the university.

Private (for profit) research centre. The acquisition of research projects is very important in this organisation as mostly, all payrolls or employee’s salary come from the profit of doing research projects. Since the acquisition of projects are related to the organisation’s survival, the funder will have a huge bargaining power to pressure private research institute in a contract negotiation.

Government research centre. Government will directly support their research institutes. Hence, similar to the bargaining power of researcher, this factor/force may have low influence on government research centre.

Threats that the field is obsolete

Current technologies will have a certain lifetime in the sense that there will be a time when other technologies will completely substitute the current technologies. The substitution may come from a new significantly improved version of the technology or a completely new technology that can deliver the same function better and more efficient than the current technologies.

For example, the technology of combustion engine for cars will likely to be replaced by electric motors for cars, classical generative machine learning models (utilising optimisation of an objective function) have been replaced by generative adversarial network GAN and diffusion machine learning models, traditional mobile phones have been replaced by touch-screen mobile phones and many other examples.

This limited technology lifetime will put pressures on how long the technology will be adopted so that the research expenses from a research business or organisation to develop the technology can be covered.

Commercial (for profit) industry. The lifetime of a technology will significantly affect the research performed in industry. If the lifetime of a technology is considered to be short, most likely, the research around the near obsolete technology will be cut as there will be a risk the research expenses will be not paid back due to the technology demands drop and hence reduce profits.

Academia/university. Usually, in academia, research groups will continue performing research on their expertise while also at the same time are researching a new completely potential technology to develop (especially if the funding is from government). Even though a technology is considered to be near its lifetime, research supporting the technology may still be performed as the outputs of the research are not to bring financial profit to the research group.

Private (for profit) research centre. The research in private research centre will directly be affected by the state of technologies that their research supports. This research centre will likely to find or select research that support a technology for as long as possible even if they have to change their research direction significantly.

Government research centre. Research performed by governmental research institutes will be directly affected by the government research vision. This research vision usually focusses on long term estimate of what the future of technology will be needed. Government usually is not interested to support or fund research in a field that is already or almost outdated.

Government

Commercial (for profit) industry. In general, there will be indirect influence from the government to commercial research. Because the main driver of commercial research is based on market needs or marketed products. The government can have some influences to steer commercial research in the term of tax cut if a commercial organisation perform research in a government-interested topic.

Academia/university. In academia, government is perhaps one of, if not the main, important funding source. Especially in academia, low level TRL 1-3 research are mainly performed. This low level TRL research is capital intensive without the guarantee when the research can be brought to market. Government research policy will significantly steer the research direction in academia.

Private (for profit) research centre. Also, in private research centre, for TRL 4-6 research, government is still very influential as many projects at this TRL level are still funded by government. Government project usually focus on future technologies. In this case, most likely, the research project will not focus on supporting technologies that are near obsolete.

Government research centre. In the case for government itself, they will decide their own research since the funding is from them self. Their research decision is based on the government long term science and technology vision. This vision is usually obtained from analysing future technology trends (as well as the nation capabilities) and benchmarking with other advanced nations.


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Selecting a competitive strategy

By knowing what factors or forces that really influence the research on each research organisation or business, a competitive research strategy can be determined. Porter sets the three general strategy that can be adopted, they are cost-leadership, differentiation and focus [1].

Competitive research strategy is about positioning our research activity for a specific research goal and specific need.

This research positioning is selected based on the strength of the forces affecting the research in an organisation. For example, funding availability, researcher expertise and facility, government policy and support, market demands as well as the vision to pursue new technologies.

For research, the generic strategy will be the same with those presented by Porter with some adjustments applied.

The general competitive research strategy based on the Porter’s three general strategies (Of course, in reality, there will be overlapping among these three general competitive research strategies) are as follows.

Research for process efficiency (derived from “cost-leadership” strategy)

In this strategy, research is focused on how to improve the efficiency of a process. By improving the efficiency of the process, it is expected that the total production cost will be reduced and hence can reduce the cost of a product or service and then can improve the profit margin of the products or services.

Some several examples of this type of research focus (or positioning) are such as research on how to improve a manufacturing productivity of current technologies by optimising some parameters, how to improve the scheduling system of current parallel processes and services, how to improve current algorithms to be more robust and to reduce calculation error and uncertainty and how to reduce the logistics and distribution complexity of a product.

This research strategy will put less priority on fundamentally new research topics that has not been explored yet. Very often, this research will likely focus on TRL4-9.

Commercial industry and private research centre may mostly fall into this strategy.

Research for technology leadership (derived from “differentiation” strategy)

The focus of this research strategy is to pursue the state-of-the-art of a technology or to produce new technologies and subsequently new products. One of the main goals of this research to be the leader in a research field or technology.

Some research examples using this strategy is research on how to find a new type of metals that are light but are strong and ductile, how to find new algorithms to process and learn from a large amount of data and on how to create a new manufacturing process for a new or specific materials and shapes.

Most likely, this research will be very capital intensive and may focus on long-term research. As such, this research very often will focus on TRL1-3 research.

Academia and government are mostly in this category. However, a giant (rich) company may also focus on this type of research.

Research for niche product (derived from “focus” strategy)

This strategy seems to be the combination of the previous two, but it is not!

This research strategy is focus on a niche field or product where there are very few players and also very specific users or customers that are interested.

In this category, we may achieve both process efficiency and technology leadership as long we are the only one or the only few players in the field.  

However, if there are some other competitors or players in the same niche research field or product, then the strategy will be towards the technology leaderships. Because the other competitors may also know how to perform and produce the niche research or product efficiently.

That is, the competition effort to reduce cost will not relevant and worth and it is better to focus on research that can turn our product/research to be the best, at least better, than the competitors.

Some examples of this research strategy are research on developing a specific large-scale telescope, research on developing and producing a specific silicon chip for a specific needs and research on a specific drugs for specific rare diseases.

Specific commercial industry (with niche product and market) and research centre (with unique research capabilities and facilities) are likely to fall in this strategy.


READ MORE: Disruptive innovation to create growth: A research perspective


Conclusion

Competitive research requires a strategy. Strategy is about positioning instead of being the “best”.

In this post, six factors or forces that shape the strategy for competitive research have been presented and discussed.

The basic unit of analysis in this post is research industry. Meanwhile, the basic unit of business is the research nature of organisation/business.

Based on the nature of research, the research organisations have been divided into four: commercial industry, academia/university, private research centre and government research centre.

For each research organisation, the six forces that affect its competitive research strategy are analysed and general competitive research strategies based on the force analyses have also been discussed.

Reference

[1] Porter, M.E. 1980. “Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors”. New York, Free Press.

[2] Andrews, K.R. 1971. "The Concept of Corporate Strategy". New York, Dow Jones-Irwin.


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