Is Documentation Your Company’s Core Competence?

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Vesa Purho
Development Manager, Nokia

To answer that question, we need to define two things: core competence and documentation.

In their book, Exploring Corporate Strategy (Prentice Hall, 1999), Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes offer some criteria for defining a core competence. They define core competencies as “those competencies which critically underpin the organisation’s competitive advantage.” So, a core competence is a competence that brings competitive advantage; that is, it adds value to the product that the customers are ready to pay for and it results in their preferring your product over the competitor’s.

Core competencies are not static but vary due to changes in the competition. For example, at one time, the critical success factor for car manufacturers was market access. To access markets, the manufacturers’ core competencies were those that enabled them to establish and efficiently run dealer networks and overseas production plants. These core competencies added value until Japanese manufacturers outperformed the others in quality and reliability. Then, competencies that enabled the production of good quality, reliable cars became critical success factors.

According to Johnson and Scholes, core competencies must meet several challenging criteria. They must provide value to the buyer and they must be difficult for a competitor to imitate because if a competence is easy to imitate, it does not provide competitive advantage. Therefore, they are rare and complex because they are not explained by one factor but by linked factors or they are so embedded in organisational practice or knowledge that they are tacit. The core competencies can relate, for example, to cost efficiency, effectiveness (does the product as a whole match customer expectations), or managing linkages within the organisation’s value chain (which provides leverage that is “a measure of the improvement in performance achieved through the management of linkages between separate resources and activities”).

Documentation can mean many things. To some people, especially those not in the “documentation business,” documentation represents producing the traditional paper manuals or online help. They contend that as long as people can write good English, or whatever language, they can create good documents. In contrast, I prefer to think of documentation as any information in any media that a user receives from the manufacturer of a product.

So, is documentation a core competence? I think it can be. However, I also argue that it depends largely on how the documentation staff position themselves in the company. If the documentation staff see themselves only as the “writers,” then the criteria for a core competence is not fulfilled, because “anybody can write.”

However, if the documentation staff see themselves as the creators of better products, if they bring together knowledge about the users, the product, communication theories, and information design, if they enable the users to perform their tasks efficiently, several criteria of a core competence are fulfilled. The documentation is complex because it requires knowledge in several areas. The documentation is difficult to imitate because knowing the users is difficult; although competitors can gain user knowledge, they cannot combine that knowledge with knowledge of your product as well as you can. Finally, the documentation involves managing linkages between activities and different resources (marketing, training, product design). A strong and competent documentation staff enable experts in product design and development to concentrate on their tasks.

Naturally, there are cases in which documentation is not a core competence. If the competition centers mostly around price and price is what the customers value most, then documentation certainly is not a core competence. The cheaper it can be done, the better. When the customers value their initial investment costs (CAPEX) more than their continuous operating costs (OPEX), documentation may not be a core competence of a company. However, when the situation is the opposite (operating costs valued more highly than the cost of an initial investment), documentation is a good candidate to be a core competence. But first management must perceive it as something other than just “writing documents.” Of course, there are times when we cannot changes management’s mind, no matter how hard we try.

This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia.