[Part 1/3] Reading through the Lens of Porter’s Five Forces

My brother has been trying to finish a book for three years, and I have been trying to figure out why for two years and eleven months.  What is stopping you from finishing that great book sitting on the coffee table?

To be fair, my brother certainly wants to finish his book.  After finishing each of the five books in its wake within months, he started the sixth installment of the Harry Potter series three years ago.  After a lengthy research on the eInk readers, he purchased one with back-lighting so he could continue to chip away at the immortal tale of Hogwarts and its half-blood menace in the warmth of his bed even in darkness. He is also a capable reader – my brother is a physician, a musician, and a sports fan whose broad interests are fueled by his wide range of reading material from medical journals to the newspaper to ESPN.com.  Finally, Harry Potter is not a difficult book series; my cousin who was one decade my brother’s junior completed the same book cover-to-cover within one day.

To the extent that I am like my brother – or that we are all like him – I also have books “in progress” that have remained unfinished for months, if not years.  I do want to finish reading them, I am physically able finishing them, and I can certainly find the time if I try – so why am I not reading them?

One of the staples of management theory is Porter’s Five Forces, a method of analysis that identifies the reasons why a firm or industry’s profits are suboptimal by mapping the flow of profit to other firms.  In essence, it helps a manager answer this question: customers have a need for my product, they are able to afford my product, and they can certainly find my product on the shelves – so why are they not buying it?

Each section will include a primer on the competitive force followed by its application to book-reading.  I also hope the analogy can help you identify the forces competing for your attention against your own past-time even if reading is not your favorite.

Five Forces: Substitute

A substitute is a product that fulfills similar purposes even though it is a quintessentially different product.  As Twitter moved the mobile platform, they initially imagined their largest competitors as other social networking sites.  Since it is wildly popular on the web, Twitter imagined significant synergies from having users tweet directly from the smartphone and subsequent dramatic growth.  Even today, Twitter’s mobile app ranks far below its competitors, even as Twitter’s website remains one of the most popular.  Why? Because of Angry Birds, texting, and videos.  At first glance, this is a unfair comparison – Twitter is not even in the same category as Angry Birds.  However, all four compete for the same customer need of “what can I do with the two minutes I have now?”  Without understand why people use their smartphones, Twitter falsely estimated the competitive landscape of mobile.

Likewise, finding your substitutes for reading books requires introspection into why you read.  Maybe you read to learn something new, and you are not reading Thinking, Fast and Slow because you watch the National Geographics channel.  Nevertheless, substitutes to reading books need not be reading at all.  Maybe you have not read the newest James Patterson thriller because you have been playing the new action game on the PlayStation.

Finally, having a substitute for reading may not be a problem in the first place.  I found myself reading at the end of a work day to wind down and relax.  Since I started living with my fiancée, I now wind down and relax by enjoying a conversation with her in front of the television before bedtime.  There are other times during the day when I read to fulfill a different purpose, but I have found a superior substitute to reading books in the hour prior to sleeping.

[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3Footnote]

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

3 responses to “[Part 1/3] Reading through the Lens of Porter’s Five Forces

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