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Considering a diversification strategy? Follow insights from HEC Professor John Mawdsley


Corporate diversification can be risky and costly, but the results of two researchers' latest study suggest that customer-centered companies may have a key advantage when it comes to such organizational change. Exclusive interview with Assistant Professor John Mawdsley (HEC Paris) on his and Professor Deepak Somaya’s latest research.


Firstly, what factors drive firm diversification?

This is a classic question in strategy. Traditional explanations of why firms diversify into new lines of business have largely considered diversification as a means to redeploy underutilized resources or to take advantage of new opportunities in growing markets. However, these traditional “supply-side” explanations pay little regard to the opportunities or influences stemming from existing customers. 

Indeed, in a competitive landscape where professional service firms compete intensively for the business of clients, many managers spend too much time chasing new clients and neglect to take advantage of the opportunities presented by their existing clients.

We offer a demand-based relational explanation for diversification that really hones in on the opportunities and influences from existing customers.

What are the pros and cons to diversification? 

First, it is important to understand that diversification is a fundamental means through which firms can grow their business and hopefully increase profitability. 

Second, as well as increasing their bottom line through higher revenues and profits, diversification can increase a firm’s market power, provide critical advantages for obtaining important resources, help firms manage corporate risk, and much more. Generally, researchers have shown that diversified firms achieve higher performance compared to single business (or non-diversified) firms.

John Mawdsley HEC


However, diversification incurs costs—which can be substantial—while reaping the advantages from diversification is inherently uncertain simply because entering new markets is a risky strategy. For example, firms often need to build or buy new resources and develop new capabilities that can be quite unrelated to their current competencies. 

Firms also have to try and “steal” market share away from rival firms already competing in these markets, which can be challenging if the firm does not have a track record, customers, or a steady supply of requisite resources. 

Diversification is a fundamental means through which firms can grow their business and hopefully increase profitability (...) as the needs of a firm’s existing clients diversify, firms are presented with viable new business opportunities, should they also diversify. 

Moreover, diversification may cause firms to direct resources and managerial attention away from their core business areas. Therefore, firms may harm their current businesses by chasing opportunities in new markets. At the extreme, this can lead firms to collapse.

Thus, despite the obvious advantages of diversification, firms need to formulate and implement a suitable diversification strategy that can lower the costs and risks of diversification and put them in a position to reap the benefits. 

What key factors you found for a successful diversification strategy?

Firms can look more closely to their current business relationships – which for professional service firms are their existing clients – and use “relational assets” for their diversification strategy. More specifically, as the needs of a firm’s existing clients diversify, firms are presented with viable new business opportunities, should they also diversify. 

diversification and clients ©everythingpossible
Diversification is costly: leverage your relational assets ©everythingpossible_AdobeStock

Relational assets are relationship-specific resources, such as specialized knowledge of a client’s business and deeper levels of trust and commitment that are only valuable when used in the business relationship in which they were developed. Studies have shown that within a focal relationship, relational assets can lead to higher profitability and longer lasting business partnerships. 

Managers should look at both the needs of existing clients and the resources they already hold within their firm, especially relational assets - resources that have taken time to develop and which rival firms may not have. 

Importantly, many relational assets can often be deployed into different markets to serve the same clients. For example, knowledge of a client’s strategy or specialized technologies is likely to be relevant for different markets. Firms may also have specific business routines for clients that they can reuse through simple modification. So firms do not need to start from scratch when providing additional services to existing clients. In this way, the costs of diversification associated with obtaining new resources and capabilities are reduced. 

Further, firms can leverage the deep commitments and bonds they have developed over time with existing clients for their diversification moves because clients often prefer to keep using the same supplier firms for their needs. Therefore, firms can use existing clients to gain an initial foothold in new markets, thereby reducing the risks of diversification. 

So, really, the combination of clients’ changing business needs and relational assets provide the incentive for firms to diversify. 

Thus, our new perspective in strategy research looks towards a firm’s “demand conditions” as inducements for diversification, as opposed to firms simply scanning the markets for possible opportunities or looking for ways to use spare resources that they cannot easily sell. 

What if the firm simply follows a market opportunity?

In this case, relational assets would actually not matter, and we show this in the paper, which reinforces our “demand-based relational theory of diversification”.   

Harnessing existing clients and leveraging relational assets can enable firms to overcome potentially high resources barriers to diversification.


John Mawdsley HEC insight


What are your 3 key findings?

bulk ©mpix-foto
(1) Firms undertake client-led diversification: firms are selecting to alter their business portfolio rather than (or as well as) chasing new clients in their current markets. (2) Relational assets increase the level of client-led diversification: firms will diversify even more when their relationships with clients are strong and contain specialized resources. (3) Client-led diversification and relational assets facilitate firms’ moves into business that are less related to their current business, which is typically the most risky and costly form of diversification.

How did you test this theory?

Focus - Methodologie
Working with my coauthor Deepak Somaya, we tested our theory using a sample of U.S. patent law firms and the scope of patent legal services provided to clients across different technology markets over a period of ten years. Our key questions were: (1) Does the changing scope of needs of existing clients lead to a significant change in the business scope of a focal law firm (which we call “client-led diversification”)? (2) Do relational assets increase the client-led diversification effect?


Focus - Application pour les marques
(1) Listen to your clients and show you value them. Solicit regular feedback on your service performance, ask how you can improve, and then implement changes. (2) Take the time to build trusting relationships with managers of client firms and really work to understand their business. This will help the firm to deliver customized solutions to clients’ complex and unique problems. (3) Co-develop inter-organizational systems and routines with clients that improve coordination, communication, and transparency. Take advantage of the latest technology.
Based on an interview with John Mawdsley, Assistant Professor of Strategy and Business Policy, on his paper “Demand-side strategy, relational advantage, and partner-driven corporate scope: The case for client-led diversification”, published in Strategic Management Journal, February 2018.

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