Silver medals and the benefits of being second

A disappointing silver medal

This week an American athlete twittered that getting coming second just meant that you were the best of the losers. It is easy to understand his disappointment. Most silver medalists will have begun their completion thinking that they had a realistic chance of walking away with gold. Their emotions will have no doubt been mixed as they stood listening to the national anthem of another nation.  

From Victoria Komova of Russia (Gymnastics) to India’s Vijay Kumar (Shooting) to Ryosuke Irie of Japan (Swimming), there was a certain air of sadness as they received their silver reward for all those years of work. Even Michael Phelps had a glum look after he received his silver medal in Men’s 200m Butterfly (despite being the Olympic’s most successful competitor). The Australian press is currently lamenting the poor performance of the nation despite having won 12 silver medals (but only two gold).

Second Best

Perhaps this should not surprise us. The word “second” has a bad press. No one likes being second choice and we dismissively talk of things being second best. We buy a second hand car because we lack the money to buy a new one and few people boast about wearing second hand clothes. However, in business as in the world as in higher education being second can have certain benefits.

First mover advantage

Standard theory in strategy states that when a new sector is created it is better to be the first company to move into the industry since they will gain experience and lower costs that will hinder other competitors. They can then come to dominate that sector. This is known as first mover advantage.  Often cited are companies such as Facebook and Skype that have become so ubiquitous that it is almost impossible now for another company to gain a foothold in these sectors. There is one slight hitch in this analysis; of the companies just listed, none of them were first into their sectors.

Facebook had many predecessors such as Usenet, Geocities, TheGlobe, SixDegrees, and Friendster. Remember them? Of course you don’t. Even My Space seems almost forgotten. And before Skype there was MSN. Oh yes, you remember using that now, don’t you? It seems like a long time ago.

In fact, being the first to do something can be positively disastrous as you pay the price of the failures from which others may learn. London created the world’s first underground (subway) system. Have you ever travelled on it? It’s quite a chaotic mess, isn’t it? Paris, New York and many other cities built their much later benefiting hugely in their planning from the mistakes that Londoners had unwittingly shown them.

Being second..a long term strategy or a short term tactic

You may be saying however, that these are not examples not of being second, rather than a tactic to let other do the work so as to benefit from their errors. This is rather like a cyclist riding in the slipstream of his opponent until zipping out in front of him in the last 30 metres to win the race. Perhaps, but in some circumstances it may just be better to remain second.

Business school rankings and the benefits of being second

In all countries around the world there is a tendency to think of one natural leader in the business school sector. In the India it is the IIM Ahmedabad, in South Africa, Stellenbosch would claim gold, in Denmark, the Copenhagen Business School, in Norway, BI Oslo etc. This is somehow seen as the natural order of things. For decades in the USA it was Harvard Business School was the uncontested leader until 10 years ago when suddenly a few rankings started placing Wharton in front. Panic and a number of cries of ‘foul’ ensued. How could any school possibly be better than Harvard?  Wharton suddenly found that being in front left them exposed to an amount of criticism they had never previously experienced.

Winning by being second best

Giving the quantity of ranking table that exist at the moment (my own school has to complete about 30 per year) it would seem logical that there would be natural movements at the end. Curiously, this doesn’t seem to happen. This is perhaps related to the logic of what constitutes a ‘natural order of things’. An Ivy League school does not get ranked behind the University of South Dakota (for all the qualities of the latter).

And it is here that we come to the benefits of being second. Since a table that places any Mexican business school in front of the Tech de Monterrey would be discounted as false or inaccurate it is far better for an up and coming school to position themselves just behind.

No, we weren’t first” you can claim, “But we were second, just behind the Tech de Monterrey, or BI, Oslo, or Harvard or HEC, Paris” or whatever is the esteemed leader in your own country. Rather than being dismissed, this will be accepted and admired. No tears of disappointment for the silver medalist here. Being second is winning by default.

See also:

Related Blog Articles

London 2012: The Olympic Closing Ceremony and understanding stereotypes

Olympics 2012: Inspiration from Champions

“They’ll always be kids…”: Procter and Gamble’s 2012 Olympic TV Advert…And a message for parents of future students

As JMU goes, so go the Olympics

James Madison University: “Jeremy writes: JMU is alive and well here in London.  I have spotted more than a few JMU hats and bags around town, and JMU’s Jacob Wukie (’09) earned a silver on Saturday. Might have to try and find a ticket for the archery events on Monday and Tuesday to support Jacob!”

Mark Thomas  Grenoble EM  ESC Grenoble  GGSB  Strategy  Blog  Global Ed  International Affairs  Business School  


Filed under Business Schools, Higher Education, India, Management, Rankings, USA

6 responses to “Silver medals and the benefits of being second

  1. I love this post! Not only does it expose our obsession with being No. 1, it explains the wisdom of the clever old AVIS (always No.2) slogan: “We try harder.”

    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Graham. Avis is a great example of a company that has accepted being second ans has turned this position to a marketing advantage.

  2. George Hayward

    “The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese!” I like the post!

  3. Pingback: London 2012: The Olympic Closing Cermony and understanding stereotypes | GlobalEd

  4. Pingback: “They’ll always be kids…” : Procter and Gamble’s 2012 Olympic TV Advert…And a message for parents of future students. | GlobalEd

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