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Competitive Intelligence

Statistician Howard Steven Friedman has put together a book that ought to be useful to policymakers, The Measure of a Nation. Whether it is used will say something about our “competitive intelligence.”

(source: webapps.lsa.umich.edu)

Friedman systematically presents indicators of quality of life for the U.S. and 13 comparable nations – that is, populous nations in our wealth class, such as the UK, Netherlands, South Korea, and Australia. (I conducted a similar but miniature version of this exercise in this post.)

Friedman also directly addresses the resistance many Americans have to making such comparisons, a resistance based on our notion that U.S. is so different – so “exceptional” (see this post) – that it is literally “incomparable” and shouldn’t be compared.

This attitude, combined with Americans’ conviction that the we are Number 1 in everything (this earlier post), is self-defeating. In the corporate world, Friedman points out, companies engage in “competitive intelligence”: Find out what the other guys are doing; see what works for them; adopt it yourself. He cites IBM as a company that came back to strength just that way.

It seems obvious that comparing ourselves to our peers is a sensible way to measure how well we are doing and, more important, to pick up on “best practices.” Yet, it is striking how little such analyses appear in our public discussions. Efforts to make comparisons are often slapped down by charges that the speaker is trying to “Europeanize” the U.S. (post here). But Friedman shows us, with many easy-to-read graphs, some of the things we can learn from our competitors.

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