Michael Jordan was possibly the best basketball player ever to walk the face of the Earth. In 13 years with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan won every league award imaginable, beginning with Rookie of the Year honors in 1985, and ending with a sixth NBA title for he and his team in 1998. By the time he retired, Jordan had scored over 29,000 points, completed over 5,000 assists, and become the league’s all time leader in average points per game (31.5).
And yet, in 1994 when he decided to give basketball a rest and try his hand at professional baseball, Jordan never even broke into the major leagues. As amazing as it might seem, in 127 games with the Birmingham Barons, he batted a measly .202, and led the AA Southern League in just one category: errors.
What went wrong? Jordan’s natural skills and abilities — although perfectly suited for basketball — were not as consistently useful when playing baseball. . .
Some things transferred well: his ability to think clearly under pressure, his excellent hand-eye coordination, his outstanding physical condition. Some were neither positive nor negative: his ability to jump in the air and stay there for a long time for example, while Jordan’s trademark in basketball, was of limited use in baseball. And finally, some traits — such as being 6’6″ tall — were a disadvantage, as opposing pitchers found that his height made him relatively easy to pitch to.
So what’s this got to do with the Internet? I thought you’d never ask. Michael Jordan’s difficulty in moving from basketball to baseball teaches an important lesson about what can happen to people and organizations as they move from a physical world, to a web-based world. Among the “natural skills and abilities” of any company, some will transfer well to the web, while others will not. Some characteristics in fact, while they may have served to create seemingly insurmountable competitive advantages in the “traditional” world, will emerge as liabilities.
For example, Barnes and Noble’s slowness to defend itself against Amazon.com, was as much a function of its inability to get out from under the high cost structure that its chain of physical stores perpetuated, as it was the result of a lack of vision or arrogance on the part of senior management. The competitive advantage that the B&N stores offered in the physical world, against other physical world adversaries, became a liability when faced with a competitor like Amazon which was playing an entirely different game from the start. With no brick and mortar infrastructure to support, Amazon’s business model could support the 30% price advantage that it gave to its customers, while B&N could do nothing but look on and watch as its stores became “showrooms” for customers who browsed, and then went home to purchase online at Amazon.
When you think of Michael Jordan, remember that success in one game doesn’t guarantee success in another. The truth is, if basketball had never been invented, Jordan might have turned out to be just one more good looking bald guy named Michael.
Join us next time when we’ll take a look at how different groups react when the entire National Basketball Association is forced to play baseball!