What is the Future of Competitive Advantage?

This article about research into competitive advantage is one of those that made me stop what I was doing and think for awhile. What strikes me as odd is this:

At the close of the conference, a panel of professors highlighted possible directions for future competitive advantage research. Russ Coff, associate professor of organization and management at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, opened the final panel by referring to a survey the presenters had completed online. Entitled "Which scenarios depict a firm with a competitive advantage?" survey-takers where asked to decide whether or not a firm had a competitive advantage given specific scenarios.

The survey results were anything but conclusive. "If we can't come to agreement in a highly empirical situation, what are we doing in our research?" asked Coff.

Maybe the participants just weren't very good at identifying competitive advantage, or maybe it is inherently difficult to define. Or, maybe it used to be easy to define but is not any more. Think about it.

Years ago it paid to specialize. Robert Wright point out in his excellent book NonZero that when people specialize and cooperate, they can play nonzero sum games that benefit all parties. Competitive advantage has arisen largely from knowledge and experience due to specialization, but in a world with ever more access to knowledge of all kinds, will information still be a source of competitive advantage in the future? If not, what will?

Execution comes to mind pretty quickly. Some companies (like Dell) are winning in their industries because they execute better than others. I think marketing used to be a competitive advantage until recently when we became so overwhelmed with messages that they stopped getting through.(I'll let you marketing experts comment on whether or not that is true). What about customer service or finance? I think the difference between good and bad companies in these areas is getting smaller all the time.

Will companies still be able to acheive competitive advantages in these fields in the future, or will they have to do so using intagibles like product aesthetics or customer experience? I'm not sure.

I just had a thought as I finished this post. What if competitive advantage in these areas really isn't dead? What if my belief that it is, is symptomatic of reading too many business periodical, which all report mainly on a handful of large corporations that struggle with these issues? Maybe there are tons of small companies that never get any press that have simple, old school types of competitive advantage.