Porter’s 5 Forces: Understand for Success Abroad

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It’s a trend these days to use time-tested business strategies in day to day life. While it can seem somewhat out-of-context to pull Sun Tzu’s Art of War from the battlefield into the chemistry lab, there are some strategies that can actually have quite a lot of relevance in your life at college abroad.
One such strategy is Porter’s 5 Forces. Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter published a business tool in the 70s, for analyzing how attractive and profitable the industry will be. The tool became immensely popular over the years. It’s still quoted, used and abused around the world for making business decisions. Here’s a look at how you can use the tool in your life at university abroad.
Porter’s 5 Forces for College Students Abroad
Porter identified five forces that govern the competitive business environment. And it’s not just what business rivals are doing, but factors beyond.
Competitive Rivalry – More Popular is More Competitive
This one is obvious. Porter urged businesses to look at how many rivals they have and how much stronger they are in terms of the quality of products and services they offer.
It’s easy to see how you can bring this advice down to your own decision-making at college abroad. Let’s talk about the task of choosing a college to study in.
More competition means more people to outshine you unless you are sure that what you have to offer is out of the ordinary. Not to be discouraging, but most average students should apply to universities that have relatively fewer applicants. Everyone with a good score wants to apply to Ivy League colleges. But there are some excellent rural colleges as well, where the competition will be lower and so will the chances of your acceptance.
Or maybe you already run a business when you’re applying for college, which is more than most student applicants do. In that case, you may be able to safely apply to Harvard with an eye on Porter’s first force. You will be above the competition, since no one else is doing what you do, and you’ll be in a strong position to be accepted.
Supplier Power – More Choices is Better
The force of supplier power is about how easy it is for suppliers to increase their prices, and thus affect a business’s bottom line. How unique is the product or service that the supplier provides? How much will it cost for you to switch from one supplier to another?
In such a scenario, the more your options, the easier it will be to switch to one that is cheaper. Fewer suppliers mean more expenses to switch suppliers.
You can think about choosing electives at college from the same perspective. If you’re undecided about what electives to take, choose the ones that you’re considering majoring in or related subjects. You may be allowed to choose psychology as an elective when you’re studying chemistry but it may turn out to be more expensive than you bargain for when at the end of three classes you decide it’s not for you and has to start all over again.
Instead, if you choose a related subject like Science and Society or Environmental Science, you will find it easier to switch and keep focus if you don’t like a subject.
Buyer Power – What Are You Bringing to Others?
Buyer Power is about how easy buyers can drive prices down. How many buyers does a business have? How big are their orders? How much would it cost for them to switch from what you have to offer to the products and services of a rival?
Look to this force to think about how well you can work in a team. You have something to offer a team in terms of leadership, curiosity and work ethic. These are the qualities that the rest of the team is essentially buying. Studying abroad is great for building on these strengths, but let’s face it. You may have plenty of curiosity and an electric mind, which can help the team come up with excellent group projects – if only you actually turned up for meetings on time!
What if the team decides to cut you out because they feel they can’t work with you? You lose credits when you could have instead worked on your work ethic to remain valuable. Thinking about such things in terms of business strategy can make a big difference to your improvement in the classroom and beyond.
The threat of Substitution – Can You Be Replaced?
In the business world, the threat of substitution is the likelihood of customers finding alternate ways of doing what you do.
At college abroad, you can easily fall out of the loop or never join in the first place, if you only stick to your coursework. Or worse, if you don’t attend classes because you’re just not up to it.
If you don’t start immersing yourself in campus life and joining extracurricular clubs of your interest, there will be someone else who will. At the end of the first semester, you’ll suddenly find the chess club you decided too late to join is not taking memberships anymore. Or, while you were gathering up the courage to apply for that newspaper position on the college magazine, someone else cuts in and gets the job.
Those who are successful out there are all doing it better than you, but you can too. Stay aware of the threat of substitution without letting it paralyze you, and you’ll always keep trying to improve yourself in everything that you do at college abroad.
The threat of New Entry – Stay on Your Toes
In the business world, others can enter the market and shake the foundations of an established business. At college, you must always challenge yourself and be ready to adapt in order to keep your place. Whether it’s as the captain of the track team or as the resident standup comedian in the dorms, always be ready to face challenges. The life lesson from the fifth force observed by Porter is to never let the grass grow under your feet if you want to be successful.
There are many other situations in which you can apply Porter’s 5 Forces beyond the business world. It’s up to you to think creatively and apply them. Use this tool-set for building self-awareness when you’re looking to advance your career, take on new roles at college or take on new projects. It can be a good subject to brainstorm about and bring to your next general discussion group.

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“People who succeed have momentum. The more they succeed, the more they want to succeed, and the more they find a way to succeed. Similarly, when someone is failing, the tendency is to get on a downward spiral that can even become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

— Tony Robbins