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Exploring the roots of Porter's activity‐based view

Norman T. Sheehan (Edwards School of Business, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada)
Nicolai J. Foss (Copenhagen Business School, Center for Strategic Management and Globalization, Frederiksberg, Denmark and Department of Strategy and Management, Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration, Bergen, Norway)

Journal of Strategy and Management

ISSN: 1755-425X

Article publication date: 7 August 2009




Porter's activity‐based view of the firm is a comprehensive strategic framework which analyzes firm‐level competitive advantage. Although Porter's activity‐based view is widely cited by academics, taught to students, and applied by practitioners, little is known about its intellectual roots. Given that a framework's intellectual antecedents not only determine its current content, but also its future development, this paper aims to examine the intellectual roots of Porter's activity‐based view and the value chain.


The paper examines Porter's writings in an effort to document his influences while developing the activity‐based view and value chain. Porter's and other scholars' explanations are found to be lacking, so the paper ventures further down paths first suggested by Porter and others.


Whereas Porter's five forces framework built on the existing industrial organization paradigm, the activity‐based view is not derived from any existing paradigms. While consultants of the 1970s impacted Porter's development of the value chain and the activity‐based view, its deeper roots lay in operations research, particularly activity analysis; and the work of Arch Shaw, who was the first to teach a business policy course at Harvard Business School. Porter's contribution is to bring the diverse threads together into a coherent whole which managers can apply to analyze and improve their competitive positions.

Practical implications

Following Porter, the authors argue that activities are a key link between resource holdings and strategic positions. Therefore, it is only when the activity‐based and resource‐based views are integrated that they provide a comprehensive explanation of firm value creation.


The paper is the first to critically examine the intellectual antecedents of the activity‐based view.



Sheehan, N.T. and Foss, N.J. (2009), "Exploring the roots of Porter's activity‐based view", Journal of Strategy and Management, Vol. 2 No. 3, pp. 240-260.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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