The term “core competence” has taken hold in the business world. Not many academic terms break through to common usage so this might be viewed as a tremendous success. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that it is particularly useful with the modified practitioner definition. As it is commonly used, it seems to mean “stuff the firm is pretty good at.” Unlike Prahalad and Hamel’s original article, common usage does not suggest that these capabilities: necessarily confer value in the eyes of customers over what rivals can produce, are hard to imitate, or that they are especially relevant in a corporate (multi-business) context.
Stripped of these defining characteristics, is the term useful?
As it is commonly used, the term can help firms distinguish what they are relatively good at from things that they are not. This is akin to a simple business unit-level internal analysis that identifies strengths and weaknesses. While it is important for firms to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, by not comparing the strengths to rivals, we cannot infer whether the firm has a competitive advantage or how long such an advantage might last. It could even reflect a competitive disadvantage if rivals are superior in those areas. As a mode of internal analysis, the common usage doesn’t really go beyond SWOT analysis, which itself is woefully inadequate as a form of analysis.
When practitioners use the term core competence, it is often preceded by the words “stick to your…” That is, the firm should understand what they are good at and avoid straying from strengths. Of course, acquiring a new competence should be an important strategic decision – not to be taken lightly. However, the traditional advice seems to miss the mark if it implies that firms should avoid such decisions altogether.
In short, as an internal analysis tool, the common usage of the term core competence does not add much value – certainly not relative to other internal analysis tools like value chain and VRIO analysis.
When there is a new lucrative opportunity, a small number of firms may exploit it initially. However, if the opportunity is visible to others and the entry barriers are low, the market will soon be swamped. This short video illustrates this vividly (best w/sound off):
When leading a case discussion, wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what positions students were prepared to defend? You want to bring people into the conversation who you know will have diverse perspectives to bring about a balanced discussion. Idie Kesner has a great low tech solution to your problem. Create arrow tents that can be reversed so they can display either up or down arrows (see the picture to the right). You can see instantly who is in favor or opposed to the strategic move proposed in a case. The instructor can call on people with an idea of what perspective they will bring in and/or encourage debate between students who have different positions. Here is a a template for the Student Voting Arrows (2 arrows/page).
A related innovation is tents that display the letters A through D. This can be used for cases that offer up to 5 alternatives that students might vote for (a,b,c,d, and no tent). Here is a template for the “a through d” student voting table tent. This must be folded lengthwise first to select the appropriate letter and then widthwise so the letter is displayed as a table tent (visible from both sides).
With its $13.7B bid, Amazon agreed to pay a 27% premium over Whole Foods’ previous market valuation. This makes for a nice live case case in your strategy classroom. Was this a sound business decision? The market rewarded Amazon with an increase in its stock price. While some opportunities are apparent, it remains unclear exactly how Whole Foods will be worth 27% more to Amazon (and that’s just to break even). A five forces analysis will reveal that the grocery market is highly competitive with exceptionally thin margins — not an especially attractive industry to enter. So how can they win in this game? There are many possibilities that may come up in a discussion. For example, Amazon may:
Build online grocery sales, a tiny but growing portion of the industry.
Lower costs by applying automation technology and their supply chain expertise.
Use customer data to build sales through Amazon or to sell some higher margin “impulse” items at Whole Foods.
Leverage the market’s expectations that Amazon won’t pay dividends or post significant profit to lower prices and invest in the business.
Of course, these are highly speculative and carry significant risks. What is the likelihood that any of these will be achieved? Can Amazon manage change in such a large acquisition? Will other grocers make similar changes (or be bought out by tech companies with similar capabilities)? There is lots of fodder to discuss. Here is a packet of news articles that may be helpful. Also, I have prepared a spreadsheet to explore different scenarios for how this might play out where the starting point is Whole Foods’ recent financial performance (note that the decision tree requires the PrecisionTree Excel Add-in). Finally, here is a very brief poll to help assure that students come to class prepared and with an opinion on the deal.
Strategies rarely work out as planned but somehow, students remain eternally hopeful that everything will go exactly as they expect. This experiential exercise allows students to “feel” Mintzberg’s (1994) critique of strategic planning. It also helps to illustrate and compare causation and effectuation decision-making logics (e.g., finding entrepreneurial opportunities). You can bring “Deflategate” (from the 2015 NFL season) to a classroom near you. The exercise proceeds as follows:
Inflate ball & sit on it. Ask 2 volunteers to inflate a heavy duty inflatable ball using a small air pump (one can buy these a sport store) and try to sit on it afterwards for a minute. While introducing the exercise, the instructor should keep the plug hidden in her/his pocket. Inflating the ball is amusing (both the volunteers and the audience). It is not easy or quick to inflate the ball.
Where’s the plug? After inflating, students look for a plug. The instructor waits a few seconds and takes the plug out admitting that she/he had it all the time. The class will laugh. It may be frustrating for the volunteers but then we begin the debrief and explain the reason for the deception in the exercise.
Debrief: According to Mintzberg, decision-makers (those who inflate the ball) expect everything will go smoothly according to what they planned but usually some unexpected circumstances occur that alter the plan’s effectiveness. Decision-makers cannot anticipate everything and the exercise drives this home and shifts focus to decision-makers’ bounded rationality. It is quite rare that students will look for a plug before doing the exercise (though it happens on occasion). One might move from here to discuss innovation, business models and disruptive innovation.
This is another in our series of explorations in learning from failure (and learning from success). The Swedish Museum of Failures reminds us of some of the most spectacular product failures. Interestingly, most of them can be closely linked to some spectacular product successes. A complete failure may be a near miss. Perhaps a slight pivot away from extreme success. This video offers a window into some of the more interesting exhibits in the museum. One might ask students to review the video and imagine how a well-placed pivot might have helped each failure turn the corner. This might also fit with some of the toolbox posts on pivoting.
How do firms modify their products so they will be well-received in the most promising global markets? Case in point: Hollywood’s biggest movies are being subtly reworked to appeal to Chinese audiences. Since, that market may soon outstrip the U.S. to become the most lucrative movie audience in the world (see chart). Movies like Warcraft and Now You See Me 2 have been huge successes in China even though their domestic performance has lagged. Why? The Warcraft cast features Daniel Wu, a very bright star in China, who may have been unrecognizable as the orc Gul’dan, but his promotional efforts were important to the film’s success. Similarly, Now You See Me director, Jon M. Chu, cast star Jay Chou and filmed a portion of the movie in the Chinese region of Macau. The movie industry is a great example of product design for market entry. The following video frames it nicely for students interested in addressing barriers to market entry.
Shareholder activism is often identified as a mechanism to discipline managers and keep them focused on value creation for investors. An NPR story reports that shareholders in a zoo near Shanghai, frustrated that they weren’t making a profit on their investment, fed a live donkey to zoo tigers as a form of protest. At a shareholders meeting they voted in favor of feeding the donkey to the tigers to express their anger. Their objections center on the zoo’s debts and legal troubles. For two years, the investors said the venture has not been profitable. The video of the event has stoked public outrage and condemnation. While this is a rather unusual example of shareholder activism, it may spur some fruitful discussion in class. One of the interesting elements of this action is that the Corporate Social Responsibility literature would lead us to expect that investors have idiosyncratic preferences and will make trade-offs on returns (see this article by Mackey, Mackey & Barney). For example, one might expect that investors in a zoo would be willing to trade off financial returns to care for animals. A protest of poor profitability that hurts an animal seems especially unlikely. Yet there is is. As the cartoon implies, there are other ways for investors to protest…
Strategies rarely come together as the plan would have suggested. The unexpected could come externally, from shifts in the marketplace, or internally, as the pieces don’t come together as intended. This video depicts the unexpected — a massive falling boulder crashing down on the road in front of a car (and almost hitting the car in front). This may trigger a discussion of sources of uncertainty and how to address them in a planning process. It might also be used to set the stage for the Tinkertoy exercise or other scenario planning materials. The first 30 seconds should do the trick…
The Financial Times reports that in 2010, a Heuer Autavia Reference 2446, a popular driver’s chronograph of the 1960s, was sold for £5,400. But late in 2016, Christie’s achieved $125,000 for an identical watch. Valuable and rare resources are heavily sought after. This also creates a strong incentive to imitate. Enter “Frankenwatches.” Enterprising individuals have been able to cobble together watches from vintage spare parts that can be convincing. This has bread mistrust in the market and increased the value of market mechanisms (e.g., prim auction houses) that can certify authenticity. Then, there is also a market for known fakes (if they are done well). Ultimately, this demonstrates valuable and rare resources as well as imperfect imitation. Perfect for watch affectionados and students of the resource based view. The Financial Times article is a good (and timely) reading to prime a classroom discussion of strategic resources and attempts to imitate.
Are there cultural norms for telling the truth? Recent research by David Hugh-Jones suggests that this may be the case. In his coin flip experiment, respondents were asked to get a coin ready. On the next screen, they were asked to flip the coin and report the result. They were also informed that they would receive an incentive (either $3 or $5) if they reported “heads.” As such, respondents who flipped “tails” had to choose between telling the truth and receiving the money. This experiment allows honesty to be estimated at an aggregate level, by comparing the proportion reporting heads in any group to the 50% proportion expected. The figure above shows how the results for honest reporting differed by country. You may be able to repeat a version of this in your class. You may note that another coin flip exercise is recommended in the toolbox to explore luck and entrepreneurial success. You might run this in an earlier class with no incentive and record the proportion of people that report heads on each round. Then, in a class on ethics (or global strategy), repeat the exercise with an incentive ($20 should be enough). See if the proportions of heads reported differ. It may be that the class setting affords enough monitoring that cheating is not observed. Also, a large sample (100 or so per group) would generally be required to find significant differences in honesty. Even so, you can still present the results of the study (and, perhaps, argue that your class is more honest than average subjects in their country). You could also try to duplicate the lack of monitoring in the experiment by having students flip a coin at home or online and report the result. As such, there might be reasons to have students do this exercise outside of class and discuss the results in class.
Most of the media has chalked up President Elect Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, as driven by inexperience and/or a willingness to ignore prior policy. Indeed, the call has certainly sparked ire from the China and raised concerns of increasing tension. A recent WSJ article notes that it may have been an intentional and calculated move. However, this move is likely to have a completely different meaning coming from Trump. He has expressed a willingness to consider drastic/risky solutions and it may be more likely that China will ultimately blink. In a game of chicken, his reputation may be a distinct advantage over the more calculating reputations of prior presidents. Consider Thomas Schelling’s concept of the “rationality of irrationality.” In a game of chicken, a driver who appears crazy enough to prefer dying over chickening out will enjoy an advantage. In this context, it may be rational to convince rivals that one is actually irrational. Game theory can seem inaccessible when it is only presented using abstract examples (though Dilbert can help there), this offers a concrete example that may bring it to life for the students. Perhaps ironically, this post mirrors one that was posted here two years ago regarding Vladimir Putin’s strategy. Of course, it is worth noting that the game of chicken can also end very badly…
This isn’t the first time polls have been wrong. The election of Donald Trump was a shock to many college students (as well as the press) and this may warrant some class time. Some instructors responded by providing space for students to express their feelings and this may be within the scope of the educational objectives for some classes. For a strategy class, a more relevant focus might be to examine the implications of the outcome for business strategies or to examine the campaigns from a strategic perspective. This might be considered as a template for how to discuss other sudden world events in the strategy classroom. Here are some takes on how to bring the election in while still emphasizing the pedagogical objectives of a strategy course:
Project case scenario analyses (Aya Chacar). Scenario analysis is designed to unearth factors that affect the efficacy of a given strategy. In a global context, country risk is a central factor in assessing strategic alternatives. In class, students discussed the likely impact of the election on the companies their teams are studying. Can you help the company? What do you think “could” be the impact on the companies under the new American administration -based on stated positions or past behavior? The companies they chose to study in this class are Amazon, Auchan, Didi Chuxing, General Motors, Naver, Uber, Volkswagen, and Walmart. All already have major international presence with some but not all having significant operations in China, Europe, India, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, SouthEast Asia and the US.
Entrepreneurship/Opportunity Recognition. The pollsters were all wrong. Often businesses and whole industries miss critical trends in consumer preferences and this probably means that there is unserved market space. Given trends that are now unearthed by the election, what market opportunities might there be for firms in various industries? One could use the project firms, cases you have done or specific firms that you think might be affected.
SWOT on campaigns (Peter Klein). While this framework is not preferred by most strategy scholars, it may raise some good points. A few examples from the Clinton campaign: O: demographics (e.g., increased Hispanic population, more socially tolerant electorate), unpopular opponent,chance to make history. T: middle-class concerns about economic inequality, backlash against political correctness, Clinton fatigue, incumbent fatigue, WikiLeaks. S: experience; support from major media, Wall Street, large corporations; ties to Obama and WJ Clinton; large staff of handlers; polish. W: experience; support from major media, Wall Street, large corporations; ties to Obama and WJ Clinton; large staff of handlers; polish.
Resources/Capabilities. Many of the campaign strengths turn out to be weaknesses depending on the context (experience, polish, support from corporations, etc.). What resources give a party a sustained advantage? What does “sustained” mean in this context? This might bring in a discussion of core rigidities and how once valuable resources can become critical weaknesses over time.
Disruptive Innovation (David Burkus). Clay Christensen described disruptive innovations as an innovation (typically from an outsider) that creates a new market and value network that eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leading firms, products and alliances. The Trump campaign might be viewed in this light as a disruptive strategy that overtook the conventional establishment.
PESTEL. Of course, this demonstrates the value/importance of looking outside of the industry for trends that may influence whether a given strategy will be effective or not. The PESTEL framework is a simple tool for bringing this in to the analysis (Political, Economic, Social Technological, Environmental, and Legal).
Why isn’t the BCG matrix dead as a framework? I still consistently find that my students have been exposed to it (generally in Marketing). They don’t even understand that it is a framework for internal capital markets (where firms add value by serving as a source of funding) or that it is hopelessly flawed. It’s a dog, divest right away. If the sale generates cash, funnel it to any other management framework (even SWOT) and I’m sure it will create value.
Internal capital markets only create value when they perform better than external capital markets. Generally, this is because the parent company has better information than external markets about the business. I often describe how Big Pharma companies fund biotech startups — their inside knowledge of the science and downstream capabilities help them understand the potential. As such, their expertise and private information allows them to invest much more efficiently than external capital markets.
Gautam Ahuja won the 2016 BPS Irwin Outstanding Educator award. It became clear from student testimonials that the capstone ethics lecture was not just memorable, it was an emotional peak that few students (or teachers) ever reach. What follows is a brief description/outline of the lecture. While it certainly won’t do it justice, it may offer some important ideas for instructors to explore.
I have them debate an actual decision (that varies from year to year). Essentially, I pick some current significant and controversial business decision or event that is legal and ideally, morally ambiguous, or even amoral (not immoral), at least apriori, and then foster a discussion on its pros and cons. This reveals much deeper fundamental issues. To illustrate I have used the following in different years:
The decision by banks to award bonuses to traders for being on the “correct” side of the financial crisis deals in the years following the Lehman collapse
The decision by a chemical company to use local safety standards in its different markets, which is completely legal,
The decision to sell skin whitening creams in countries in India by large multinational companies,
Provision of significantly discounted or couponed milk products for newborns,
The federal reserves decision to keep interest rates low for the last x years and so on…
I then try and get them to debate this and, almost invariably, there emerge two sides to the issue. However what is interesting is that three other factors usually emerge: A) the problem is much deeper and more morally ambiguous than you thought, B) reflexive reversion to standard MBA, theories frameworks and concepts often leads to very flawed Continue reading →
Will presents his 5 forces plus 3 more framework. In the video, he discussed the standard 5 forces framework but adds the following 3 critical elements that are left out of the five forces: Complementors, Social forces, and new strategies. Complementors are organizations that provide complementary products or services to an industry (e.g., cases for iPhones). New strategies refer mostly to rivals who are pursuing distinct strategies that may alter the fundamental way that firms compete in the industry. Social forces refer to the customer values and norms that may affect their preferences and thus, their willingness to pay. In short, these additions may serve to unpack factors that drive change in the five forces over time in an industry. Here is the video:
The augmented reality (AR) game, Pokémon Go, has taken the world by storm as players roam the real world catching Pokémon and battling in Pokémon gyms. The game has set 5 records since its launch in July 2016 — including the most revenue by a mobile game in its first month ($206.5 million). Nintendo’s stock doubled 15 days into the release, adding $7.5B in value, but then settled back into a mere 50% increase when it became clear that Nintendo was a partner with limited ownership in the company that developed the game (Niantic, a Google spinoff). Although the game is free, users can make purchases in the app store to support their Pokémon ‘hunting’. The bewildering success must clearly be keeping Niantic’s CEO, John Hanke, and his crew awake at night. Besides the operational issues related to scaling up, intellectual property (IP) had become a big issue. A slew of imitators were emerging as well as a number of companies trying to steal the game’s data content and algorithm. In addition, the formidable international expansion faces roadblocks in the most populous Asian countries while potential users were impatient. There were many additional potential revenue sources to be tapped and explored such as the recent win-win partnership with McDonalds Japan. Moreover, while getting gamers out and about was good, there were a number of unintended consequences. On the plus side, many entrepreneurs were finding ways to make money from the game — for example restaurants could lure in customers if there was a Pokestop nearby. At the same time, users and non-users worried about possible injuries, trespassing, and invasion of privacy among other things. Naturally, this makes an outstanding ripped-from-the-headlines case for strategy courses. It is a great vehicle to cover key topics such as entrepreneurship, strategic alliances, internal analysis/capabilities, and external analysis. The following are some materials that are useful for the case:
Students might be confused about time compression diseconomies as a foundational component of a resource-based advantage. However, Dierickx and Cool’s (1989) idea here is quite simple: It may take time to build a resource or capability and even if rivals know the source of an advantage, they may not be able to recreate the resource in a timely fashion. Of course, Barney (1991) captures this as history or path dependence being the barrier to imitation. This simple video illustrates the principle (in a darkly humorous way). Of course, in this case, our protagonist merely needs to incur some search costs to find a fully grown tree. There is no practical way to rush the process to get the tree to grow substantially faster.
Successful strategy is often a combination of luck firm specific skills and favorable conditions. AmorePacfic makes a great ripped-from-the-headlines case since it rose to be the #1 South Korean firm buoyed by a growing and large domestic demand from a growing population. Hallyu – the Korean equivalent of Hollywood was also a driving factor as South Koreans want to look like their favorite stars and use the same cosmetic products and that includes men. In fact, it is estimated that a whopping 20% of South Korean men use cosmetic products on a regular basis. AmorPacific capitalized on this growing trend by building up its brand and investing in R&D and ultimately riding the popularity of K-pop and K-movies to expand internationally. At a time that demand is softening, K-cosmetics are still growing with exports increasingly exceeding imports and Korean cosmetics brands now more popular than European brands in China and increasing their penetration in many countries including China, Hong Kong, Japan, the US, Vietnam, and in a surprising list of other countries such as Poland where their addition to Sephora’s product line and other large retailers will ensure broad distribution. How has a $150 1.7 oz managed to gain global popularity? Some materials for the case might include:
Aldi has been crushing the competition for years and makes an excellent case of how organizational alignment can deliver a strategic advantage (cost in this case). Here is the version of the case for Madison Wisconsin but it would be easy to customize to almost any location since Aldi has spread far and wide. I divide the students into groups reflecting segments of the market (Whole Foods/Kroger/Wal-Mart/Stop-n-go, etc.) and have them assess the competitive threat as Aldi expands in their market. The Whole Foods group typically concludes that there is no threat. However, the threat becomes more apparent once the other rivals decide to add services since they can’t compete with Aldi’s prices. This Bloomberg article shows that Aldi has been a much more direct threat to Whole foods. Ultimately, none of the rivals can duplicate Aldi’s cost structure because their assets are not aligned toward that strategy. Here are a few very funny ads demonstrating the simple principle — why pay more than you have to?