Silverman’s Transaction Cost Economics Primer

Way Signs "Outsourcing - In-House Solutions"Firms often make errors in selecting governance forms and the scope of the firm. This is one common reason firms must undergo painful periodic restructuring programs. If only managers could frame these problems more effectively and identify the key factors to make more informed decisions — in short, a primer on Transaction Cost Economics (TCE). Brian Silverman provides just that tool in a sequence of three short videos. This is especially useful in today’s online teaching environment since transaction cost economics readings may not be the most user-friendly. I might add that this overview provides an excellent introduction for PhD students prior to diving into academic readings on the topic. Here is the second of the videos explaining the predictions of transaction cost economics.

Contributed by Brian Silverman

COVID Innovation Scavenger Hunt

frugal-innovationMuch of the news focuses on how hard businesses have been hit by the pandemic. However, strategy is about finding opportunities and adapting in a dynamic environment. Let’s not forget to focus on inspirational examples along these lines. Send students on a scavenger hunt (like the business combination scavenger hunt) to find unique examples. Invite students to identify 5 innovations have each student introduce an innovation and others who have the same innovation must cross it off their list. See how many unique innovations your class can identify. This can be done easily in a synchronous online session or in threaded discussion. Some types of examples to consider:

  • Innovations to meet critical shortages. The shortage of ventilators has spurred multiple innovations such as the possibility of one ventilator serving up to 4 patients and the adaptation of CPAP machines.  Many innovations have increased the supply of protective equipment (PPE) including companies re-purposing production facilities.
  • New Treatments. Of course many firms are working to find treatments and/or an effective vaccine. These efforts are spread around the world so it is a race to see what will be most effective.
  • Product Adaptations. Some products can be adapted to new uses and it is a question of how to recognize those opportunities. For example, Kinsa thermometers has collected data on fevers due to normal influenza patterns. The were then able to back out normal patterns to identify atypical fevers that might be due to COVID before patients began showing up in emergency rooms.
  • Process Adaptations: Many service firms have adapted their processes to avoid contact. Some firms may be better equipped to do this than others (physical facilities, etc.) and it may help them survive. Even some farmers who have lost distribution channels have created contactless alternatives while others have had to destroy food that they could not get to market.
  • Delivery Partners as a lifeline. Restaurants and other businesses often rely on partners to get their products to consumers. While these partners may have been a side business previously, they are a critical lifeline now (see EatStreet, GrubHub, DoorDash and others). Amazon has also done better than other retailers for this reason.
  • Products in heavy demand. It isn’t just toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Other products have experienced significant demand and need to adapt their supply chains and processes to meet needs. Automatic door openers, video conferencing tools like zoom, door cameras like ring, are all in greater demand than anticipated.
  • Innovation on the front lines. Healthcare workers and others on the front line are also innovating to try and do their jobs safely. Telemedicine has taken off sharply as a way to treat COVID and other types of medical problems while limiting the spread of COVID. These may also highlight opportunities for firms.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Bringing COVID into Your Classroom (not literally, please)

Health-Workers-COVID-19I have taught during numerous crises (various wars, 911, 2008 crash, etc.) and always regretted missing opportunities to bring the events into the classroom. So how can we encourage our students to think strategically about the COVID crisis? Here are a few ideas for discussion or team projects (but please add more ideas in the comments):

  • Dynamic capabilities and Resource Redeployment. How can different types of firms redeploy their resources in this crisis to: 1) help others survive the pandemic, and/or 2) keep the business from going under? How does this redeployment lesson link to other types of challenges? Consider, for example, Eight Oaks’ distillery conversion to produce hand sanitizer.
  • Resource Acquisition & Retention. Many resources (especially Human capital) have been released. This could be an opportunity for some firms to access resources. For others, the challenge is to retain the resources through the crisis so they are able to ramp up once the crisis passes. How should firms respond?
  • Firms’ Ethical Responsibilities. The two issues above raise inherently ethical problems. What are the firm’s responsibilities to its employees? To shareholders? To society? To survive?
  • Generic virus strategies. China opted for extensive testing, isolated those who test positive from their families, and limited travel. The policies are well aligned (like a generic strategy) to limit spread. Is there an alternative aligned strategy involving limited testing? To what extent are countries “stuck in the middle?”
  • Technology strategy. What new technologies can be deployed to fight the virus? For example, Kinsa produces a connected thermometer that allows them to map parts of the US where there are unusual fevers— a week before people need hospitalization. How can this new resource be effectively deployed?
  • Entrepreneurial Strategy. What business opportunities are created by the crisis? How can an entrepreneur pursue them when resources are scarce? What are the implications for social entrepreneurship?
  • Global strategy. How can firms adapt to disrupted supply chains? Are there global opportunities created by the crisis? Along the lines of the first bullet, this could be opportunities to help those in hard hit areas or those that allow the firm to survive.
  • Diversification. Are there portfolios of businesses that are more or less likely to survive COVID? What do firms need to do to leverage those parts of their portfolio? What is the role of the corporate HQ?
  • Rigorous Data Analysis. The media presents data on cases and deaths at the country level. There are so many questions one might raise. Is the country the right level of analysis? Given the limited testing in some countries, does the number of known cases even provide useful data? How do we interpret missing data in countries like China and Russia?

Contributed by Russ Coff

Alliances are a Great Ride … While they last

Alliances are temporary by their very nature. A key component of an alliance capability is the ability to manage the exit strategy. However, managers in operating units may not recognize the temporary nature and plan for its termination. This short video illustrates. How long will the alliance last?

Contributed by Russ Coff

Amazon’s New Spin

AmazonSpinTreeAmazon is encouraging employee spinouts. They are offering employees $10,000 plus 3 months salary to quit and form entrepreneurial ventures in their Delivery Service Partner Program. This makes for an excellent “ripped from the headlines” case. I ask students to read a brief packet of news articles on the program and complete a poll before class (here is the poll I used). Since the program started, Amazon has shifted 30-50% of its delivery needs away from big vendors (USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc.) in favor of internal and small external service providers. It brings out multiple strategic issues and can be used to frame a semesters worth of strategy issues:

  • Market structure: How does this alter the market structure for Amazon? On the other side, what is the market structure that employee entrepreneurs face?
  • Competitive dynamics: How will players respond? (FedEx has now declined to serve Amazon)
  • Internal analysis: How might this move enhance Amazon’s competitive advantage? Do the entrepreneurial ventures enjoy any competitive advantages?
  • Entrepreneurship: Is the opportunity for employee entrepreneurs attractive?
  • Corporate: Should Amazon vertically integrate into the delivery business? How does their tapered integration affect the market?
  • Alliances: How do the collaborative relationships between Amazon and its partners differ between big and small partners?

I have created a student spreadsheet that allows students to analyze the proposal from the perspective of an employee. It helps them consider two key sources of uncertainty: 1) how much help will Amazon provide on an ongoing basis? and 2) how smoothly will their implementation go? This is then compared against buying a FedEx route since there is an active market for these businesses. This is shown in the decision tree above. In addition, this is a final spreadsheet with the scenarios and decision tree completed.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Architectural Innovation … in a Word

scrabbleThe Alphabet Soup exercise was posted here earlier as a general exercise to flesh out the impact of cognitive traps when applying frameworks. This focuses students to think about how frameworks, while valuable, could lead them astray as they try to analyze complex problems. A special application of this lesson is in the discussion of the problem of Architectural Innovation (see Henderson and Clark, ASQ 1990). That is, when firms are very familiar with a set of components, a small change in how they interact may create a very difficult adaptation challenge. Here, the letters in the alphabet are the components and a simple priming tool gets people focused on how these components relate.  This exercise is very easy to run and makes the point powerfully how such cognitive frames may prevent people from reaching obvious solutions.

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Netflix Sequel: Bidding Wars the Movie

disney-leaves-netflixAs Netflix’s strategy unfolds it becomes clearer the extent to which it threatens traditional media companies. Initially, Netflix was a welcome partner who paid for access to older entertainment assets – new income streams for studios. More recently they have developed new content and lure top talent away from traditional media companies. Now, by offering a compelling portfolio of options, they compete more directly against traditional media companies. AT&T, Comcast, Fox, and Disney have taken notice of Netflix’s increasingly vertically integrated business model that bypasses traditional distributors (cable, DSL, satellite) and doesn’t rely on advertising revenue. The new model is driving mega mergers & bidding wars as rivals try to build compelling portfolios to offer streaming services. This is a great live case to frame many strategic management course topics including:

  • What is strategy? I use the Strategy Diamond and Netflix is a great case to look at things like staging and pacing, vehicles, and arenas.
  • Market structure – How attractive is the media industry and how has this streaming model affected industry profitability
  • Resources/Capabilities – Rivals lack some resources and some of their substantial existing resources have become “core rigidities” that hinder adaptation
  • Competitive dynamics – What strategic moves can we observe? How will Netflix respond?
  • Disruptive innovation – Netflix started as a limited low-cost alternative but added features that eventually made it a significant threat to incumbents.
  • Corporate strategy – The billions rivals spent on M&A are another critical angle. This also provides a vehicle to discuss when vertical integration creates value.

I have assembled some useful materials to frame a discussion of this case. First, the case can be taught using a series of recent news articles (sample article pack). In addition, I have prepared a spreadsheet to explore scenarios for how various events might affect the value of Netflix. For instance, what would happen to its business model if the market started to value the company  as a traditional media company as opposed to a tech firm? Similarly, what will happen if rivals’ M&A strategies succeed and pose a critical challenge? Finally, here is a link to a sample pre-class survey to help students think about the strategic issues before class.

Contributed by Russ Coff

 

Will a Robot Take Your Job?

robot-sculpture-03Some fear that eventually and robots will be able to do anything that humans can — better. Many have hailed the dangers of artificial intelligence to society (see Stephan Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, etc.). Hundreds of millions of jobs would be affected. Trillions of dollars of wealth created (and captured by whom?). These are the potential impacts of a coming wave of automation. In this episode of Moving Upstream (below), the Wall Street Journal traveled to Asia to see the next generation of industrial robots, what they’re capable of, and whether they’re friend or foe to low-skilled workers. Interestingly, new innovations in robotics allow robots to work safely side-by-side with humans and this achieves higher levels of productivity than either humans alone or robots alone. This is because most processes are not 100% programmable and working side-by-side allows for greater flexibility in handling exceptions to programmed routines. This is a great video to discuss topics like technological innovation, substitution of capital for labor, and interfaces between humans and technology.

Heard through Nicolai Foss

 

Print the Legend: A multidimensional case

Print the Legend (2014) is a documentary about the 3-D printing industry, that offers an engaging case study covering industry, firm & technology life cycles, disruptive technologies, and strategy in emerging firms & industries. This industry was established in the 1980s focusing on large expensive printers for industrial use – Two key players dominated using different technologies. The market was seriously shaken by startups in the 2010s that drastically reduced pricing created a consumer market. As such, we see two distinct market segments (industrial & consumer) and two technologies (stereolithography & fused-deposition) all battling it out.

The film follows two startups from emergence through VC funding, and shows their diverging paths as one is acquired and one remains independent. MakerBot, hires an experienced Strategy Director who (with the VC) radically shifts the founding strategy. This leads to high turnover and eventually, founder exit and acquisition by a leading industrial 3-D printing incumbent. In contrast, FormLabs, takes a more emergent approach to strategizing and positioning. The award-winning film is very well-made and fun to watch – Students love it and learn from it. It features a prominent VC (Brad Feld) and startups that students may be aware of.

Teaching notes: The film (available on Netflix) runs 100 minutes, so with discussion, it takes a full 3-hour class. It is helpful toward the end of the semester as a “movie day” with popcorn and snacks – students appreciate a break the week before their big final project is due. It is helpful to spend about 20 minutes at the start of class giving a mini-lecture on firm & industry life cycles and disruptive technologies, to set up the film, as well as about 10 minutes at the end for a debrief. One can show the film in 10-20 minute segments, pausing to discuss what has happened so far. This case has been a big hit over the 2 years it has been in use. It’s a little logistically complex, and requires strict adherence to a schedule, but once you have it down, it’s a very easy class and case to teach. Full teaching notes, assigned pre-reading, slides, and film segments are available on Gina’s shared teaching site.

Contributed by Gina Dokko

Free Money … No Takers?

FreeMoneyEntrepreneurship students often think they’ve found a “no brainer” idea – one that everyone “obviously” will want. We’ve all seen it before – an idea that is so good that it requires zero dollars for customer acquisition because word of mouth and social media will lead to infinite sales, virtually overnight.

Here’s an exercise that may help open students eyes to just how hard it can be to sell something. Even something as wonderful as their idea. Give each student group five single dollar bills. Ask them to develop a plan for giving away the dollar bills to strangers, in a public place. Have them develop a business plan that includes a target audience, script, etc. Giving away free money is harder than it appears! And if it’s hard to give away dollar bills, it will also be hard to get the attention of customers even for a “no brainer” idea. This exercise comes from the following video which might be assigned after the exercise as part of the debriefing.

Contributed by Susan Cohen

Tom Petty & the Perils of Strategic Alliances

AllianceFourCStrategic Alliances don’t make the news the way M&A do so some may struggle for examples. It is especially helpful to make students aware that, while Alliances may be less risky than M&A, there are still risks that need to be analyzed. Tom Petty provided a useful example to apply the “Four C” alliance framework. Like many musicians, he signed a contract with a record label before he made it. He and ABC had Complementary capabilities needed to develop and promote hits. Initially, they had Congruent Goals in that their interests were aligned to make the band a hit. Organizationally, they were Compatible in that they were able to coordinate effectively. What Petty failed to anticipate was how things would Change over the course of their agreement. By their 3rd album, he felt that the arrangement was so unfair that he tried to back out of the agreement claiming that ABC had no right to sell the contract to MCA. Ultimately, he only got out of it by declaring bankruptcy. The song, Refugee captures the anger he felt over how he was treated by the record companies and offers a nice lead in to the discussion. This also brings out a discussion of bargaining power and how it may change over time.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Amazon Eats Whole Foods

amazonwholefoodsWith 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.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Deflategate: Letting the air out of strategic planning

ballStrategies 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:

  1. Air pumpInflate 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.
  2. Where’s the plug? After inflating, students look for a plug. The instructor waits a few seconds and plugtakes 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.
  3. 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.

Other related toolbox exercises that demonstrate the challenge of predicting outcomes and implementing effectively include the Tinkertoy Exercise, the Strategy Puzzle, and the Paper fight. There are also some materials under the topic of scenario planning.

Contributed by Piotr WÓJCIK

Failure: The sequel

learning-failuretosuccessThis 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.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Moving Mountains on a Rugged Landscape

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…

Contributed by Russ Coff

Trumped up Strategy Class

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).
  • First 100 Days. Trump offered an ambitious list of things he planned to try and accomplish in the first 100 days. One can divide the list among groups and ask them to identify the implications of the policies for business in general or, preferably, for a specific firm/client.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Clowning Around About Time Compression Diseconomies

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.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Princess Bride Iocane Powder: Anticipating rivals

20120522-143633Most students quickly grasp the concept of game theory–figuring out what your opponent is likely to do helps you decide what you ought to do. As this clip shows, however, failing to understand the real decision choices to be made can lead to deadly, but funny results. In class, after introducing simultaneous vs. sequential games, I show the clip, pausing it just before the 2:11 mark. At this point the poison is in the goblet, and I ask the students who haven’t seen the movie which goblet they think is poisoned. I record answers, and then show the clip (up to anywhere between 4:45 and 5:02). I then ask if they were surprised. I then show the remainder of the clip, and we discuss what mistake Vazinni made. Students see the real payoff matrix as: a) if I (Vazinni) guess wrong, I’m dead; b) If I guess right, then the Dread Pirate Roberts knows it too has incentive to kill me before he dies. I only live if Iocane powder kills instantly. My correct answer can only be not to drink either goblet if I want to live. After watching this video clip and class discussion, students can:

  • identify what is a simultaneous decision
  • identify the true payoffs in a payoff matrix
  • understand the value of changing the game
  • never get into a ground war in Asia (okay, just kidding about that one).

Princess Bride fans might also appreciate this clip illustrating non-substitutability…

Contributed by Russ Coff and Jay Janney

Fun and Game Theory

Economics-games.com is a free educational games site for teaching microeconomics, industrial organization and game theory. This site includes some simple (short) simulations designed to demonstrate specific principles. This should not be confused with longer simulations that extend across many class sessions. Instructors set up user IDs & passwords for their class and students are paired with others in the class (or even across universities if desired). These are really nice interactive online exercises that can be done between classes. In this sense, they are an excellent online complement beyond the usual readings and talking head videos. Here are some of the games:

  • Cournot and Stackelberg games
  • Public good financing game
  • Common-pool resources game
  • Prisoner’s dilemma
  • Asymmetric matching penny game
  • An air transport economics simulation covering price discrimination, vertical differentiation and peak-load pricing.

In addition, you may wish to check out some of their longer, commercial games (http://aireconsim.com).
Contributed by Nicolas Gruyer

Research Chatter: Coffee talk for geeks

Ronnie Chatterji and Charlie Williams have put together an excellent research podcast series. They describe it as “Big ideas from business school professors.” It offers an excellent bridge between cutting edge business research and the world of practice. The podcast is sponsored by the Strategic Management Society (publisher of the Strategic Management Journal, Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, and Global Strategy Journal). You can find the podcasts at iTunes, Soundcloud, and YouTube among other places. Want a quick taste? Here are some of the topics that this reviewer found especially interesting in the realm of entrepreneurship and innovation:

Contributed by Russ Coff