The 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.
As 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
Some 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
As the container shipping industry continues to boom, companies are adopting new technologies to move cargo faster and shifting to crewless ships. But it’s not all been smooth sailing and the future will see fewer players stay above water. This WSJ video takes students through the history and shows how the industry structure has changed with new innovations. Excellent for teaching industry analysis and innovation (architectural/systemic innovation).
Heard through Nicolai Foss
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
Strategic 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
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.
Contributed by Russ Coff
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.
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
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.
Contributed by Russ Coff
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
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:
Contributed by Will Mitchell
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:
- Written mini-case from Aya Chacar
- Pokemon GO news articles
- Pre-class poll to capture preliminary analysis of the case
- Survey for Pokemon GO users
- Lessons from the Pokéconomy: Teaching Economics with Pokémon GO (Reilly & Holder)
- There is no end to entertaining Pokemon videos…
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:
- This older Forbes article highlights the importance of country specific advantage along with luck and firm specific advantages to the success of AmorePacific.
- A more current state of the South Korean cosmetics industry can be found here.
- A case on AmorePacific focusing on innovation in peripheral components.
- A global cosmetics industry report
- PowerPoint (visual) analysis of the Korean cosmetics market
Contributed by Aya Chacar
Comparative advantage is about nations leveraging their unique resource advantages. There was a time when, for China, that referred to cheap labor. There was once a notion that good manufacturing jobs were “shipped” to China because wages were so low. This narrative still bubbles up in today’s political rhetoric. However, today’s news also highlights that Foxconn, the World’s largest contract manufacturing company, is replacing 60,000 workers with robots. Wages in China do remain below those in other countries. However, the comparative advantage is no longer about cheap unskilled labor. In fact, China has produced about 60 million college graduates in the last ten years. At this rate, the World Bank predicts there to be up to 200 million by 2030. This is greater than the entire U.S. workforce. In short, they seek a comparative advantage based on human capital as opposed to generic labor. Cheap labor, in turn, may be replaced by capial investments (Foxconn seems to be on the leading edge in this trend). A question for a global strategy class might be how should other countries respond? Would an education arms race help or hurt comparative advantage?
Contributed by Russ Coff
Presenting material clearly and concisely may not be the best way to help students learn. In fact, presenting ambiguous information that leverages common sources of confusion may be a much better route to learning. This post is intended to serve as a BLEG to solicit examples of confusions that students experience. Accordingly, this is a starting point for developing new material that draws on confusion to teach strategy. We begin by understanding what confuses students. Here are some examples that come to mind (please add your own examples in the comments):
- What does 5 Forces tell us about the firm’s advantage? Students often put a focal firm in the center and consider rivals to be substitutes. They don’t understand that the framework addresses the industry and not the firm.
- What industry to choose for 5 forces? Students often choose an umbrella industry instead of the specific segment they are considering entering (e.g., beer instead of micro brews in South Africa). The result, then, is almost useless for making decisions and the analysis is not used to make recommendations.
- Some resources are valuable while others are Inimitable (VRIO): Students think they are looking for some resources that fit in each bucket (V,R,I, & O) instead of a few resources that meet all of the criteria. They don’t understand that VRIO is a filter to evaluate all strengths in the value chain.
- What is that “O” for anyway (in VRIO)? It seems to make sense but students often don’t really understand how a firm can have all of the pieces and still not execute. I use Xerox PARC as an example.
- How do we make decisions using VRIO? Students often think they understand but don’t really know how to use it to make a decision. For example, how are capabilities relevant to decisions like entering new markets or fending off rivals?
- Motivation for diversification: guilty until proven innocent. Students often suggest that a firm should acquire a successful target. They fail to see that future success is built into the acquisition price and don’t ask why the buyer could create unique value over other bidders.
- Technology advantages erode rapidly. People see technology as key but miss that it can be easy to reverse engineer (leading to a temporary advantage). While the iPhone confers an advantage to Apple, Samsung has more market share.
- Core competence is not what a firm does well if rivals can do it better. Core competence must refer to VRIO resources in order to create value.
Again, please add your own examples in the comments below. The following TED talk by Derek Muller describes the technique in teaching science.
PEST analysis can be helpful to identify trends or factors outside of a firm’s focal industry that will ultimately affect the industry. It stands for Political, Economic, Socio-cultural, and Technological factors. PESTEL is a similar framework that adds Environmental and Legal trends to the mix. The PEST framework is simple but it has the advantage of focusing trend analysis efforts so you can cover ground in a more systematic fashion (than, for example, SWOT analysis which is quite unsystematic). Shad Morris’ video below offers a great introduction to the analytic framework.
Contributed by Shad Morris
Knowledge and intellectual property inherently complicate exchange (e.g., property rights are poorly defined, the value is unclear, there are high transaction costs). One manifestation of this is the disclosure problem (Arrow’s 1962 information paradox). Figuring out the “price” for an idea requires revealing data which intrinsically reduces its value. Entrepreneurs often have ideas stolen by larger corporations that have significant complementary assets. Accordingly, they often try to go it alone despite the fact that their lack of such resources may ultimately create less value (for example, Tony Fadell tried to go it alone before bringing the iPod idea to Apple). His alliance with Apple turned out very well. However, this is often not the case. This clip illustrates what happened to Kramer (on Seinfeld) when he approached Calvin Klein with his idea for a new cologne called “beach” hoping to access their resources while gaining a signal of the idea’s value. He reveals the idea in an effort to obtain both. While it is funny, it will also kick off a serious discussion on this issue.
Sometimes students struggle with how a firm can have valuable, rare, inimitable resources and still not have an advantage. This is central to the resource-based view and the VRIO framework. This clip from “Triumph of the Nerds” shows how PARC Xerox developed the GUI interface, object-oriented programming, and local area networks. Then it shows how they failed to exploit any of these innovations. In particular, it shows how Steve Jobs toured PARC and lifted the GUI to create the Macintosh computer. Here is a nice discussion of what the Xerox engineers thought of Steve Jobs’ visit. This can lead to a nice discussion of intellectual property, complementary assets, internal and external analysis. It is useful to show the first half (first 4.5 minutes) and ask students to speculate on why we don’t all have Xerox computers. Then the second half explains how Apple exploited the innovations.
Given Apple’s legal actions against Samsung and Google over the look and feel of their product, there is a certain irony that Apple imitated Xerox in their flagship product.
Contributed by Rich Makadok
Pivoting from one strategy to another is essential for entrepreneurial firms but also for more established firms operating in a dynamic environment (see other materials on dynamic capabilities on this site). The video below can stimulate a conversation on what it takes to pivot (both in entrepreneurial and established contexts). Of course, its also moderately entertaining…
Contributed by Russ Coff
Chrome has been sucking power from your laptop batteries. Google has been playing catch up to Apple’s Safari in terms of power consumption on Mac computers for some time. Apple’s product is optimized to be more efficient to their own proprietary operating system while Google is optimizing development efforts across platforms. Indeed, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer also enjoys a power consumption advantage on Windows machines. Of course, this could just be a flaw in Chrome but it does seem like it might be linked to specialization on a single platform as opposed to cross-platform compatibility. Strategy classes might explore more deeply how valuable the advantage of vertical integration might be in this case. Also, what type of organization must be in place to realize this potential value. Of course, the ad revenue gleaned from these products may justify vertical integration but it is less clear how this would create value for users. Power consumption, on the other hand, would be important to users.
Contributed by Russ Coff