So what exactly have we been doing the past two weeks? As I mentioned in my previous post, we had three classes during this pre-term period – Managerial Accounting (aka Basic Math), Microeconomics (aka Graphs), and Strategic Management (aka Lots of Talk).
For each class, let me attempt to give you an overview of:
1) What it’s like to attend this class
2) What we’ve learned over the past weeks (not in detail, of course, you’ll have to pay mucho bucks to attend Stanford for that).
3) What (if anything) makes this class interesting, and what (if anything) really bothers me about this class. On this last point, I don’t mean “bothers me” in an everyday sort of way, but rather something about the overall subject which seems to give me a “nagging feeling” that while we’re learning what they’re teaching us, there are some things that are unsaid that are actually pretty important.
I'll start with our Strategy class and see how far I can get in this post:
Strategic Management Class
This is one of the more popular courses we've taken so far, because of the free-wheeling nature of the discussion.
Professor Leslie walked into the very first class looking generally pretty relaxed. His Australian accent added to the casual nature of the classroom. He proceeded to tell us a little bit about his plan for the class: while the textbook (by Saloner, Shepard, and Podolny) would give us general principles, frameworks, and tools, the real medium for understanding strategy would be the cases themselves, of which we would read one each day.
During each class, Professor Leslie asks questions related to the case, and we contribute answers, dissecting the company that was described in the case and distilling out the features that made that company successful.
In our very first class, we were to have read a case about Equity Bank, a micro-finance bank in Kenya. These days, social entrepreneurship and micro-finance are part of the rage in business school. Ever since Mohammad Younas won the Nobel Prize for his work with Grameen Bank, this area has really attracted a lot of people.
According to Professor Leslie, many of the MBA students want to go into social entrepreneurship nowadays. Their reasoning is: if “I can make a lot of money and do good at the same time, I'm there."
While I think that social entrepreneurship is a pretty promising area, I’m worried that it’s becoming kind of a fad – with people jumping into it because it’s the “hot thing to do” – not because they are really committed to social development in the long term. This reminds me of how graduates rushed to investment banking in the 80’s, management consulting in the early 1990’s (when I graduated from my undergrad in 1992, working for McKinsey or such spinoffs was the hot thing to do), rushed to dot coms in the late 1990’s, and then back to banking and consulting in the early 2000s. Today it’s private equity and social entrepreneurship. What will it be in a few years?
It almost feels like the class is teaching itself because he is able to elicit the key points of the case. But of course, it’s not that simple at all, since Professor Leslie has a definite direction in his questions and points about each case that he wants to make.
Adding to the informality of the class is his general disarming ability to use everyday language (i.e. he talks like a real person, albeit with an Australian twist). On that first day, he declared, much to our surprise that “…we don’t really give a shit about Equity Bank, even though we were going to talk about it all day.” It was the characteristics of their strategy and the principles for their success that we were really interested in.
This would be true of all of our cases. So I’m going to give a quick summary of the cases that we studied and why (at least as far as I can tell why we studied them). Since all the cases are about real companies, you can look them up and find out about the strategy yourself if you want to follow along.
Case #1: Equity Bank of Kenya.
Why we discussed it: To see an example of optimizing an organization for serving the needs of a target market through culture.
What about it is important: One of the key ingredients to their success in Kenya was that they understood their local culture, and they tailored the organizational structure, bank policies for lending and opening accounts, and culture to serving their target market: who were the unbanked. For example, you could open a bank account without any collateral, just an ID card which is one of the few ID”s that Kenyans had. They had very little deposit requirements, and were very flexible on collateral when it came to loans. All of this allowed them to get huge growth rates vis a vis competitors like Barclay’s for a while. But now other competiors were starting to focus on this previously unbanked target market.
Why I think we really discussed it: micro-finance is hot – it wouldn’t do to not have one case about it.
Case #2: Capital One.
Why we discussed it: To show another example of how culture influences a successful strategy.
What's important about it: Capital One used heavy-duty analysis of data to find features of credit cards that were attractive to end users. One thing they did that was innovative was to combine the marketing and the credit risk departments together to optimize offers made to individuals based upon their credit history and any other information they could gather. Before Capital One, most credit cards were at the same fixed rate, without any variations. The ability to analyze data and make decisions based on what a particular prospect or customers needed was innovative in the banking sector in general. When Capital One introduced its balance transfer and low introductory nterest rate, its sales went through the roof, making it a major player in the US consumer credit market virtually overnight.
Why I think we really discussed it: The CEO is a Stanford GSB Alum, and this is a good example of a company that uses very analytical decision making.
Professor Leslie told us in this class that Business Schools in general, and Stanford in particular, likes to think that success can be taught using analytical frameworks and that it relies not just on “gut feelings and “instincts”, which is one of the reasons they really like to use the Capital One example. I’ve touched on this topic on the blog before and will again as it is very near and dear to me. In fact, I think that gut feelings and instincts probably played a very significant role in both the Equity Bank and Capital One cases. In Capital One, the CEO was out trying to get many banks to sign onto his ideas while they all told him he was crazy (according to the case, one banker threatened to throw him out of the window). After he finally got Signet Bank to fund his enterprise, it took a lot of “churning” of ideas ideas and markets and analysis before they came up with the one that worked. In fact, they were very close to having the plug pulled on their group because it hadn’t shown any results for a few years when the killer tactic happened.
This is an underlying issue that’s been nagging at me as I’ve arrived at Stanford Business School – can success really be taught? Especially in the case of corporate strategic decisions? Most entrepreneurs operate almost entirely on intuition. Most MBA’s try to operate on analysis. Is there a middle road between these? We’ll talk about this more in the year to come, I’m sure.
The next two cases introduced us to the concept of explorers (“innovators”) and exploiters (who do something so well that they are more efficient at it than others).
Case #3: Wal-mart
Why we discussed it: Wal-mart is the biggest and most successful retailer in the US (and perhaps the World).
What's important about it: In this case, we were introduced to the idea of organizations that optimized operations as a competitive advantage, and to the idea of an evolving strategy. When Wal-mart first started, they targeted in towns where many of their competitors didn’t have stores. This idea of targeting an underserved market is one pattern that has come out in many of our cases. Then as they grew, they virtually created the concept of “economies of density” – by having stores close enough to each other they could supply them once and for all. Finally, as they grew and started to appear in areas with competition, they started to get buying power from their suppliers, and this added to them being able to negotiate the lowest prices, as did their heavy investment in technology. Their distribution centers, delivery trucks, and inventory were far more optimized than their competitors. One issue that came up was about internationalization – they weren’t very good abroad. Since we had students in our class from Japan, Russia, UK, Korea, India, South America, and other countries, we were able to get perspective on the Wal-mart strategy in these other areas and why it didn’t seem to work as well.
What we really got out of it: Wal-mart, while doing some innovative things, is primarily focused on operating better. Many of their ideas were just copied from somewhere else (Sam’s club, for example, was a copy of earlier large membership type clubs) or out of necessity more than foresight. Even their innovative distribution strategy came about because no one was willing to spend time supplying them. This is a good question to ask in any organization: are you an innovator or an execution oriented organization (explorer or exploiter?)
Case #4: 3M
Why we studied it: 3M is a great example of a company that encouraged innovation.
What's important about it: The culture of this company for innovation, at least from the case, was very interesting. They started back in the early 1900’s and have had a large number of products invented in their labs. They even tell stories of people (engineers) who were told by management to shut down a project because it didn’t show promise, but who continued to work on it anyways. Well before Google, they introduced the idea of bootleg time – spending 15% of your time on a project outside your immediate scope of responsibilities. They even had a requirement that 25% of their revenues come from new products (products which had been introduced in the last five years). If you think of the size of 3M ($14 Billion at the time of the case”), this requires, in the words of Professor Leslie, a “staggering amount of innovation”.
As we talked about culture, we were introduced to the ARC framework describe din the text – A=architecture, R=routines, and C=culture. This is a framework for talking about how an organization is structured formally vs. informally. Professsor Leslie spoke to us about how architecture of an organization can be changed very quickly – with an email you can change who reports to who. But cultures are much more difficult to change because they are much softer and often implicit. 3M in particular had a culture of innovation that rewarded those people (usually engineers) who came up with bright new ideas that led to products. Of course this culture of innovation sometimes led them astray to be doing too many things and not doing some things really well.
That concluded our looking at the internal context of individual firms. In the second week, we started looking at industries rather than just at individual firms. This led to doing industry analysis using Michael Porter’s now famous five forces – Buyers, Suppliers, Substitutes, Barriers to Entry, and Rivalry. There’s a lot about these in the internet.
Most of business schools and teachers consists of slightly nerdy people, said the Professor, but Michael Porter has become somewhat of a “rockstar” among those who follow business school type guys. In this week we studied:
Shimano. We studied Shimano and the industry for high end road bikes. Shimano provide some of the key components used by Lance Armstrong in his bikes when he won all of those Tour De France victories. Shimano is also a great example of how one firm (a supplier in this case) can capture much of the value of an industry’s value-chain (what does value-chain mean? I’m not entirely sure but it has something to do with suppliers and buyers). Shimano, like “Intel inside” in the PC industry has developed a brand for their integrated set of components that fit into a Bike, and Bike Manufacturers basically all use the Shimano components (with some slight competitors). I knew nothing about the bike industry so this was an eye opening experience that one firm had caputred so much of the value from the High End Biking industry.
Rockwell. This was by far the most boring case – and I think that is the only statement that none of my classmates will argue. It was about the market for water meters in the 70’s and 80’s. This company had an innovation that they used to their advantage for slightly better and more durable water meters which were sold to munipicalities throughout the US. Despite many of us starting to yawn, Professor Leslie called this an almost “perfect” industry to make money – low supplier power (raw materials were the inputs), high switching costs, and a very cozy relationship between buyers (municipalities, of which there are many tens of thousands) and vendors. There was pretty significant barriers to entry as well. Turns out this was a very profitable industry, just not a very exciting one.
One interesting thing we discovered during this case was professor Leslie’s ability to estimate, based on the economies of scale, the number of likely serious competitors in a market. If you took the total market size, divided it by the costs and units produced by a Bronze foundry (which was an important barrier to entry for new firms) you likely came up with an oligopolistic structure.
Dell. We had a case about Dell computer and the rest of the PC industry from the late 80’s to the late 90’s, and some of the challenges faced by Dell and others in this industry, including players like Compaq, IBM, HP, and Sony. During this time period, Dell had lower prices than most and was perceived as better quality than most as well. This brought up the idea that all the many millions spent on branding could be part of the barriers to entry for other firms to get into the marketplace. We also look at how to estimate the margins and costs for individual parts of the manufacturing process.
Airborne Express. This case looked at the third largest overnight shipping company in the US, behind Federal Express and UPS. Airborne became successful by keeping their costs lower than either of the other two, and focusing in on a market that they felt was underserved: businesses of a certain size. By ignoring the consumer market entirely, and developing long term relationships they were able to focus in and be successful in this market. Airborne was also an example of a company with lower fixed costs but higher variable costs than its competitors- meaning they used people to do a lot of the sorting that Fedex used computer software to do. This meant airborne didn’t have to invest, like Fedex did, hundreds of millions of dollars in software.
Finally, on the last day of our first two weeks, we talked about internet companies – eBay, Google, Yahoo/Overture (which is what the written case was about) and Facebook, The concept that was introduced was the idea of DSIR (demand side increasing returns), better known as the network effect being a barrier to entry to others. The perfect example of this was eBay. Once it had a critical mass of buyers, the sellers wanted to go there. Once there was a critical mass of sellers, the buyers wanted to go there. Once buyers and sellers both spent a lot of time on eBay and built up reputations in each area, neither wanted to move.
The network effect requires there being a coordinated effort of people to really move off of one company’s platform and onto another. The case for the day was actually about Overture, an precursor to Google’s AdWords, which sold advertising based on keywords on searches. It was very successful in the early days, because it partnered with Yahoo and others to get the traffic. According to Professor Leslie the company’s expertise quickly became “how to receive checks and deposit them in the bank” because the money was flowing in so quickly. Of course Google extended the idea and perfected it, leaving Overture (and Yahoo, which acquired it) in the dust.
And this took us on a discussion of Facebook and the changing landscape of Social Networking and whether it has effective DSIR or not. I’ll have a lot to say about this landscape since I have some experience in social networking companies, but this post has already become very long. I guess we’ll have to leave what we learned in other classes for another day!
So I’ve said a lot about what we’ve learned. I like this class a lot – particularly the case and free discussion format. I’ll even venture that this has been my favorite class, thus far at the Stanford Business School.
However, the thing that’s been nagging at me is that we (and Business Schools in general) seem to be brilliant at analyzing a firms strategy and figuring out what their competitive advantage is – in hindsight. The question is by ignoring intuition and gut feelings, and doing the MBA-type analysis, are they really blinding themselves from being able to effectively study how firms create competitive advantage and future using foresight?
It’s a loaded question so I’ll leave it out there for now.
And once again this post has gone long, so i'll have to talk about the other classes in other posts...