Strategy Detox – A Few Thoughts

It’s only been about three days since the end of the Competitive Strategy course, but I feel that it’s sufficient time to do a post-mortem analysis on how the class went. It makes a good introductory blog post, and I figure if I’m going to start somewhere, anywhere with my writings, it might as well be here.

From the beginning, I had been looking forward to the Competitive Strategy course. During orientation, my first impression of Professor Mayer is that he was extremely knowledgeable and energetic. He had worked in tech, an area totally relevant to my interests and through his expertise and direction, would give us that opportunity to dissect companies and industries, figure out where they should be, and come up with a series of steps to take them there! Corporate strategy at its finest!

The red flag that I probably should have noted was that this course would only be three weeks long. There’s only so much that one can teach about competitive strategy in that length of time and Professor Mayer did the best he could. Which was still pretty good, mind you. Class provided plenty of stimulating discussion and the strategic frameworks that he taught us were invaluable in helping us get to know a given industry better.

But the main thing that we must all keep in mind is this: the strategic frameworks merely provide the foundation for further analysis. That is, once you’ve scribbled out Porter’s Five Forces, the Value Chain, and Business Model diagrams, all you’ve done is created the starting point. The next – and undoubtedly more difficult – step lies in figuring out how to use that information to take a given company on a direction that will allow it to succeed over its rivals without being blind-sided by emerging threats to their business model.

That next step beyond the foundation is the component that is missing from the Competitive Strategy course. All we’ve been given thus far are descriptions, not prescriptions and the real world is a very fickle place; one cannot declare with absolute certainty how it’ll react to a certain business strategy. Business history is filled to the brim with such fiascoes as New Coke and inaccurate soothsayings like Apple’s iPad failing to meet expectations. And if millions of dollars spent in product testing, focus groups, and hiring business experts still result in wrong answers, what can MBA students do to show that we are worth our degrees and can provide tangible value to the organizations that we work for?

This is a question I’ll leave mostly unanswered for now. My initial thought, though, is that certainty is overrated and that you do the best with the information you have. Just be sure to stay nimble enough to realize when you need to make those change of plans or grasp that opportunity to let it take you to even better lands!

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2 Comments

  1. Posted October 18, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    As a business systems analyst, I’ve found the Value Chain to be very beneficial. I adopted it thinking that I could put it to use for BA purposes, and that it could also tie into analyses from other perspectives (financial, entrepreneurial). A lot of what I do is model-based, especially aiming to build a shared understanding about business processes. What I found was that it is easy to create a complex (and therefore confusing) collection of important business processes (or portfolio of business initiatives, for that matter), that never really added up to a coherent “Big Picture”.

    I adopted the Value Chain as the big picture at the top, and then decomposed from there into constituent business processes. I found this had several benefits. It provided a simpler framework for discussions about how the individual business process under investigation was related to business value to which C-level officers could relate. The portfolio of initiatives across the enterprise (for a non-diversified organization) could be shown all together so decision makers could see how resources were being invested. It also gave me confidence that I was being comprehensive as I attempted to identify business processes at the outset of an engagement with an organization.

    I expected that I would be able to build bridges with someone in the CFO’s office using the Value Chain, to provide reporting to them in a way that they could derive additional analyses, but in practice this never happened. Nevertheless, I think I was able to use the Value Chain in my work to provide leverage for corporate officers to make strategic decisions.

    • Chris Nguyen
      Posted October 19, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      @Bob
      Everything I’m learning about in my courses right now is basically giving me the frameworks to organize information together into something that’s a bit more coherent and I’ve found those tools to be really helpful. As I mentioned in the post, I’ve observed that some people don’t go much further in their analysis and it’s the next step that’s where students and soon-to-be employees can add the most value.

      Glad to know that such frameworks do exist outside the confines of B-school, so thanks for relaying your experiences!

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