After reading this chapter, you should be able to understand these statements:
- Define the external environment of organizations.
- Identify contemporary external forces pressuring organizations.
- Identify different types of organizational structures and their strengths and weaknesses.
- Explain how organizations organize to meet external market threats and opportunities.
- Identify the fit between organizational cultures and the external environment.
- Identify environmental trends, demands, and opportunities facing organizations.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon
Amazon’s market value was estimated at $1 trillion USD dollars in 2018. The company was recognized as the most innovative company in Fast Company’s 2017 list, accounting for 44 percent of all U.S. e-commerce that year—approximately 4 percent of the U.S.’s total retail sales. Amazon market value is greater than the sum of the market capitalizations of Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Nordstrom, Kohl’s, JCPenney, Sears, and Macy’s. Jeff Bezos, founder and leader, has creatively accomplished what most large companies fail at: meshing size, scale, and external opportunities with agility. Sales figures reached $100 billion in 2015 while the stock price climbed over 300% in the past five years. The company plans on creating over 50,000 new jobs starting in 2018. Bezos has blended his strategy of virtually reaching unlimited numbers of online customers while maintaining land-based distribution centers using Prime’s $99-per-year—$119 in 2018—membership. Stephenie Landry, an Amazon’s vice president, stated that Prime has reached 49 cities in seven countries. Over 100 million people in 2018 subscribe to the Prime service. She noted that the business has only to answer two questions from customers: “Do you have what I want, and can you get it to me when I need it?” The answer seems to be yes, especially with Bezos’s strategy of having high-tech robots already working side by side with human employees—resembling a “factory of the future.”
Bezos’s digital commerce strategy has led the firm to become the leader of retail commerce. Amazon’s digital strategy uses Prime memberships that are supplied and supported by land-based distribution centers; Prime takes in reaching about 60% of the total dollar value of all merchandise sold on the site. That accounts for 60 million customers in the United States who use Prime and who spend $2,500 on Amazon annually. A study of 3,000 independent businesses, half of whom were retailers, listed competition from Amazon as their primary concern. Industry after industry is being disrupted, some replaced, by Bezos’s strategy. He has said, “Everybody wants fast delivery. Low prices. I’m serious about this. Our job is to provide a great customer experience, and that is something that is universally desired all over the world”.
Still, Amazon faces such challenges as high shipping cost (over $11 billion annually), pressures on employees (especially those working in warehouses that have been criticized for poor working conditions), shipping contractors who go on strike demanding higher wages and reduced workloads, and the possibilities of more governmental regulation (especially with regard to adding drones as a delivery method), as well as pressures to pay more taxes. Bezos has countered these arguments by adding more full-time jobs in different cities, promising to improve working conditions, supporting public spaces for the public, and most importantly, contributing to the U.S. economy.
Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-26/amazon-eyes-second-biggest-market-cap-surging-past-microsoft. Noah Robischon, (2017). Why Amazon Is The World’s Most Innovative Company Of 2017, https://www.fastcompany.com/3067455/why-amazon-is-the-worlds-most-innovative-company-of-2017; L. Thomas, (2018). Amazon grabbed 4 percent of all US retail sales in 2017, new study says, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/03/amazon-grabbed-4-percent-of-all-us-retail-sales-in-2017-new-study.html
Organizations and industries are again at a crossroads when confronting new and challenging external environmental demands. Exceptional companies such as Amazon, in the opening case, Apple, Netflix, and Google/Alphabet Inc. exemplify evolving business models that combine strategic innovation, technological prowess, and organizational cultural agility that not only meet external environmental demands, but also shape them.
Many businesses with traditional business models, however, have failed or are not succeeding strategically, operationally, and organizationally by not realizing and/or adapting to changing external environments. Such firms that were once successful but did not anticipate and then adapt to such changes include Blockbuster, Toys R Us, Borders, Sun Microsystems, Motorola, Digital Equipment Corporation, Polaroid, and Kodak, to name only a few. A sample of contemporary external environmental trends and forces that currently challenge organizations’ survival and effectiveness includes:
- Digital technologies and artificial intelligence (AI): Extensions of AI help automate a firm’s value chain, thus speeding up and increasing efficient operations and service to customers—as Amazon exemplifies. A current survey showed that 59% of organizations are collecting information to develop AI strategies, while others are moving forward in piloting and/or adopting AI solutions to compete faster and at less cost.1 However, there are also risks that accompany firms that incorporate new digital and online technologies without adequate security measures. For example, some newer online technologies can expose operational systems to cyberattacks and large-scale manipulation. Hacking is now both an illegal and ongoing “profession” for those who are able to paralyze organizations from accessing their data unless they pay a ransom. While hacking is not new, it is more widespread and lethal, to the point of even threatening national security. Evidence from the U.S. presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton indicates that international hackers affected online U.S. election processes. In 2020, a major cyberattack penetrated multiple portions of the U.S. federal government, including the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, Energy, and Defense. Still, the future of most businesses is using some type of digital and AI technologies.
- The advent of blockchain technologies that are interrupting new industry practices. Blockchain is not a single technology; it is “an architecture that allows disparate users to make transactions and then creates an unchangeable record of those transactions.” It is “a public electronic ledger—similar to a relational database—that can be openly shared among disparate users and that creates an unchangeable record of their transactions, each one time-stamped and linked to the previous one.”2 These technological inventions will continue to affect almost every business process from procurement to legal management. The banking industry is already using it. It increases speed, security, and accuracy of transactions.
- Sharing-economy cultural and economic value-added business models that use information technologies to gain competitive advantage. Companies such as Airbnb and Uber have ushered in new business models that have already disrupted real estate, hotel, taxi, and other industries. Taking out the middle layer of management in transactions to increase efficiencies and customer satisfaction while cutting costs through the use of information and social media technologies will continue. This trend has already had both positive and disruptive effects on companies. Many customers are likely benefitted; businesses with outdated and ineffective business models have either failed or struggle to adapt.
- Shifts in learning and learning credentials. Identifying, recruiting, and retaining talent is crucial to organizations. An evolving crisis for the current generation—future talent—is the continued rise in higher educational institutions’ tuitions, student debt, and the changing nature of jobs. With the advent of online resources, prospective students’ inability to pay creates both a crisis and opportunity for traditional higher educational institutions. While bachelor’s degrees remain a requirement for many companies hiring needed higher-level talent, online resources such as Khan Academy, Udacity, and Coursera are gaining recognition and legitimacy toward providing financially challenged students opportunities for entry-level jobs. While many higher-skilled students and professionals may not presently be included in this trend, companies seeking to pay lower wages while offering flexible working conditions are attracting students.3 Again, how higher educational private, not-for-profit, and even for-profit educational institutions adapt, innovate, and manage their external environments is yet to be seen.
- Ethics, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and sustainability. Corruption, lying, and fraud have been and continue to be part of the landscape of governments and public- and private-sector corporations. However, public awareness through social and online media has awakened consumers and corporations to the impending dangers and drawbacks of illegal and unethical activities of certain large corporations. And external environmental problems, created in part by humans, such as pollution and climate change pressure companies to be responsible for their share of the costs associated with these problems.
This small sample of powerful external forces illustrates the continuing pressure companies encounter to innovate in their industries. Basic theories, concepts, and principles are presented in this chapter to help explain elements of external environments and how organizations and corporations can organize and are organizing to survive and thrive in the 21st century.