What do Apple, General Electric, Nike, and Coca-Cola have in common? On the surface, they are global icons worth billions of dollars. At one time, they were all fledgling upstarts whose disruptive business models razed competitors and amended history and culture alike. Apple helped place computers in every den and touch screens on every phone. GE ushered in the age of household lights, refrigerators, and radios. Nike swooshed through the sportswear market, empowering fence sitters to “Just Do It” And Coca Cola turned sugar water into a Rockwellian staple for every imaginable event.
Beyond revolutionizing their respective markets, these companies also serve up lessons, good and bad, for business school professors who use them in case studies to put a spotlight on gut-wrenching tradeoffs and ambiguous outcomes. Their how’s and why’s can stir cross-fire from all corners of the classroom. In an environment where professors are (often) guides and (sometimes) referees, you don’t always know what they really think about the firms they spotlight.
DUKE PROF SPENDS SEMESTER AT AMAZON
That’s why Poets&Quants recently asked the “40 Most Outstanding MBA Professors Under 40” to name their favorite companies. Why? Simply put, such companies personify what it takes to thrive year-over-year in head-spinning products cycles and markets packed with cutthroat competitors. One such company is Amazon, whose eCommerce platform has laid waste to firms ranging from Borders to Circuit City. It is here where Ryan McDevitt, an assistant professor of Economics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, has spent the past semester on leave. Instead of devoting this time to writing a book or bopping around the Mediterranean, he is overseeing customer insights for Amazon’s Prime Video & Music arm. Call it the academic equivalent to an internship, with McDevitt applying the economic models he teaches to better understand how customers engage with Amazon’s services.
For McDevitt, Amazon is a living laboratory. It illustrates the best practices, ones that Fuqua students can absorb when he returns to Durham next fall. “It’s been fascinating to see from the inside how one of the world’s most innovative companies uses economics to help make complex decisions and set long-term strategies,” McDevitt wrote to Poets&Quants as part of his ’40 Under 40’ nomination. “It’s been exciting to connect the abstract lessons I teach students in the classroom to the types of problems companies actually face.”
To borrow a cliché, you don’t learn how to become the New England Patriots by studying the lowly Cleveland Browns. What companies do business professors admire? What makes these firms so successful? What are some takeaways from them that MBAs can use in their job — or even the companies they launch themselves? This is what the next generation of rock star MBA professors had to say.
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For some, continuous innovation and re-invention is the foundation for many firms’ success. Ohio State’s Aravind Chandrasekaran, an associate professor of operations, touts 3M for being emblematic of innovation in both process and culture. “3M created many current design thinking and innovation rules that have been followed by several leading organizations,” he notes. For Ting Li, an associate professor of information systems at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, Uber differentiates itself through its unrivaled micro franchising model. “It’s disrupting the taxi and transportation market,” she points out. “It runs a brilliant platform that benefits both customers and drivers through smart pricing.”
When it comes to innovation, Netflix often comes top-of-mind. Starting off as the mailbox equivalent to Blockbuster, Netflix has since branched out into on-demand curation and developing original programming like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. According to Elise Long, an assistant professor of decisions, operations, and technology management at the UCLA School Management, Netflix’s secret has been its ability to pivot as technology evolved and expectations rose. “Netflix is always innovating when it comes to efficiency in their distribution network, transitioning to online streaming, and creating original content, despite making some early mistakes,” she explains.