Kama Sutra and market positions

Managing Strategy - Foundations of Business Economics - Corporate Strategy and Business Planning
April 5, 1996

I thought the Kama Sutra was an Indian restaurant until I discovered Smirnoff" was one of the witty slogans used to promote vodka in the 1970s. But market researchers surveying potential customers found that 60 per cent of them did indeed think that the Kama Sutra was an Indian restaurant. Harry Townsend does not conclude that this did or did not increase sales of vodka. Possibly it increased the sales of lager instead. But it is typical of Townsend's style that this introductory text intended for business studies is at once lively, informative, pertinent and leaves the student asking questions to which there may be more than one answer.

He introduces his account of the three meanings of competition by reminding us that Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil's Dictionary, defined a competitor as "a scoundrel who desires that which we desire".

Townsend's illustrations are drawn from a wide variety of domains. Input-output analysis is illustrated by the effect of sanctions on the self-governing colony of Rhodesia: rather the analysis indicates why sanctions had no effect whatever and never could have. On prime minister Harold Wilson's prediction that "the cumulative effects of economic sanctions might well bring the rebellion to an end in a matter of weeks rather than months", Townsend comments that "this forecast had the saving grace that it could not mislead for long".

There are many gems of the same sort. Townsend's summary of the relevance of ship-handling to opportunity cost is terse and to the point. But his explanation of why an increase in the number of minicabs also apparently leads to an increase in black cabs is too perfunctory to be compelling.

Not many economists can amuse and instruct simultaneously. Many, indeed, seem to be appropriately bored themselves by the dismal science. Readers of Townsend, who will be mainly first-year students in business and economics, will probably love his approach. But the author intends his book to be read by second-year students, too. Some of them will give him the compliment of raising the occasional eyebrow and saying "Yes, but I" Cliff Bowman and David Asch have nearly pulled off the opposite stroke, that of making strategy, the most exciting part of business school teaching, seem almost boring. But stick with it. Their approach is thorough, clear and judicious. The many diagrams point up the clear structure of their arguments. The first part owes much to Michael Porter and they position Porter clearly in classical economic analysis. Their thoughtful account takes the perspective of senior managers responsible for setting organisational strategy.

The examples are not as wide ranging as Townsend's but are perhaps more accessible to this kind of reader. They integrate a good deal of current research into a clear framework. They do not go overboard after trendy versions of "the customer is king" and they might believe that in Robert Grant's terms "the definition of a business in terms of what it is capable of doing may offer a more useful basis for strategy than a definition based upon the needs which the business seeks to satisfy".

This will be reassuring to those of us in business schools who had thought we were part of universities but have found ourselves increasingly directed towards behaviour patterns more typical of door-to-door salesmen. But Bowman and Asch's analysis is respectful of diversity and they deny that any single paradigm is appropriate. Their final sentence ought to be on every strategist's lavatory wall: "Good judgement is the paramount indispensable attribute and should underlie every decision and action."

At first sight Roger Bennett looks like the boring exam-oriented member of this trio. His text is aimed at college students of strategic management. His approach is manual based and to some extent list driven. But what lists.

Many an essay will be based on the terse and comprehensible summaries Bennett provides. Chaos theory has never seemed so clear.

As well as good references, he supplies sample examination questions and, for those new to the sport, a helpful appendix on exam technique.

But where is the beef, why are we learning this? How does it relate to what managers do? And, above all, where are the integrating theories that bring together this particular cluster of behaviours? And now I know this or that fact how can I use this knowledge to make money and build a career? Students will also need to ask these questions. Managers may find the diet of lists filling but unsatisfying theoretically.

David T. H. Weir is director and professor of management, Management Centre, University of Bradford.

Managing Strategy

Author - Cliff Bowman and David Asch
ISBN - 0 333 60887 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 184pp

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