First Look

November 25, 2008

A business case on a division of one of the best-known Internet companies takes the lead this week. "Amazon Web Services" by HBS professors Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano, with Liz Kind, senior researcher at the HBS California Research Center, describes how the retailing giant, Inc. weighed the decision to offer Web-based storage and computing services to Web developers. In the face of increasing competition from Google, Microsoft, and IBM, was it a wise move? Would there be synergy between the new entity and Amazon's core business of retailing products ranging from books to home appliances? The case provides a great opportunity to learn about the opportunities and pitfalls of operational diversification. Other faculty work this week looks at Argentina's mixed experience with the privatization of water; the effects of trade liberalization on organizational design; and developing a sales strategy for advertising services (the case "Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners").
— Martha Lagace

Working Papers

Reality versus Propaganda in the Formation of Beliefs about Privatization


Argentina privatized most public utilities during the 1990s but re-nationalized the main water company in 2006. We study beliefs about the benefits of the privatization of water services amongst low and middle-income groups immediately after the 2006 nationalization. Negative opinions about the privatization prevail. These are particularly strong amongst households that did not benefit from the privatization and amongst households that were reminded of the government's negative views about the privatization. A person's beliefs of the benefits of the water privatization were almost 30% more negative (relative to other privatizations) if his/her household did not gain access to water after the privatization. Similarly, a person's view of the water privatization (relative to other privatizations) was 16% more negative if he/she was read a vignette with some of the negative statements about the water privatization that Argentina's President expressed during the nationalization process. Interestingly, the effect of the vignette on households that gained water is insignificant, while it is largest (and significant) amongst households that did not gain water during the privatization. This suggests that propaganda was persuasive when it had a basis on reality.

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The Flattening Firm and Product Market Competition: The Effect of Trade Liberalization


This paper establishes a causal effect of competition from trade liberalization on various characteristics of organizational design. We exploit a unique panel dataset on firm hierarchies (1986-1999) of large U.S. firms and find that increasing competition leads firms to become flatter, i.e., (i) reduce the number of positions between the CEO and division managers (DM), (ii) increase the number of positions reporting directly to the CEO (span of control), (iii) increase DM total and performance-based pay. The results are generally consistent with the explanation that firms redesign their organizations through a set of complementary choices in response to changes in their environment.

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Unravelling in Two-Sided Matching Markets and Similarity of Preferences


This paper investigates the causes and welfare consequences of unravelling in two-sided matching markets. It shows that similarity of preferences is an important factor driving unravelling. In particular, it shows that under the ex-post stable mechanism (the mechanism that the literature focuses on), unravelling is more likely to occur when participants have more similar preferences. It also shows that any Pareto-optimal mechanism must prevent unravelling, and that the ex-post stable mechanism is Pareto-optimal if and only if it prevents unravelling.

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Cases & Course Materials

Amazon Web Services

Harvard Business School Case 609-048

Considers the development of Amazon Web Services (AWS), a division of, Inc., specializing in the provision of web-based storage and computing services to web developers. The case focuses on the issues facing Andy Jassy, the head of AWS, in 2008 as AWS faces increased competition from established technology giants, such as Google, Microsoft, and IBM. Students are asked to consider whether entry into web services by Amazon, which had established its brand in retail, represented a prudent move by the company. The case provides an opportunity to highlight the benefits of AWS's variable pricing for developers and to determine where overlaps exist between Amazon's core retailing business and AWS. Students are also provided with an opportunity to discuss operational diversification and its limits within the AWS context.

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Apple's Core

Harvard Business School Case 809-063

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are best friends who enjoy pulling pranks together and talking about electronics. After several small collaborations, Jobs pitches Wozniak on starting a company together to sell computers based on Wozniak's design for a personal computer. Wozniak faces decisions about whether to quit the job he loves at Hewlett-Packard to join Apple Computer, how to define his role within Apple, whether to take on Jobs as his co-founder, whether to accept a third co-founder proposed by Jobs, and how to split equity with his co-founders. Early on, they add an outside investor who changes the company's trajectory and who brings in a new chief executive. Later, tensions rise between the two founders as their strategic visions diverge and as the company grows. Wozniak has now learned some disturbing news about his co-founder and has to decide whether that news will affect his continuing collaboration with Jobs.

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Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners

Harvard Business School Case 508-043

Selling an intangible like advertising services is a difficult task. The first step is to understand how brands buy these services. What are they looking for? What do they need to learn? How do they go about assessing things like creativity, trust, and loyalty? This set of cases puts the students into the roles of the seller (an advertising agency named Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners) and the buyer (MINI USA) and asks them to develop a sales strategy and a buying strategy for advertising services.

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Consumer Payment Systems—Japan

Harvard Business School Case 909-007

In 2008, the Japanese consumer payments landscape featured ongoing widespread use of cash, limited use of credit cards and rapid rise of e-money systems based on contactless technology embedded in cards and especially mobile phones. The case details the alliances that created new products, as well as the regulations that sometimes stood in the way. Throughout, the case identifies incentives for both consumers and merchants, including direct costs, efficiency benefits, rebates, and treatment in case of loss or fraud.

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Copyright Law in the U.S. and EU

Harvard Business School Note 309-052

This note reviews the basic rules for copyright protection in both the U.S. and the EU. It outlines the works and rights protected, the fair use and first-sale limitations on copyright, as well as the application of these rules to software, video, recordings, and Internet service providers.

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Corporate Solutions at Jones Lang LaSalle

Harvard Business School Case 409-045

The CEO of the Corporate Solutions Group at Jones Lang LaSalle Americas (JLL) is executing an organizational redesign to respond to its strategy goal of becoming more customer-centric. This case examines the dramatic corporate reorganization that took place at JLL in 2001 in response to changes in the competitive structure of the global real estate services market mandating that providers become more customer-solutions oriented. The case is set shortly after the announcement of the restructuring which, for the first time, will place the three business units that service the company's corporate clients (i.e., those clients for whom real estate is not their core business) under a single structure, the Corporate Solutions Group, to target the profitable and growing segment of global MNCs who are outsourcing their real estate departments. Peter Barge, the protagonist of the case, has been named the CEO of the new group and has been tasked with coordinating the diverse activities of the three units to achieve JLL's broader goal of "customer excellence." One of Barge's first actions is to move the account management role outside of the traditional business unit structure and augment the role to that of service integrator to achieve his internal objective of business unit collaboration and to provide clients with a single point of contact across the full range of the company's offerings. The organizational restructuring will change the real estate services firm from an autonomous, product-focused model to an account-centered matrix structure and will challenge many elements of the company's current organizational design including accountability, revenue and cost allocation, compensation systems, sales and marketing, and also the corporate culture. The case offers an opportunity to explore the numerous, interconnected elements of an organization's architecture that must be in alignment in order for it to effectively execute its chosen strategy.

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Harvard Business School Case 708-418

Nearly all environmental organizations have a similar aim: to stop the degradation of the natural environment. However, the strategies which environmental organizations choose to employ are sometimes starkly different. Compares the models of two dissimilar environmental powerhouses: Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). Active in 100 countries, WWF works with governments, businesses, other NGOs, and communities to set up conservation programs to preserve natural habitat. In contrast, Greenpeace works to campaign for environmental change against governments and corporations and accepts funding only through individuals and foundation grants. Explores the detailed history and business models of both organizations.

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Kit Hinrichs at Pentagram (A)

Harvard Business School Case 408-127

This case focuses on Kit Hinrichs, a 65-year-old partner at Pentagram, a privately owned multidisciplinary design firm. One of the world's most prestigious design firms, Pentagram was founded by five designers from different disciplines in London in the 1970s. By 2008, Pentagram remained small, with less than 30 partners, each a veritable star in his or her own right. Pentagram had two founding principles, the first of which was equality. The equality principle meant that leadership was evenly distributed; partners with seniority had no greater formal authority than newer partners, and the only formal leadership role was a chairman position, which, after being held with a founder for 30 years, was rotated every two years. Further, Pentagram had no corporate office; each partner was expected to manage his or her own financial, marketing, and human resource functions. Pentagram's second principle was generosity. All partners were equal shareholders in the firm. Pentagram branched out to New York in the early 1980s, and in the late 1980s, Hinrichs established a San Francisco location. This case traces Hinrichs as he builds Pentagram's San Francisco office, and it also details the evolution of Pentagram itself. In addition, this case offers a thick description of Hinrichs and his team working with a client. This case can be used in business and executive education courses on professional service firms, leading a creative organization, and the role of design in business. It should also be used by schools of design.

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Lehman Brothers and Peabody Coal

Harvard Business School Case 209-009

When Texas Utilities Company (TXU) wanted to acquire The Energy Group, the latter needed to spin-off its coal mining assets, Peabody Coal, to avoid running afoul of antitrust authorities. In this case, TXU's investment banker, Lehman Brothers, considers whether to acquire Peabody Coal in a $2.7 billion transaction.

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Paper and More (A)

Harvard Business School Case 606-023

Provides a context and exercise for introducing retail inventory management, including cost optimization, service-level criteria, and forecasting in single and multiproduct settings. The owner of a single-location paper and paper products store considers the implications of expansion for inventory management. Considerations include lost sales, retail metrics for multiproduct settings, and shelf space constraints.

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Technology and Industry Evolution

No abstract is available at this time.

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Can Mutual Fund Managers Pick Stocks? Evidence from Their Trades Prior to Earnings Announcements


We consider measures of stock-picking skill of mutual fund managers based on the earnings announcement returns of the stocks that they hold and trade. Relative to standard approaches, this approach focuses on an especially informative subset of the returns data, potentially increasing power to detect skilled trading, and also sheds light on the sources of skilled trading. We find that the average fund's recent buys significantly outperform its recent sells around subsequent earnings announcements. We find that mutual fund trades also forecast EPS surprises. The point estimates suggest that skilled trading around earnings announcements, deriving from an ability to forecast economic fundamentals, represents a disproportionate fraction of the total abnormal returns to skilled trading by mutual funds estimated in prior work.

Third World Multinationals: A Look Back

No abstract is available at this time.

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