Frequent reference has been made in this chapter to the business unit, a unit comprising one or more products having a common market base whose manager has complete responsibility for integrating all functions into a strategy against an identifiable competitor. Usually referred to as a strategic business unit (SBU), business units have also been called strategy centers, strategic planning units, or independent business units. The philosophy behind the SBU concept has been described this way:
The diversified firm should be managed as a "portfolio'' of businesses, with each business unit serving a clearly defined product-market segment with a clearly defined strategy.
Each business unit in the portfolio should develop a strategy tailored to its capabilities and competitive needs, but consistent with the overall corporate capabilities and needs.
The total portfolio of businesses should be managed by allocating capital and managerial resources to serve the interests of the firm as a whole—to achieve balanced growth in sales, earnings, and assets mix at an acceptable and controlled level of risk. In essence, the portfolio should be designed and managed to achieve an overall corporate strategy.16
Identification of Since formal strategic planning began to make inroads in corporations in the Strategic Business 1970s, a variety of new concepts have been developed for identifying a corpora-Units tion's opportunities and for speeding up the process of strategy development.
These newer concepts create problems of internal organization. In a dynamic economy, all functions of a corporation (e.g., research and development, finance, and marketing) are related. Optimizing certain functions instead of the company as a whole is far from adequate for achieving superior corporate performance. Such an organizational perspective leaves only the CEO in a position to think in terms of the corporation as a whole. Large corporations have tried many different structural designs to broaden the scope of the CEO in dealing with complexities. One such design is the profit center concept. Unfortunately, the profit center concept emphasizes short-term consequences; also, its emphasis is on optimizing the profit center instead of the corporation as a whole.
The SBU concept was developed to overcome the difficulties posed by the profit center type of organization. Thus, the first step in integrating product/market strategies is to identify the firm's SBUs. This amounts to identifying natural businesses in which the corporation is involved. SBUs are not necessarily synonymous with existing divisions or profit centers. An SBU is composed of a product or product lines having identifiable independence from other products or product lines in terms of competition, prices, substitutability of product, style/quality, and impact of product withdrawal. It is around this configuration of products that a business strategy should be designed. In today's organizations, this strategy may encompass products found in more than one division. By the same token, some managers may find themselves managing two or more natural businesses. This does not necessarily mean that divisional boundaries need to be redefined; an SBU can often overlap divisions, and a division can include more than one SBU.
SBUs may be created by applying a set of criteria consisting of price, competitors, customer groups, and shared experience. To the extent that changes in a product's price entail a review of the pricing policy of other products may imply that these products have a natural alliance. If various products/markets of a company share the same group of competitors, they may be amalgamated into an SBU for the purpose of strategic planning. Likewise, products/markets sharing a common set of customers belong together. Finally, products/markets in different parts of the company having common research and development, manufacturing, and marketing components may be included in the same SBU. For purposes of illustration, consider the case of a large, diversified company, one division of which manufactures car radios. The following possibilities exist: the car radio division, as it stands, may represent a viable SBU; alternatively, luxury car radios with automatic tuning may constitute an SBU different from the SBU for standard models; or other areas of the company, such as the television division, may be combined with all or part of the car radio division to create an SBU.
Overall, an SBU should be established at a level where it can rather freely address (a) all key segments of the customer group having similar objectives; (b) all key functions of the corporation so that it can deploy whatever functional expertise is needed to establish positive differentiation from the competition in the eyes of the customer; and (c) all key aspects of the competition so that the corporation can seize the advantage when opportunity presents itself and, conversely, so that competitors will not be able to catch the corporation off-balance by exploiting unsuspected sources of strength.
A conceptual question becomes relevant in identifying SBUs: How much aggregation is desirable? Higher levels of aggregation produce a relatively smaller and more manageable number of SBUs. Besides, the existing management information system may not need to be modified since a higher level of aggregation yields SBUs of the size and scope of present divisions or product groups. However, higher levels of aggregation at the SBU level permit only general notions of strategy that may lack relevance for promoting action at the operating level. For example, an SBU for medical care is probably too broad. It could embrace equipment, service, hospitals, education, self-discipline, and even social welfare.
On the other hand, lower levels of aggregation make SBUs identical to product/market segments that may lack "strategic autonomy.'' An SBU for farm tractor engines would be ineffective because it is at too low a level in the organization to (a) consider product applications and customer groups other than farmers or (b) cope with new competitors who might enter the farm tractor market at almost any time with a totally different product set of "boundary conditions." Further, at such a low organizational level, one SBU may compete with another, thereby shifting to higher levels of management the strategic issue of which SBU should formulate what strategy.
The optimum level of aggregation, one that is neither too broad nor too narrow, can be determined by applying the criteria discussed above, then further refining it by using managerial judgment. Briefly stated, an SBU must look and act like a freestanding business, satisfying the following conditions:
1. Have a unique business mission, independent of other SBUs.
2. Have a clearly definable set of competitors.
3. Be able to carry out integrative planning relatively independently of other SBUs.
4. Be able to manage resources in other areas.
5. Be large enough to justify senior management attention but small enough to serve as a useful focus for resource allocation.
The definition of an SBU always contains gray areas that may lead to dispute. It is helpful, therefore, to review the creation of an SBU, halfway into the strategy development process, by raising the following questions:
• Are customers' wants well defined and understood by the industry and is the market segmented so that differences in these wants are treated differently?
• Is the business unit equipped to respond functionally to the basic wants and needs of customers in the defined segments?
• Do competitors have different sets of operating conditions that could give them an unfair advantage over the business unit in question?
If the answers give reason to doubt the SBU's ability to compete in the market, it is better to redefine the SBU with a view to increasing its strategic freedom in meeting customer needs and competitive threats.
The SBU concept may be illustrated with an example from Procter & Gamble.17 For more than 50 years the company's various brands were pitted against each other. The Camay soap manager competed against the Ivory soap manager as fiercely as if each were in different companies. The brand management system that grew out of this notion has been used by almost every consumer-products company.
In the fall of 1987, however, Procter & Gamble reorganized according to the SBU concept (what the company called "along the category lines''). The reorganization did not abolish brand managers, but it did make them accountable to a new corps of mini-general managers who were responsible for an entire product line—all laundry detergents, for example. By fostering internal competition among brand managers, the classic brand management system established strong incentives to excel. It also created conflicts and inefficiencies as brand managers squabbled over corporate resources, from ad spending to plant capacity. The system often meant that not enough thought was given to how brands could work together. Despite these shortcomings, brand management worked fine when markets were growing and money was available. But now, most packaged-goods businesses are growing slowly (if at all), brands are proliferating, the retail trade is accumulating more clout, and the consumer market is fragmenting. Procter & Gamble reorganized along SBU lines to cope with this bewildering array of pressures.
Under Procter & Gamble's SBU scheme, each of its 39 categories of U.S. businesses, from diapers to cake mixes, is run by a category manager with direct responsibility. Advertising, sales, manufacturing, research, engineering, and other disciplines all report to the category manager. The idea is to devise marketing strategies by looking at categories and by fitting brands together rather than by coming up with competing brand strategies and then dividing up resources among them. The paragraphs that follow discuss how Procter & Gamble's reorganization impacted select functions.
Advertising. Procter & Gamble advertises Tide as the best detergent for tough dirt. But when the brand manager for Cheer started making the same claim, Cheer's ads were pulled after the Tide group protested. Now the category manager decides how to position Tide and Cheer to avoid such conflicts.
Budgeting. Brand managers for Puritan and Crisco oils competed for a share of the same ad budget. Now a category manager decides when Puritan can benefit from stepped-up ad spending and when Crisco can coast on its strong market position.
Packaging. Brand managers for various detergents often demanded packages at the same time. Because of these conflicting demands, managers complained that projects were delayed and nobody got a first-rate job. Now the category manager decides which brand gets a new package first.
Manufacturing. Under the old system, a minor detergent, such as Dreft, had the same claim on plant resources as Tide—even if Tide was in the midst of a big promotion and needed more supplies. Now a manufacturing staff person who helps to coordinate production reports to the category manager.
The notion behind the SBU concept is that a company's activities in a marketplace ought to be understood and segmented strategically so that resources can be allocated for competitive advantage. That is, a company ought to be able to answer three questions: What business am I in? Who is my competition? What is my position relative to that competition? Getting an adequate answer to the first question is often difficult. (Answers to the other two questions can be relatively easy.) In addition, identifying SBUs is enormously difficult in organizations that share resources (e.g., research and development or sales).
There is no simple, definitive methodology for isolating SBUs. Although the criteria for designating SBUs are clear-cut, their application is judgmental and problematic. For example, in certain situations, real advantages can accrue to businesses sharing resources at the research and development, manufacturing, or distribution level. If autonomy and accountability are pursued as ends in themselves, these advantages may be overlooked or unnecessarily sacrificed.
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