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Empirical Research on Financial Crowdfunding at a Leading Research Organization for Alternative Finance

March 31, 2020
By 26667

Wanxiang Cai, who received a Sylff fellowship at Chongqing University in 2016 is currently enrolled in a PhD course at the School of Economics, Utrecht University, Netherlands. His research area is entrepreneurship. Using an SRA award, he visited the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, a leading research center in the field of fintech.

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In recent years, crowdfunding has emerged as a source of online entrepreneurial finance. Although crowdfunding has attracted the attention of both researchers and policymakers, as an emerging form of entrepreneurial finance, we still have very limited information about its global pattern. My PhD research is about the governance of financial crowdfunding, and I suggest it is important to analyze the relationship among social capital, legal institutions, and financial crowdfunding at the macro (national), meso (platform), and micro (campaign) levels. It is essential for me to collect data about financial crowdfunding at the platform and national levels to finish my thesis.

Kings College of the University of Cambridge.

The Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance (CCAF) is a leading research center in the field of fintech. It publishes several international industry reports every year. The center collects data from more than 1,000 fintech companies around the world and provides information about the development of the alternative finance market in different countries. These reports are the most comprehensive publications in this field and have been extensively cited in academic papers. Furthermore, the CCAF has established favorable relationships with policymakers around the world, including the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in Britain, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the World Bank. Thus, visiting the CCAF can not only help me collect essential data for my research, but also offer me a chance to have a deeper understanding of the industry and get more great insights from policymakers.

The author, left, with several members of the benchmarking report project.

After communicating with Tania Ziegler, the lead in Global Benchmarking at the CCAF, we reached the agreement that I would visit the CCAF and help them write the global benchmarking report, and in return, they would provide me with their survey data for my research. Furthermore, they would also give me a chance to discuss my research with several senior researchers at the University of Cambridge, including Professor Raghavendra Rau, who has a very high reputation in finance. Thanks to Sylff Research Aboard, I had the chance to visit the University of Cambridge and had a great time at the CCAF.

The Mathematical Bridge at the University of Cambridge.

I started my visits on September 1, 2019. I was shocked by the beauty of the city and the sacredness of the university. It was always sunny during my first two weeks in Cambridge, which is unusual in Britain, as it rains all the time. Several colleges are scattered along the banks of the River Cam, including Trinity College, where Issac Newton studied hundreds of years ago. An enormous number of visitors walked along the river, while the students in Cambridge shared with them the glories of the university, such as its history, famous alumni, and recent academic outcomes. These students looked very confident and felt so proud of their university, making me eager to start my research at Cambridge.

I began my research immediately. The first thing that I had to do was to collect data from a vast number of alternative finance platforms. The annual alternative finance report is based on these survey data. Thus, I contacted the founders of the platforms to see whether they were willing to get involved in our research. We collected data from more than 1,600 platforms around the world. Then we summarized how the market volume had changed over the last few years in major countries, as well as platform owners’ opinions about potential risks and regulatory changes. Based on this data, we also provided some preliminary analyses of what affects the growth of the alternative finance market. For example, we found a significant relationship between proper legal protections and the development of the alternative finance market. The information obtained in this way helps me to gain a deeper understanding of the global alternative finance market and is beneficial to my future research.

Meanwhile, I enrolled in an online course called Fintech and Regulatory Innovation. Through this course, I have gained new knowledge about fintech, especially from a regulatory perspective. More importantly, other students in this course are policymakers from around the world. During their discussions, I learned enormously from them. All the students come from central banks or other financial institutions, and they have great insights about the governance of fintech. They not only showed their expertise and experiences in the fintech topics but also raised questions about the future development of the market and potential research on these topics.

In addition to the above, we have discussed my research with several researchers. I have discussed one of my current papers with Wanxin Wang, a PhD candidate at Imperial College London. She also studies the topic of crowdfunding, and in fact, my paper is built on her recent paper published in a top journal. Her paper shares many similarities with mine, and she provided me with several suggestions for my research. I have also talked extensively with Dr. Rui Hao. She is very interested in my research, and she also helped me get a chance to interview policymakers worldwide. We decided to work together on a research project about how the regulations on equity crowdfunding will change. Unlike traditional entrepreneurial finance (e.g., venture capital and business angels), crowdfunding mainly consists of small investors who have limited knowledge about finance and investments, making it difficult to make proper regulations on financial crowdfunding. On one hand, overly strict legal protections on investors may harm small firms and entrepreneurial initiatives. On the other hand, legal protections can resolve extensive information asymmetry between investors and entrepreneurs. Thus, we have decided to conduct interviews on dozens of policymakers around the world. Using qualitative research methods, we would like to study how the regulations on financial crowdfunding will develop in the future.

Lastly, I conducted a study about how equity crowdfunding affects traditional entrepreneur finance. As an emerging form of entrepreneurial finance, we know less about the influence of equity crowdfunding compared to traditional entrepreneurial finance. First, equity crowdfunding may substitute traditional forms of entrepreneurial finance, such as venture capital, business angels, and private equity. Alternative, it may compensate traditional entrepreneurial finance, as it mainly supports small companies. This study contributes to my PhD research, as it explores under which legal conditions equity crowdfunding can contribute to the development of traditional entrepreneurial finance. Using the data from the CCAF and other databases, I have done some preliminary analyses. I have also discussed the idea and methods with Professor Raghavendra Rau. He gave me several comments, and I am improving this paper based his useful input.

In a nutshell, I have benefited extensively from this visiting. I have made friends, shared my research, got feedback, and gained a deeper understanding of my research. I appreciate that the Sylff Association has provided me with the scholarship to support my research at the CCAF. I am confident that other scholarship winners will also benefit from the Sylff.

Christmas dinner at the CCAF.

 

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Copycats and Patent Wars: The Effects of Quality Investment

December 13, 2019
By 22425

Qinquan Cui, a 2017 Sylff fellow at Sun Yat-sen University in China, is currently conducting research as a visiting PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Recently, he published his thesis “Quality investment, and the contract manufacturer’s encroachment” in one of the flagship research journals. In this article, he shares his analysis and perspectives on global business issues.

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Multinational cooperation has become increasingly popular in the manufacturing industry, including contract manufacturing and the setting up of joint ventures in emerging economies. In contrast to integrated business models in the past where the manufacturer had absolute control over material supply, manufacturing, assembling, and retailing, the core manufacturer in the new era has to face competition from business cooperators who can even be copycats. [1,2,3] This owes to the spillover and leakage of technology between different entities in a supply chain, which is a double-edged sword. [4] The positive side has been proven by Toyota’s knowledge-sharing network by learning product information. [5] However, product innovation can be imitated by local suppliers or contract manufacturers from the channel of foreign direct investment and product quality investment, leading to an emerging proliferation of supply chain encroachment. In such a situation, contract manufacturers (CMs) establish direct channels to compete with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

 

An Apple store opposite a Samsung store.
Wang Xiaofei — Visual China Group via Getty Images

The Patent Fights

This type of supply chain encroachment has induced a few intense fights - costly juristic activities. To stop such a practice of market entry, Apple Inc. (an OEM) fought with Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. (a kind of CM), because the latter had been copying Apple’s product designs and patents for a long time. Recent years have witnessed a battle in which Apple took legal action against Samsung for product plagiarism, which has cost the former more than one billion dollars. [6] However, the United States Supreme Court appeared to be stuck in a dilemma over how to deal with the high-stakes battle between the two. [7] It indicated that it was uncertain how much money the South Korean electronics company owed for infringing patents on the iPhone’s design. Thus, it seems that filing a lawsuit has brought only a faint possibility of blocking Samsung’s encroachment and compensating for Apple’s losses caused by the former’s imitations. The complexity and uncertainty of the legal environment in different countries are mainly accountable for this dilemma.

 

Apple and Samsung’s legal fight over patents.
Peter Macdiarmid — Getty Images Europe

Strategic Quality Investment as a Weapon

To reduce the contract manufacturer’s incentive of encroachment by imitation, Apple has turned to a more attainable operational strategy—investing in product quality improvement. Accordingly, Apple’s investment in research and development (R&D) has increased significantly; for instance, the fiscal year 2016 saw a 25% increase from the previous year, which contrasted sharply with the 8% fall in revenue. [8]

One important point should be made clear: sometimes the upgrade of Apple’s products is not significant, and thus the differences between the two companies’ products are not distinct, while at other times the update is striking. In addition, the contract manufacturer does not always keep up with the pace of Apple’s product quality upgrade or compete with Apple by imitation. This makes people wonder under what conditions Apple would enhance investment for improvements in product quality and be highly cautious of the co-competitor’s imitations. A question then arises: is the CM’s threat of competition one of the motivations for the OEM to invest in product quality improvement?

The Multiple Effects of Quality Investment

When the collaborator is a copycat, there are two major concerns for the profit-maximizing OEM. First, enduring a CM’s imitation and encroachment without any costly deterrence is a conservative strategy, but the OEM has to share the retail revenue with the CM. Second, investing in quality improvement has multiple effects compared with the strategy of no investment: (1) it may stop the CM from encroaching and benefit the OEM; (2) if the CM’s encroachment cannot be prevented, the OEM’s profit may deteriorate, while the rival (CM) could obtain more retail revenue by imitation; and (3) a profit improvement might be induced by the OEM’s quality investment, regardless of whether the encroachment is prevented or not.

Besides, in order to enter the OEM’s final market, the CM would strategically adjust the wholesale price to affect the OEM’s sourcing quantity. The OEM may then benefit from the CM’s encroachment if the wholesale price becomes lower.

Research Questions

Motivated by the above discussions, my research “Quality investment, and the contract manufacturer’s encroachment,” published in the European Journal of Operational Research, aims to explore the following three questions by analyzing a game-theoretical model. (The main content of this article is based on the above published research.) First, under what economic conditions does the CM’s encroachment occur? Second, should the OEM invest in quality as a mechanism to deter—or encourage—the (potential copycat) CM’s encroachment? Third, under what conditions can the CM’s encroachment achieve a Pareto improvement instead of causing a loss to the OEM?

Main Findings

Without the OEM’s quality investment, the CM always has the incentive to encroach on the OEM’s market and will claim a higher wholesale price in contrast with the ideal scenario without encroachment, but the increase of the wholesale price will be mitigated by the CM’s higher imitating ability. Then the OEM’s profit will decline as the product demand decreases due to competition from the CM.

Furthermore, when there is an attainable quality investment opportunity for the OEM, once the investment is executed, the CM will prefer the irresponsible encroachment only if its imitating capability exceeds a certain threshold. Alternatively, the CM’s encroachment policy may depend on the characteristics of the OEM’s investment. In the latter scenario, the strategic interactions between the OEM and CM become more intricate, depending on the nature of the quality investment and the CM’s imitating capability.

Another key finding shows that the CM’s threat of encroachment can facilitate the OEM quality investment and that quality investment could be preferred if it can blockade the CM’s encroachment even though the quality investment per se is unprofitable. Overall, quality investment is partially effective in deterring the CM’s encroachment. Moreover, it is found that a win-win situation can be induced by the encroachment when quality investment is implemented by the OEM; in other words, if the CM’s imitating ability is not extremely strong, the OEM’s profit can be improved by the CM’s encroachment.

Managerial Insights

The motivations for the OEM’s quality improvement (investment) lie in two aspects. Firstly, it can stimulate market demand for the OEM’s original product, which can generate more retail revenue even as the CM acts as a free rider and copycat. Secondly, quality investment is also a powerful weapon to deter the competitive CM’s encroachment. Moreover, it is found that the CM’s encroachment is certain to happen when its imitating ability is strong, in which case the structure of quality investment no longer matters.    

Furthermore, research findings show that the CM’s imitation and encroachment can contribute to a win-win situation for both parties under certain conditions. In this scenario, the OEM’s profit increment is generated by an increased demand for the original product and a lower wholesale price, while the retail price of the original product falls compared with the situation without encroachment.

 

Quality investment at the crossing.
Lucas Jackson — REUTERS

However, quality investment is not always an effective solution to deterring the CM’s encroachment or helping encroachment improve the OEM’s profit. For instance, an encroachment by a CM with a strong imitating ability and an investment structure characterized by low investment cost and low quality improvement will certainly hurt the OEM’s profit.

This explains why, among those OEMs who established joint ventures (or other forms of cooperation) in developing countries, some would use quality improvement to deter their partners’ product imitation and encroachment, others prefer to invest in quality improvement and wink at the CM’s encroachment, and yet others complain about their CMs’ irresponsible imitation behavior.

As stated by the New York Times, the insights of this research are in line with the prediction that “Apple can find better ways of earning hundreds of millions of dollars than fighting a decade-long lawsuit.” [9] Then the courtroom is not always the place to try to get patent problems solved. Instead, the alternative operational strategy—quality (R&D) investment—would be a more efficient weapon that can deter copycats’ imitations and supply chain encroachments.  

 References

[1] Chen, Y.J., S. Shum, and W. Xiao. 2012. Should an OEM retain component procurement when the CM produces competing products? Production and Operations Management, 21 (5), 907–922.

[2] Cui, Q. (2019). Quality investment, and the contract manufacturer’s encroachment. European Journal of Operational Research, 279, 407–418.

[3] Cui, Q., C.H. Chiu, X. Dai, and Z. Li. 2016. Store brand introduction in a two-echelon logistics system with a risk-averse retailer. Transportation Research Part E: Logistics and Transportation Review, 90, 69–89.

[4] Aldieri, L., V. Sena, and C.P. Vinci. 2018. Domestic R&D spillovers and absorptive capacity: Some evidence for US, Europe and Japan. International Journal of Production Economics, 198, 38–49.

[5] Dyer, J.H., and N.W. Hatch. 2004. Using supplier networks to learn faster. MIT Sloan Management Review, 45 (3), 57.

[6] Eichenwald, K. 2014. The great smartphone war. Vanity Fair, May 3, 2014.

[7] Kendall, B. 2016. Supreme court hears Apple-Samsung patent case. The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2016.

[8] Gallagher, D. 2016. What does Apple get for $10 billion of R&D? The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2016.

[9] Nicas, J. 2018. Apple and Samsung end smartphone patent wars. The New York Times, June 27, 2018.

 

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Listen to Your Uber Driver: A Comment on the Economic and Emotional Vulnerability of Uber’s Silent Partner

July 12, 2019
By 22416

With the support of the SRA award, Emma McDaid, a 2017 Sylff fellow at the UNSW Business School, carried out her doctoral dissertation research concerning “sharing economy” through interviews of Uber drivers on active duty in Europe. In this article, McDaid shares her research findings as well as her personal experience and viewpoints on fieldwork.

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With the advent of sharing organizations, or platforms, like Uber and Airbnb, consumers and entrepreneurs have inherited more choice and flexibility. Sharing marketplaces are disintermediated, meaning that they operate without a middle partner, so information is shared by individuals online in a reciprocal fashion when they leave star ratings or reviews on their peers. As accounting scholars, we have been busy investigating the impact that such online ratings and rankings (the TripAdvisor ranking index and Amazon product ratings, for example) have on traditional notions of accountability and, indeed, how these mechanisms are responsible for a new audit society—an era heralded by a heavy focus on the verification of lived experience. However, a small number of us are also beginning to address how these metrics are used by organizations to manage platform users. For example, Uber drivers must maintain a customer rating of 4.6 stars (out of a possible 5 stars) in Sydney, Australia, if they want to maintain job security. A rating lower than this and “deactivation,” or dismissal, occurs. Hence, for these drivers, a 3-star rating often means the difference between being employed and being unemployed. In my research, in addition to conducting research in Australia, I have been able to travel overseas with the help of the Sylff travel scholarship to investigate how the rules of platform organizations affect the service providers who hold a key position in the value chain.

The Uber organization reflects a new kind of disaggregated labor market, accessible to its users through a technology application on a mobile device. It is the largest of the ride-sharing model, holding over two million drivers in partnership around the world. With Uber, the users are passengers who request a ride (consumers) and drivers who have the time, skill, and vehicle to provide the service (service providers). Physically, Uber’s service providers are globally distributed, rarely coming face to face with a manager in any centralized hub or factory floor; the nature of work also means that they rarely come face to face with each other. Indeed, the courts continue to deliberate over whether these drivers hold the status of employee or contractor. Regarding this, Uber has argued from the start that its drivers are independent contractors, citing the drivers’ freedom to choose when they source work through the application and the legalities surrounding freedom of uniform and insurance requirements. However, drivers counterargue employee status based on the control that Uber sets over remuneration rates and the limitations surrounding a driver’s rights in choosing trips and accessing such information as trip destination. But while the contractor-employee debate rages on, the critical role that drivers play in the value chain for the Uber organization is sharp and definite. They are the key stakeholders responsible for the creation of economic value for the Uber empire. And this is a valuation that is continuing to rise; the organization was recently valued as the wealthiest privately owned company in the world, with its market capitalization at US$62.5 billion.

Source: Retrieved from Business Insider, December 2015, https://www.businessinsider.com/uber-valuation-vs-market-cap-of-publicly-traded-stocks-2015-12.

 

Their unique conditions of work prompted me to investigate how drivers were being managed by the organization. Data collection and analysis is ongoing in this regard, but in the following paragraphs, I outline some of the reflections that I have formed from my 2017 and 2018 data collection in Europe and Australia. These reflections are twofold: the first is with respect to conducting field research in these new technologically mediated and disaggregated workforces, and the second regards the most material challenges that I feel Uber drivers are currently facing.   

 

Field Research and the Sharing Economy

I initially collected data in Australia from around the end of 2015. But in 2017, using my Sylff SRA, I left Sydney and arrived in London to conduct field interviews. From there, I traveled on to Paris and Copenhagen. The duration of my research abroad was four weeks in total, and I conducted ten formal interviews with Uber drivers, which supplemented the interviews that I had conducted in Australia. While in Europe, I also gathered a significant amount of data from drivers via phone and through online chat rooms. Although I had mapped out the field and my intentions for data collection, I found that the logistics surrounding field interviews of this type meant that my plans changed frequently. I had to be resourceful and at times imaginative so that I could conduct interviews. Most Uber drivers work perilously hard, and although many expressed interest in being part of my research, interview times were often restricted to moments when demand was low on the application. It was not unusual to have drivers cancel an interview because they had just been pinged through their device for a trip. It was also not unusual to interview drivers before the sun came up, in coffee shops in suburbs surrounding airports—where they might expect a surging fare to come about soon. In short, without the humdrum of everyday organizational life, the field researcher needs to be sensitive to a highly changeable environment, building a significant degree of flexibility into their data collection plans. This requires more perseverance in the field, but being agile in an environment like this can also be deeply rewarding. When successful, researchers are immersed in the participant’s natural lived experience and thus extract a richer ethnographic account of the field.

 

An Uber Driver’s Challenges

In conducting the interviews, it became clear that Uber drivers are facing a number of challenges. Changes to the minimum fare for a trip, accessing Uber personnel to resolve pay disputes, and defending themselves against customer complaints are examples of some of the more rigorous challenges. These challenges have both economic and emotional effects on drivers. For example, when Uber entered the French market in late 2011, the minimum fare that a driver could demand was approximately €20. Over the past number of years, this has dropped down to €6, marking a 70% reduction. And while advocates for the organization will likely insist that higher minimum fares were required in order to enter new markets, many drivers have become financially vulnerable after signing on with high expectations. Drivers can also be financially vulnerable in times when their pay is incorrect, is delayed, or fails to arrive in their bank accounts—common war stories that participants offered. In these cases, they reach out to Uber through the “Help” function on the application—essentially a chat bot—waiting up to five days for an adequate, non-system-generated response. An Australian driver provided an example of a standard response issued at times like this in the image below.

Unsurprisingly, drivers go through a range of emotions in respect to this treatment. A sense of frustration was commonly expressed. While they accept that the terms and conditions of operating as a driver can often change, these unilaterally imposed rules often change without warning and explanation. Drivers describe having little control other than to start and stop driving. Driver John* commented, “They call it a partnership; there’s no partnership,” while another, Driver Mike*, explained, “See, I’m just a number. I’m just a nobody.” The setting of prices or fares by the technology proved most frustrating, as drivers believe they personally incur costs that should be built into the fare. Driver Paul* described the logic as follows: “They just don’t get it. They have no idea what it costs to run a motor vehicle. To us, us guys who do it full time, it’s a business, a small business. . . . Ask us. Have a round table conference. What are your costs? How can you set base fares and not know what people’s costs are?”

The drivers’ levels of take-home pay are inadequate, which is highlighted in an Australian government report that finds that their earnings fall short of the minimum wage (Stanford, 2018). This has led many people whom I have talked with to use metaphors of slavery when discussing the nature of platform work. And the use of technology as a tool to delegate terms and conditions on a platform does nothing to sooth the feelings of low self-worth that people doing this work experience.

These challenges exist for drivers in an environment where the customer’s voice has much more power than their own. Again, the Uber organization will say that customer complaints should be taken seriously, and indeed they should because of the nature of the service being sold. But drivers complain that their voices often go unheard when complaints are raised. At times like this, refunds are frequently and immediately given at the expense of the driver, and drivers are often deactivated from driving until they protest their rights. For this reason, many drivers now operate a dashcam in their vehicle—as a means to record trips and protect themselves in the event of an unfair complaint.

Dashcams are one of many responses to the position that drivers find themselves in. Other academic studies are reporting evidence that they have worked together to try to manipulate surge pricing by organizing mass deactivation, effectively gaming the technology (Mohlmann and Zalmanson, 2017), and that they continue to engage in strikes and efforts to join trade unions around the world. The precarious legal nature of the work is a problem faced by drivers fighting for change and for solutions to the challenges they face. In researching this field, it is hard not to empathize with their position. It is clearly one that belies the rhetoric often heard with regard to the sharing economy. 

 

Conclusion

Uber has done great things for customer choice, achieving global disruption of an industry long considered the gold standard of secure economic sectors. Introducing competition has made transport more affordable and reduced unemployment rates. However, investment has fallen out of the taxi industry, with market value wiped from taxi plates in many major cities and reduced demand affecting that workforce. And taxi drivers have been vocal about these effects. But despite all the noise that Uber has created, it is important to be mindful of the challenges that are imposed on the Uber driver. We hear frequent hagiographic accounts of what it is like to “be your own boss,” in the media and in society in general, but less about the effects of working in these conditions. These are new industrial practices that use technology in new ways—creating, in effect, a new employee. Action in this regard may need to be taken if consumers want to responsibly enjoy the Uber service.

 

References

Mohlmann, Mareike, and Lior Zalmanson. “Hands on the Wheel: Navigating Algorithmic Management and Uber Drivers’ Autonomy.” Proceedings of the International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS 2017), December 10–13, 2017.

Stanford, Jim. “Subsidising Billionaires: Simulating the Net Incomes of UberX Drivers in Australia.” Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, March 2018.

*Names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

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Why Do Some Organizations Perform Better Than Others?
Investigating the Importance of Context and Strategy Choices

February 26, 2015
By 19643

Mirjam Goudsmit1, a Sylff fellow at the UNSW Australia Business School, used her Sylff Research Abroad award to investigate how organizations are affected by “turbulence,” or radical, unpredictable changes in the business environment. For the empirical phase of her project, she went to Israel, which has a long history of instability, conducting research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and elsewhere. Her research aims to help organizations achieve their business objectives in various turbulent conditions. A summary of her research is presented below.

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The author at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The author at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

At the core of strategic management research is the explanation of performance differences among business organizations. I look at this question from the perspective that organizations are increasingly confronted with turbulence in their competitive contexts. The term turbulence is considered here as radical, unpredictable change in the environment. The situation is unstable, unsettled, and in turmoil. Instead of calm waters, imagine a turbulent sea that is choppy, bumpy, and at times violently rough. Instabilities are irregular. Organizations have to navigate such waters, that is, such competitive situations.

Triggers of turbulence in a business context include technology developments, political issues and conflicts, unsettled regulations, and ubiquity of information.

Overall, these triggers change to different degrees; some changes are radical and transformative in nature—they disrupt the status quo in an environment and have the potential to alter expectations and what is considered valuable. Think of an unexpected and radically new product that profoundly alters the market. Existing products are afterwards considered dated and less valuable, the willingness to pay for those products decreases, and they are eventually perceived as largely useless and are displaced. A familiar case is the introduction of the iPhone with its significant impact on the nature of the mobile phone industry.

In today’s unsettled times, destabilizing forces operate with increased frequency and impact and present significant difficulties for organizations. One important challenge is to effectively make strategy choices—choices that entail courses of action necessary for carrying out long-term organizational objectives. This challenge follows from the increased difficulty of predicting the future and reduced guidance from experience, that is, what worked in the past may no longer work in the future. Strategy choices can help explain performance differences among organizations. Specifically, ineffective choices may result in decreased performance or even threaten and undermine the survival of organizations. Understanding more about effective strategy choices in turbulent contexts, I believe, is therefore important.

In my research, I am curious about strategy choices that organizations make and how different turbulent conditions might influence the effect of these strategies on organizational performance. The empirical project consists of two sequenced and interconnected phases. In Phase One the aim is to explore and understand more about the research topics through interviews, while the aim of Phase Two is to test and provide statistically valid insights through a questionnaire. The first phase is designed to carefully further develop the research and ideas as a foundation for large-scale investigation in the second phase.

My Research Abroad

In the spring of 2014 I went to Israel for the first empirical research phase. This context represents a long history of instability. My research activity during this time included fieldwork, interviews with organizational decision-makers, and discussions with experts. The visiting institution, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, provided valuable support, such as office facilities and the opportunity to exchange ideas and discuss research with the faculty and graduate community. Findings from this research abroad provided insights into how decision-makers think about turbulence and strategy in the context of Israel. This exploration, based on the interviews I conducted with businesses, has led to several observations and preliminary insights that are being put to the test in the second empirical phase. I will hereafter touch on some interesting insights. First, the findings suggest that turbulence and its consequences are more complex than previously assumed. Between and within organizations, decision-makers were found to recognize changes in their environment to different extents and in different ways. For example, one manager emphasized the importance of commodity prices and the natural environment, while another emphasized the importance of competition. In another example, one manager considered the environment, or an aspect in that environment, as relatively stable and predictable, while another considered it as relatively unstable and unpredictable.

Turbulence is thus not as universal as previously understood, that is, similar across all organizations and for all decision-makers. How dissimilar perspectives matter for strategy choices and their effectiveness need further investigation. Moreover, organizations were found managing simultaneous, sometimes contradictory changes. An illustration of such environmental factors is limited but major regulatory changes occurring at the same time as many, small changes in relevant technology. Organizations therefore have to attend to this complexity and take action that is possibly more systemic—and thereby more multifaceted.

Second, the unique geographical location in which organizations operate is pertinent. There are context-specific aspects of the situation in Israel, such as the sizeable power of labor unions in some sectors that organizations have to negotiate. Also there is a heightened risk of disruptive geopolitical issues with the potential of escalation and extreme consequences, such as hostility and conflict. These possible issues are revealed on the radar of some organizations to varying degrees, but they are indeed exceptional circumstances—infrequent and unforeseeable. As such, these issues resemble forces majeure, which cannot reasonably be known in advance, controlled, and prepared for.

Some organizations are more exposed to this category of issues, such as when facilities are located in areas of contention. When situations arise, organizations can sometimes only react, such as by closing retail stores or moving portable assets, including employees, to another site, with little room for further maneuvering. Often short-term, quick responses emerge when situations occur that are in conflict with long-term (planned) strategies. How to manage the conflict is exposed as a challenge for organizations.

Furthermore, amidst disruption many organizations aim to continue their business as much as possible. Conservative financial planning and contingency planning were found to be prudent strategic approaches for some organizations to continue achieving outcomes in such a situation, such as by reducing risk and preparing for scenarios. An additional observation is that the local country and organization context more frequently extend across borders. The above geopolitical issues are examples of this observation. Another is that many industries and products were found to be fundamentally global in nature so that competition is essentially global.

Organizations were also impacted by rulings from other countries’ regulators, at distant locations. An example is the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act that requires foreign financial institutions to report directly to the US government all clients who are “US persons.” This is a big change that is having a big impact on financial institutions worldwide. Crucially, my findings have uncovered the fact that global issues of turbulence can rapidly become local issues and, conversely, local issues can rapidly become global ones for organizations. Organizations therefore have to navigate this increasingly interconnected world that might call for different strategies.

Finally, the findings suggest numerous different strategy choices for organizations, like the several already mentioned above. Some strategies are specific to a particular industry or organization, while others are more general in nature. For example, several managers indicated that their organizations faced persistent constraints from their environment through unions, interest groups, or regulatory bodies. Organizations differed in their responses to these constraints, however. Some adopted a more reactive approach and largely responded to changes after they occurred. Others adopted a more proactive approach and largely anticipated changes before they occurred. Which type of strategy is more effective under what circumstances needs to be further understood.

In sum, in these increasingly turbulent times, I believe this research is meaningful and relevant for both academics and practitioners. As an important foundation and next step for further research, the findings provide more understanding of the important topics of strategy choices and turbulence. The overriding intent of this project is to support organizations achieve organizational objectives in different turbulent conditions. With this research I aspire to benefit organizations worldwide and, ultimately, contribute to the future prosperity of society at large.


1For supporting this research abroad, my tremendous gratitude goes to the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund, the host institution Hebrew University and its academic community, home institution UNSW Australia and primary academic advisor Dr.George Shinkle, all intermediaries, including the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce, and organizations and people who participated in this research for their generous time, efforts, and insights.

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Cars and Capitalism in Contemporary Hanoi

May 1, 2014
By 19597

Streets clogged with motorbikes in Hanoi have become familiar sights, as images are frequently featured in posters and magazines. Is there any room in this city now for automobiles, whose numbers are on the rise? Arve Hansen, a Sylff fellow at the University of Oslo in Norway, explores the socioeconomic transformation taking place in Vietnam through the lens of the nascent transition in the prevailing mode of personal transport from motorbikes to cars.

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Vietnam has undergone a radical socioeconomic transformation during the last three decades under a program of economic reforms known as Doi Moi (“renovation”), officially adopted in 1986. Vietnam has grown from being one of the poorest countries in the world into to a middle-income, emerging economy, and the country is now frequently cited as a success story in economic development. Vietnam has moved from a planned to a market economy under a model described by the Vietnamese government as a “market economy with a socialist orientation.”

These changes make Vietnam an extremely interesting case in the study of both development and consumption. My PhD research into this topic in Vietnam focuses on what appears to be an ongoing transition away from motorbikes as the principal form of transport toward four-wheel automobiles in Hanoi. (It was thanks to Sylff Research Abroad that I was able to conduct long-term fieldwork in Hanoi, something absolutely vital to my project.)

My research approaches the trend as seen from the perspective, respectively, of the government, industry, car dealerships, and consumers. I have particularly emphasized the view of the consumer, using the car both to illustrate the ongoing changes in Hanoi as well as to analyze consumption trends more generally.

“Land of the Honda”

Motorbikes in downtown Hanoi_photo by Huong Nguyen

Motorbikes in downtown Hanoi (photo by Huong Nguyen)

Vietnam used to be a country of bicycles but quickly became the “land of the Honda” during the 1990s following the start of the Doi Moi reforms. Today, in a country of 88 million people, there are around 35 million motorbikes. The sea of motorbikes in Vietnamese cities is now an iconic image of the country and one of the most popular motives for photographs by tourists. It has also created a highly individual transport situation, in contrast to the collective ideals of socialism.

Now, the passenger car is increasingly making its way into the streets, in the process clogging up traffic and making the motorbike more dangerous. My interest in Vietnamese automobility started several years ago while riding around the narrow streets of Hanoi on a motorbike and seeing how automobiles, struggling to make their way through traffic, were unfit for those streets. I asked myself why anyone would choose to drive a car there.

The answer is, of course, quite complex. It can also be very interesting as a starting point for understanding the socioeconomic changes and development challenges Vietnam is facing. The automobile is still a very expensive luxury; in fact, Vietnam is one of the most expensive places to buy a car due to high taxes. This, at the same time, makes the car a powerful expression of the inequalities embedded in the new economic system. The limited availability of the car also strengthens its position as a potent status symbol. A striking sight in the narrow streets of Hanoi is the frequency of very big luxury cars. This is a sharp break with the country’s socialist past, when displays of personal wealth were frowned upon and could lead to serious trouble.

In post–Doi Moi Vietnam, the automobile is one of the most obvious symbols of the new reality, in which getting rich is considered glorious and displaying personal wealth has become normal. In contemporary Hanoi, expensive cars are used actively to display wealth—sometimes strategically to show business partners that you are successful.

Advantages and Drawbacks

 The new traffic in Hanoi (photo by Huong Nguyen)

The new traffic in Hanoi (photo by Huong Nguyen)

Although the car is very much a status symbol, this is not the only reason that people buy them. Most of the purchasers with whom I talked report they were motivated more by safety and family reasons, as transporting one’s family on a small motorbike can be dangerous. The car also allows you to stay cool (and white!) under the scorching sun and dry during the frequent periods of heavy rain. There is also a paradoxical relationship between air pollution and car consumption: riding in a car allows you to temporarily escape the dangerously deteriorating urban air quality. The car is thus both a powerful agent in causing air pollution and a means of escaping from it.

The private car has had a central place in capitalist (and sometimes socialist) development and industrialization around the world. In Vietnam, the car in many ways represents a development dilemma. The car industry is targeted to play a leading role in scaling up Vietnam’s industrialization, with foreign investment (particularly from Japan) leading to positive linkages with, and technological diffusion to, the rest of the Vietnamese economy.

Among many other things, this requires a larger domestic market for cars. Studies have shown, however, that the streets of Vietnam’s cities cannot accommodate a transition to private cars as a predominant means of transportation. In Hanoi, the growing number of cars is already significantly increasing the frequency of traffic jams and further deteriorating the toxic air quality. Greener cars, though, are part of neither the transportation nor industrial plans of Vietnam.

In global discourse, the automobile is frequently (and deservingly) attacked as being one of the most environmentally destructive aspects of private consumption. In Hanoi I spoke with foreign environmentalists who argued that Vietnam needs to realize that the car belongs to the past.

The Car as the Future

Traffic and street vendor in Hanoi (photo by Arve Hansen)

Traffic and street vendor in Hanoi (photo by Arve Hansen)

Moving beyond private car consumption may be a worthy ideal, but the argument that the car is history fundamentally fails to understand the position of the car in an emerging economy like Vietnam. In this context, the car represents the future. From the government side, moreover, the car industry and private car ownership are symbols of economic success. And for the growing ranks of the middle class, replacing the motorbike with a car is emerging as one of their main aspirations.

The motorbike is still king in the streets of Hanoi, although it is increasingly being forced into an interesting coexistence with four-wheel vehicles. Most car owners keep their motorbikes as well and choose their mode of transport in a flexible manner, with motorbikes being used for shorter distances and to go downtown, while the car is used for travelling with the family, attending important meetings, or leaving the city. In this way the car also supports the creation of new practices among the middle class, such as travelling outside the city for a weekend holiday.

While people often heap blame on the motorbike for all traffic problems in Hanoi, in a city with very limited public transport options and lack of infrastructure, the motorbike is the main reason why mobility is still fairly good. The government has decided that it will limit the number of motorbikes in the future. Given the lack of alternatives, this may pave the way for the car. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the two-wheeled icon of contemporary Hanoi.