“Battle plan”, “conquest”, “enemy”, “deterrence”, “element of surprise”… As you will have no doubt noticed, corporate strategy borrows a fair part of its rhetoric from military strategy. Listening to CEOs explain their strategy, you often have the impression of hearing generals on the battleground. Is this analogy relevant?
Of course, at its origins, corporate strategy took great inspiration from military strategy. Corporate strategy was born in the 1960s in the United States, when four Harvard Business School professors used the SWOT model to enrich their General Policy classes. This was also around the time that Bruce Henderson founded the first strategic consulting firm: Boston Consulting Group.
There are no air miles or business class when parachuting into a battle zone.
At first, corporate strategy classes were often given by military personnel, and the reference texts used were for the most part by great military authors like the Chinese Sun Tzu or the Prussian Clausewitz. At the time, the directors being addressed by the recently created corporate strategy were all men, the majority of whom had served their country during World War II and the Korean War, and came from one of two backgrounds – business and military. It is therefore not surprising that they made use of their knowledge from the battleground and applied it to the business world.
However, corporate and military strategy are fundamentally different:
- First of all, while company directors certainly experience a significant level of stress, it has nothing in common with what is experienced during a real military conflict: there are no air miles or business class when parachuting into a battle zone.
- Secondly, and most significantly, unlike in war, the objective of corporate strategy is not to annihilate your competition. Rival companies may be adversaries to fight (in the sporting sense) but they are certainly not enemies to shoot down. No, what really matters is seducing the customer. The customer is an absolutely key part of corporate strategy, but there is no equivalent in military strategy. It is not a question of conquering a territory, dominating populations and seizing resources, but rather seducing a customer, who has their own free will. Furthermore, if several competitors manage to win over the same customers, that is not a problem. Your true objective is to attract your customer base, not kill your competitors.
Corporate strategy was created by men, former soldiers, in reference to their military past. In another context, it could very well have borrowed its rhetoric not from war, but rather from the art of seduction.
This review was previously published in French by Xerfi Canal.
This post gives the views of its author, not the position of ESCP Business School.