Business School

Teaching Complex Management Challenges

March 31, 2021  • Ideas Worth Teaching

Starting in March 2020, Amazon branding became an ever-more ubiquitous sight. For many sheltering in place from the COVID-19 pandemic, the brand’s instantly recognizable delivery boxes became a virtual lifeline to the outside world. A year later, the company is again omnipresent—this time, in news coverage and online chatter. Such is the footprint of Amazon that the vote on a first-of-its-kind union in an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama is being closely watched the world over. 

Sarah Kaplan

Devoting such attention to a single large firm makes intuitive sense to Sarah Kaplan, Professor of Strategic Management at the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. Kaplan won an Aspen Institute Ideas Worth Teaching Award for her course, The 360º Corporation, which investigates a single firm from a full spectrum of economic and social perspectives. The most recent company of focus? None other than Amazon itself. We spoke with Professor Kaplan about her course, and what else may be in store for Amazon in a year where the company will see a major leadership change at the top.

Your course uniquely uses the frame of one large multi-national company to examine how a range of complicated issues can intersect within the walls of the firm. Why is this framing useful, even when many of your students may go into roles after graduation which have limited sightlines across an entire organization?

My goal for The 360º Corporation is to reveal the complexity of the challenges facing managers at all levels of the organization. It is impossible to understand the trade-offs embedded in any business model or in any particular choice (even the smallest of choices) without an approach for considering the impacts on a wide variety of stakeholders. No matter if you are just starting out in a company or are CEO, you need a methodology for seeing and addressing trade-offs. Indeed, since many of the impacts on stakeholders come from the day-to-day decisions of people on the front line or middle management, these skills of “thinking globally but acting locally” are particularly important for my students as they enter their careers after obtaining their MBAs.

One of your learning outcomes for the course is: “Get practice at seeing the world through multiple lenses and in coping with the paradoxes and tensions implicit in many management issues”. You also used Amazon recently as the basis for your course. In light of the recent unionization push and the deep divisions between management and front-line workers, what frameworks or competencies might have helped in this situation?

Amazon is a fascinating company because of its incredible financial and market success that comes hand-in-hand with many negative impacts on stakeholders. Workers are but one group that has paid the price for the financial success. Amazon is filled with many incredibly bright managers and executives, but my sense is that they are too insular. They are enamored of “the way things are done around here.” That means that they have not always been sensitive to the impacts of their work (whether it is the use of facial recognition technology in policing or working conditions in fulfillment centers). Luckily, in our society, we have a system of checks and balances that keep organizations in check.

The media has been reporting extensively on the cases of poor working conditions in the fulfillment centers and pressure from unions is making these issues more salient to management. In effect, these external pressures are causing Amazon to internalize some of the costs of their operations that they were previously able to ignore. So, now Amazon in the US has a $15 minimum wage and they have had to invest extensively in worker health and safety. Amazon claims (as Walmart has in the past as well) that they would rather have a direct channel to workers rather than (in their language) the 3rd party representation by a union. But, if this is the case, then they need to invest more in really understanding the lives of the workers and their needs. And, they have to be willing to invest in making changes that improve workers’ lives. Without that, the union becomes necessary as a powerful actor that can push back on a powerful corporation.

As someone who has deeply researched the evolution of Amazon from its inception to today, how much does leadership matter? What will you be watching for when Andy Jassy takes over later this year–particularly with regard to the company’s societal footprint?

The tone at the top is essential for creating the 360º Corporation.

Having watched Walmart for decades and now Amazon, I see them going through a similar evolution—from insular company to one that cannot avoid being a leader on the world’s most important issues. One of the big turning points at Walmart was Hurricane Katrina when they discovered that they could mobilize their distribution capabilities to help out communities in the wake of that disaster. This led the CEO at the time, Lee Scott, to turn his attention to how Walmart could do this in other areas, and eventually to their sustainability strategy that included zero waste, renewable energy, women’s economic empowerment and other issues. As one of the largest companies in the world, Walmart could not afford to stay on the sidelines on these issues and in fact had the capabilities to make a difference.

The same can now be said about Amazon. My hope is that Andy Jassy breaks free from the Jeff Bezos culture of insularity and really seeks to understand and address the social and environmental impacts of their operations.

As alumni from your course go into leadership positions across industries and sectors, what is the one lesson that you hope will stick with them throughout their careers?

This is a tough one because one of the major points of my work on The 360º Corporation is that the problems are complex and we cannot pretend that there are easy solutions. The search for easy or simple solutions in business is actually part of the problem! However, if I had to boil it down, I would say that my students should work to truly see the world as others see it and then experiment with solutions even when the trade-offs seem intractable.

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