Can Amazon be stopped?

I attended a great event for prospective, current, and alumni students of the MBA programme at UCD Smurfit last week in the St Stephens Green Hibernian Club and the topic caused me to pause for thought afterwards. As an alumnus from the 2016 class who moved from a career as a military officer to one in the technology industry, I could not help but lean on all of my experiences in how I thought about this issue.

Amazon have become hugely successful to the extent that they account for 44% and growing of all eCommerce in the US and major corporations such as Walmart appear to face extinction as Amazon increasingly move into their territory. They achieved this by identifying fifth wave of innovation technologies such as the internet and digital networks in the 1990’s and utilising them to become the ultimate example of centralisation, due to having a single storefront in their website and a highly integrated supply chain. This allows them to drive down costs and capture efficiencies for their high volume low margin business model better than the likes of Walmart – who conventional wisdom used to state, could not be stopped. Until they were – by Amazon.

A basic principle of strategy is that you should not choose to take on your competitor where they are strong but identify where they are weak and compete there, because if you compete on their terms, you will probably lose. So, what is Amazons weak spot?

Being a bit of a history buff I was able to draw a link with a podcast I recently listened to about the Gallic Wars whereby the Roman Empire fought a devastating war of conquest to defeat and subjugate the Celtic tribes of Gaul with the result that three million Gauls died or were enslaved. At this time, Rome was a highly centralised hierarchical civilisation that developed complex economic and military systems that integrated scientific knowledge to expand its power and influence. The Gauls on the other hand were a decentralised confederacy of tribes based on common culture, language, and traditions that bound them together.

Vercingetorix led the Celtic tribes in revolt, but when Caesar amassed a huge army to fight them, he correctly refused to fight them on their terms in a pitched battle that would allow the Romans to deploy their strengths in command and control, siege warfare, and engineering. Instead, Vercingetorix fought a sort of large-scale guerrilla war whereby he outmanoeuvred the Romans to avoid their strength and attacked their weakness that was a large and complex supply chain. This seriously hindered their ability to sustain themselves in the field and fight as the highly centralised Roman system could not compete against a decentralised and fluid opponent. For some reason Vercingetorix changed his strategy and then decided to fight a pitched battle, which predictably the Romans under Caesar won, and the war was subsequently lost.

So the historical question is; if Vercingetorix had continued to fight as a decentralised force could he have beaten the highly centralised force that was the Roman Empire under Caesar? More applicably, is the way to stop Amazons hyper centralised empire through hyper decentralisation and what are the sixth wave of innovation technologies that could enable this?

Blockchain anyone? I guess we will see…

Conor Connolly, EMBA 2016