By the 1990s, Microsoft had been so successful at reshaping the software industry to its benefit that the firm was the subject of a lengthy antitrust investigation by the federal government. More recently, Apple has been able to reshape its environment by introducing products such as the iPhone and the iPad that transcend the traditional boundaries between the cell phone, digital camera, music player, and computer businesses. No airline has ever been able to enact the environment, however, perhaps because the airline industry is so fragmented.
Environmental determinism offers a completely opposite view from enactment on why some firms succeed
and others fail. Environmental determinism views organizations much like biological theories view animals—organizations (and animals) are very limited in their ability to adapt to the conditions around them. Thus just as harsh environmental changes are believed to have made dinosaurs extinct, changes in the business environment can destroy organizations regardless of how clever and insightful executives are.
Until 1978, the federal government regulated the airline industry by dictating what routes each airline would fly and what prices it would charge. Once these controls were removed, airlines were subjected to a series of negative environmental trends, including recession, overcapacity in the industry, new entrants, fierce price competition, and fuel shortages. Perhaps not surprisingly, dozens of airlines have been crushed by these conditions.
An old saying notes that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” This flattery is the focus of institutional theory. In particular, institutional theory centers on the extent to which firms copy one another’s strategies. Consider, for example, fast-food hamburger restaurants. Innovations such as dollar menus and drive-through windows tend to be introduced by one firm and then duplicated by the others.
Airlines also seem to follow a “monkey see, monkey do” mentality. To build passenger loyalty, American Airlines introduced a frequent flyer program called AAdvantage in 1981. After flying a certain number of miles on American flights, AAdvantage members were rewarded with a free flight. The idea was to make passengers less likely to shop around for the cheapest ticket. Ironically, AAdvantage turned out to be not much of an advantage at all. Many of American’s rivals quickly developed their own frequent-flyer programs, and today most airlines reward frequent passengers. In recent years, ideas such as charging passengers to check their luggage and eliminating free food on flights have been copied by one airline after another.