Acquisitions and alliances are two pillars of growth strategy. But most businesses don’t treat the two as alternative mechanisms for attaining goals. Consequently, companies take over firms they should have collaborated with, and vice versa, and make a mess of both acquisitions and alliances.
It’s easy to see why companies don’t weigh the relative merits and demerits of acquisitions and alliances before choosing horses for courses. The two strategies differ in many ways: Acquisition deals are competitive, based on market prices, and risky; alliances are cooperative, negotiated, and not so risky. Companies habitually deploy acquisitions to increase scale or cut costs and use partnerships to enter new markets, customer segments, and regions. Moreover, a company’s initial experiences often turn into blinders. If the firm pulls off an alliance or two, it tends to enter into alliances even when circumstances demand acquisitions. Organizational barriers also stand in the way. In many companies, an M&A group, which reports to the finance head, handles acquisitions, while a separate business development unit looks after alliances. The two teams work out of different locations, jealously guard turf, and, in effect, prevent companies from comparing the advantages and disadvantages of the strategies.
But companies could improve their results, the authors argue, if they compared the two strategies to determine which is best suited to the situation at hand. Firms such as Cisco that use acquisitions and alliances appropriately grow faster than rivals do. The authors provide a framework to help organizations systematically decide between acquisition and alliance by analyzing three sets of factors: the resources and synergies they desire, the marketplace they compete in, and their competencies at collaborating.