SWOT is an acronym for: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The first two variables (strengths and weaknesses) relate to the internal organization, while the last two variables (opportunities and threats) relate to the organization’s external environment.

The purpose of an external analysis is to scan the outside environment for factors that might open up new opportunities for the business—or that may present threats to the survival of the organization. Then company managers and executives can formulate plans to take advantage of the opportunities and respond to external threats. Optimally, the organization wishes to altogether eliminate (and if this is not possible, to ameliorate to the greatest extent possible) those threats that exist in the external environment.

There are endless numbers and kinds of external factors that can have an effect on a company’s sustainability. Customers, competitors, and suppliers are all pretty obvious entities that can affect profitability. If we think a little more deeply, however, we can see that current as well as potential customers should be considered in an assessment of opportunities and threats (e.g., in terms of changing consumer tastes and preferences). Any such threats or opportunities will affect strategic choices that will (or that can) be made concerning products and services.

What about technology? Advances in technology can affect all three of our “obvious” external concerns (customers, competitors, and suppliers) with changes in product features, how products are made and sold, what services are offered and how they are delivered, supply chains, inventory controls, and so on. The failure to monitor the technological environment can spell obsolescence for a business in no time.

Ease of substitution is something we always think of when considering competitors. How easy would it be to switch from flying on one airline to flying on another, for example? But thinking more creatively about substitution, we can see that teleconferencing and video conferencing can eliminate the need for much business travel—thus acting as a substitute to airline tickets. Failure to think broadly enough will cause a planner to completely miss a major threat just over the horizon. For example, consider the immeasurable impact that Internet sites such as eBay and Amazon have had on the sales of “brick-and-mortar” operations. Or consider how online video availability has adversely affected companies that sell or rent DVDs, such as Blockbuster.

The sheer number of possible external influences creating opportunities and threats is mind-boggling. This is why most strategic planners use analytic models to structure their thinking and help avoid perceptual biases that might interfere with a clear and objective identification of opportunities and threats.

In this course, we will be using two different models that approach the external environment from two different perspectives: