Productivity: The Mother of (Nearly) All Good Things
| Lasse Lien |
The mother of all good (material) things is productivity growth. Competitive advantage, firm level growth and survival, profits, economy-wide economic growth, job creation, and destruction, etc. are all outcomes that depend critically on relative productivity and productivity changes. So if you understood productivity really well, you would understand a lot about (material) outcomes across firms, industries and countries, too.
Also, if one wants to advance “the human condition” it is presumably better to advance the understanding of productivity than profits, since profits are contaminated by market power. Profit maximization is good because – or to the degree – it tends to raise productivity. So while profit maximization and competition are means, productivity growth is the goal.
Though few would argue against the fundamental importance of productivity, productivity is nevertheless quite rarely used as a dependent (or independent) variable in strategy, organizational economics, organization theory, leadership, innovation, etc. The reason is probably that the considerable problems associated with measuring productivity has scared us into focusing on more easily observable variables, such as accounting profits, Tobin’s Q, EVA, sales growth, survival, etc.
However, there is a large literature in economics that attacks productivity head on, and tries to elucidate its determinants. Though there is an unfortunate bias towards manufacturing in this literature (due to measurement issues), the findings from this research stream still makes extremely interesting reading (IMHO). Here is a recent review of the key findings from the past decade:
Economists have shown that large and persistent differences in productivity levels across businesses are ubiquitous. This finding has shaped research agendas in a number of fields, including (but not limited to) macroeconomics, industrial organization, labor, and trade. This paper surveys and evaluates recent empirical work addressing the question of why businesses differ in their measured productivity levels. The causes are manifold, and differ depending on the particular setting. They include elements sourced in production practices — and therefore over which producers have some direct control, at least in theory — as well as from producers’ external operating environments. After evaluating the current state of knowledge, I lay out what I see are the major questions that research in the area should address going forward. (JEL D24, G31, L11, M10, O30, O47)
Syverson, Chad. 2011. “What Determines Productivity?” Journal of Economic Literature 49(2): 326–65.