Why Do Firms Differ?
| Peter Klein |
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of two major contributions to strategy and organization, Nelson and Winter’s Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change and Lippman and Rumelt’s “Uncertain Imitability: An Analysis of Interfirm Differences in Efficiency under Competition.” Both tried to explain inter-firm performance differences without reference to market power or random shocks. Interestingly, as Ruff Coff points out, both were aimed at economists, but had little impact there, instead becoming foundational contributions to the emerging strategy field. Here’s a concise summary of Lippman and Rumelt from Peter Zemsky:
Lippman and Rumelt (1982), in the first formal theoretical paper inspired by the distinctive concerns of the strategy literature, demonstrate how superior performance can arise without assumptions of imperfect competition and market power, which are the defining features of the IO approach. In their model there are a large number of potential entrants that can pay a fixed cost to enter an industry. The key assumption is that there is imperfect imitability so that each entrant’s cost function is determined by an independent draw from a known distribution. In equilibrium, firms with bad draws exit and the remaining firms on average must have abnormal returns even when in the case where the firms are all small and have no market power. Ex ante however expected profits from entry are zero. The paper remains an outstanding example of high quality theorizing in strategy. Barney (1986) in his paper on strategic factor markets applies the same reasoning in his verbal argument that from an economics perspective superior performance must be the result of luck.
L&$ also explain the background and context of their article in a new video.
Kirzner’s theory of entrepreneurship is another example of a contribution intended to change the conversation in economics — by shifting attention from equilibrium states to adjustment processes — that seems to have little impact upon its intended audience, while becoming hugely influential in a different field (entrepreneurship).