| Nicolai Foss |
My colleagues at the Dept of Strategic Management and Globalization at the Copenhagen Business School, Louise Mors, Mia Reinholdt Fosgaard and Lisa Gärber are arranging an exciting workshop, “Micro Foundations of Social Networks and the Implications for Strategy and Entrepreneurship Research,” on June 12-13. The workshop takes place at CBS and has luminaries like Ron Burt and Martin Kilduff as keynote speakers. (The SMS special conference on “Microfoundations of Strategic Management Research: Embracing Individuals“, begins when the workshop ends, so you may combine the two). This may be of interest to, say, Austrians who seek to add some theoretical and empirical meat to the skeleton of Kirznerian alertness and discovery and who recognize links between these notions and, for example, notions of brokerage in networks.
| Nicolai Foss |
Agency theory is a highly important foundational theory in management research. It has been of great assistance with respect to conceptualizing and framing key problems in the design and management of reward systems, and it yields sharp and clear predictions. However, it does not provide a realistic treatment of a key psychological aspects of interpersonal relations. Specifically, agency theory does not adequately account for the principal’s ability to develop, hold and adjust a “theory of the agent’s mind”. The theory in fact contains a very lopsided account of the principal’s ability to read the agent’s desires, intentions, knowledge, and beliefs. Thus, in many models in agency theory, the principal’s knowledge of much of what is “inside the head” of the agent (e.g., the agent’s taste for risk, opportunity costs, and disutility of work) is assumed to be perfect, while he is assumed to be entirely ignorant of other aspects of what the agent intends, knows and believes. Such “asymmetrical” assumptions allow for analytical tractability and clean predictions regarding how incentives and monitoring influences the behavior of agents, such as employees, managers, and suppliers. However, extreme and asymmetrical assumptions can also lead more applied research astray and lead to misapplications of theory in managerial practice. Thus, the assumption that a principal is capable of perfectly grasping, for example, an agent’s motivations seems highly, and increasingly, tenuous: High personnel turnover and the increasing use of fleeting project organization in many industries, as well as the increasing prevalence of cross-national and cross-cultural management teams and networks, make an assumption of a perfect ToM unrealistic.
In a new paper, “Putting a Realistic Theory of Mind Into Agency Theory: Implications for Reward Design and Management in Principal Agent Relations,” my CBS colleague Diego Stea and I take some initial and highly exploratory steps towards working with a more realistic theory of mind in the context of agency relationships within firms (in an as yet unpublished modelling paper, we work these ideas into an adverse selection model). We argue that novel insights into the design and management of rewards follow from explicitly incorporating a realistic theory of mind into agency theory. Thus, a principal with a good theory of mind can better learn the type of the agent, read the signals related to the agent’s effort, signal to the agent, and adjust rewards to the agent. A ToM creates value because it results in lower-variance estimates of the agent’s effort and type, and eases the matching of agents with contracts.
| Nicolai Foss |
After about a decade of methodological discussion (involving some preaching on both sides of the debate), the micro-foundations project in macro-management research is now beginning to take off in the “doing” dimension. Specifically, scholars are building micro-foundational theory and they are wrestling with the empirical challenges in the micro-foundations. The theoretical and empirical challenges largely derive from the inherent multi-level nature of the micro-foundations project. Theory-building cannot just be somehow moving, say, individual-level organizational behavior insights to the organizational level, but must be genuinely multi-level which raises tricky issues of aggregation and downward causation. Data sampling will necessarily have to take place at at least two levels. This is complicated and usually expensive. Access to good micro-level data is particularly troublesome (one of the advantages of living in a socialist country like Denmark is that the Big Nanny literally looks after her children: We have register data that is incredibly detailed regarding human capital dimensions (i.e., not just gender, age, education, etc., but also complete job history, school and university grades , criminal record, household income, history of medication, etc. — and this is for each and every employee in the DK economy)).
One of the areasis in which the micro-foundations project is being realized in the theoretical and empirical dimensions is what is increasingly often referred to as “strategic human capital.” This is an emerging field (it has its own interest group at the Strategic Management Society) that is quite overlapping with “strategic human resource management,” and which links strategic management, traditional SHR and HR, and human capital theory. The February special issue of Journal of Management, expertly edited by Patrick Wright, Russ Coff and Thomas Moliterno, three key drivers in the SHRM/SHC field, contains ten fine papers on SHC. The introductory essay by the editors nicely lays out the main challenges and issues. Many of the challenges are quite “low-practical” — e.g., people trained in strategy focus a lot on endogeneity, where HR and OB people focus a lot on construct validity issues that strategy folks care less about. Yet, such differences may be quite decisive–as the editors learned while handling the review process! The editors also deal with key issues, such as what are the important dimensions of human capital for the purposes of the SHM field, how can human capital be characterized at different analytical levels, and what are the antecedents and consequences of human capital. I look forward to sinking my teeth into the research articles in the coming week.
| Nicolai Foss |
I am intrigued by notions of “business models” and “business model innovation.” Many academics dismiss these notions, arguing that they are too fluffy or too much overlapping with established thinking in strategic management. I understand both objections, but still think there is something to these notions. Specifically, they capture the need for integration of and coherence among strategic choices related to value proposition, segments, value appropriation models, and value chain organization in a way that I don’t see clearly reflected in mainstream strategy thinking. And yet, it is also clear that the basic unit of analysis, the busines model, remains un-dimensionalized, even though business models and the innovation thereof clearly differ–and therefore pose different leadership, management and organizational design challenges. In other words, extant research does not adequately represent the heterogeneity of business models (innovation), and therefore does not dimensionalize them.
In a new paper, Nils Stieglitz and I argue that a key dimension along which business models (and hence the innovation thereof) differ is the strength of the interdependences, or, complementarities, between their constituent components. Thus, some business model innovations are more modular, while others are more architectural. Also, business model innovations can be dimensionalized in terms how radical they are. We argue that leadership challenges systematically depend on the nature of the relevant business model innovation. To our knowledge this is the first dimensionalization exercise in the literature and the first attempt at building a contingency theory of business model innovation.
| Nicolai Foss |
In modern standard economics, property rights as an analytical category are mainly associated with the work of Oliver Hart, largely because of his important work, with Sanford Grossman, John Moore and others, on asset ownership in the context of the boundaries of the firm (the pioneering paper is here). Many modern (younger) economists don’t seem to know of the older property rights tradition, associated with Coase, Alchian, Demsetz, Cheung, Barzel, Furubotn, Umbeck, Alston, Libecap, Eggertson et al. Given the prevalent Whig interpretation of the evolution of economic theory, one may be led to the belief that the modern approach superseded or incorporated everything that was sound in the older, verbal approach, while advancing property rights thinking in rigorous game-theoretical terms.
With a frequent co-author, I have penned a paper, “Coasian and Modern Property Rights Economics: A Case of Kuhnian Lost Content,” that argues that such a view is false. In fact, we argue that there has been something akin to a Kuhnian “loss of content” (Kuhn, 1996) in the move from Mark I to Mark II property rights economics. What we call “property rights economics Mark II” is a more narrow approach in terms of the phenomena that are investigated, namely why it matters who owns the asset(s) in a relation that spans at least two stage of production in a value chain. In contrast, “property rights economics Mark I” was taken up with the complex and contingent nature of real ownership arrangements, and pointed to the many margins on which individual can exercise capture of rights, how they seek to protect their rights, the resources consumed in this process, and the role of institutions in facilitating and constraining such processes. This institutional research program is considerably richer than the one implied by Mark II property rights economics.
| Nicolai Foss |
The shifting fortunes in the international automobile industry over the last four decades have, for obvious reasons, been endlessly commented upon. Usually, the two leading protagonists in the various accounts of the dynamics of the industry are General Motors and Toyota, the former because of its conspicuous decline (GM’s share of the US market dropped from about 60 to about 20% over a 30 years period), the latter because it has been steadily growing and is now the world’s largest automaker.
Discussions of the relative performance of these two industrial giants sometimes focus on vacuous categories like “culture” and “capabilities.” More detailed accounts stress the short-termism of General Motor’s investment decisions, its arms-length supplier relations, and its obsession with narrowly defined, easily-measurable jobs. Toyota’s relative success is often explained in terms of the Toyota Management Model with its emphasis on broadly defined jobs, intensive lateral and vertical information flows, and emphasis on problem-solving on the shop floor. However, it is not immediately clear that GM did something very badly that Toyota did very well. The liabilities that led to the decline of GM were apparently were different from the assets that brought Toyota success.
In a new NBER paper, “Management Practices, Relational Contracts, and the Decline of General Motors“, Susan Helper and Rebecca Henderson argue, however, that GM and Toyota are directly comparable in terms of the relational contracts existing inside their corporate hieararchies and across the boundaries of these two companies, and that their differential performance is explainable in terms of the differences between the contracts. Relying on recent contract theory research on relational contracts (rather than the older, but neglected work of Harvey Leibenstein), Helper and Henderson reject a number of conventional explanations (e.g., that GM’s investment policy was oriented towards the short term), and convincingly argue that GM had difficulties understanding the nature and important role of relational contracts behind Toyota’s success and therefores truggled to implement similar relational contracts. They point to a number of reasons why relational contracts may be difficult to build, centering on problems of creating credible commitments and communicating clearly and suggest that these problems were rampant in GM. In all, a very nice read that can be used in a number of different classes (org theory, economics of the firm, strategic management). Highly recommended!
UPDATE: My colleague Henrik Lando draws my attention to Ben-Shahar and White’s 2005 paper on manufacturing contracts in the auto industry which tells a story that is consistent with the Helper and Henderson story. Here.
| Nicolai Foss |
Business models have become important tools in the top-manager’s toolbox. A business model is the articulation of the logic by which a business creates and delivers value to customers. It also outlines the system of revenues and costs that allows the business to earn a profit. It is both a map—i.e., a mental representation—and the real structure of the company’s internal and external activity systems.
However, in spite of more than a decade’s interest in business models and the innovation, their specific leadership and organization design challenges are only beginning to be understood. What is specific about these challenges is that top-management needs a map of the existing business model and the one it aspires to implement and execute, and a plan of how to get there. Moreover, business models can be very complex systems, with many interlocking elements, requiring coordination. Hence, business model innovations are truly major organizational change projects.
Writers on business models typically outline a number of elements of a company’s business model. These include the value proposition, segments, the value chain, and revenue model. But many writers and practitioners alike tend to stress only or a few of these.
Indeed, very often a single element of the business does stand out. For example, the tipping point business model of Groupon, Moolala and similar seems to be all about the value proposition centered on providing discounts on meals, products and services with local merchants. (more…)
| Nicolai Foss |
Walter Oi died December 24. Oi was famous for two things, namely for being a highly active academic in spite of being totally blind (after 1956), and for estimating the social costs of the draft (here). However, he contributed to many areas of applied price theory in a highly original fashion. Of possibly particular interest to strategic management scholars is his 1983 paper on how heterogeneous “entrepreneurial ability” and differential monitoring constrains the size, product offerings and organization of firms in equilibrium. Here is Steve Landsburg’s long, detailed and moving obituary for Oi.
| Nicolai Foss |
More evidence on the softening nature of commercial society. Here is the abstract:
Levitt and List (2007) conjecture that selection pressures among business people will reduce or eliminate pro-social choices. While recent work comparing students with various adult populations often fails to find that adults are less pro-social, this evidence is not necessarily at odds with the selection hypothesis, which may be most relevant for behavior in cutthroat competitive industries. To examine the selection hypothesis, we compare students with two adult populations deliberately selected from two cutthroat internet industries — domain trading and adult entertainment (pornography). Across a range of indicators, business people in these industries are more pro-social than students: they are more altruistic, trusting, trustworthy, and lying averse. They also respond differently to shame-based incentives. We offer a theory of reverse selection that can rationalize these findings
| Nicolai Foss |
So, with Torben Pedersen, Bocconi University, I am arranging a Strategic Management Society “Special Conference” (so-called) on “Microfoundations in Strategic Management Research: Embracing Individuals” next year in Copenhagen. Specifically, the conference takes place from the 13. to the 15. of June at the Copenhagen Business School. (The DRUID conference starts on June 16). Pretty good lineup, I dare say, with keynotes by Ron Burt, Richard Rumelt and Ernst Fehr and several luminaries in the panels.
The deadline for paper proposals (5 pp + 2 pp refs) is December 5. Submit a proposal!
| Nicolai Foss |
In management, that is. Here. Hardly surprising that Clay Christensen is #1. But … where is Klein?
| Nicolai Foss |
In my Hayek Lecture at last year’s Austrian Economics Scholars Conference I argued that Austrian capital theory is deserving of a comeback as an absolute integral part of Austrian economics. I argued that ACT directs attention to the essential importance of heterogeneity and I argued that notions of capital heterogeneity serves to bring the entrepreneur, transaction costs and institutions directly into our understanding of the growth process.
An essential part of ACT is, of course, the work of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. On the one hand, Böhm’s work is absolutely seminal, on the other hand, its too strong emphasis on aggregates and simplifying assumptions arguably side-tracked the development of ACT in some key ways. Needless to say, to mainstream economists ACT is Böhm-Bawerkian capital theory because it lends itself to formalization.
A recent example of formalizing Böhm’s theory is Renaud Fillieule’s “A comprehensive graphical exposition of the macroeconomic theory of Böhm-Bawerk.” Fillieule makes a strong case for Böhm’s theory as a precursor of Solowian growth theory and of macroeconomics in general. In contrast to many other commentators on ACT, he is familiar with modern Austrian work on the subject. A very elegant article and most definitely worth a read. Here is the abstract:
This paper offers a comprehensive graphical exposition of Böhm-Bawerk’s formalised macroeconomic theory. This graphical model is used here for the first time to study the effects of the changes in the explanatory variables (quantity of capital, number of workers and level of technical knowledge) on the dependent variables (interest rate, wage and period of production). This systematic application of the model shows that some of the conclusions drawn by Böhm-Bawerk are incorrect and need to be amended. A comparison with Solow’s model also shows that Böhm-Bawerk can legitimately be considered as one of the main originators of the standard contemporary approach in macroeconomics of equilibrium and growth.
| Nicolai Foss |
So, we have the Academy of Management Review and the Academy of Management Journal, commonly acknowledged as the top theory and empirical management journal, respectively. We are also blessed with the Academy of Management Perspective (formerly, the Academy of Management Executive), which seeks (successfully) to style itself as the management research equivalent to the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Then there is also the Academy of Management Learning and Education and there is the rather recently established Academy of Management Annals.
The sixth member of the family is now being launched, and has assumed the name of the Academy of Management Discoveries. The founding editor is Andrew H. Van de Ven who is the Vernon H. Heath Professor of Organizational Innovation and Change in the Carlson School of Management of the University of Minnesota, a major figure in organization theory over the last 4 decades, and a former President of the Academy of Management. According to the journal’s website, AMD will”promote the creation and dissemination of new empirical evidence that strengthens our understanding of substantively important yet poorly understood phenomena concerning management and organizations.” The journal is “phenomenon-driven” rather than aimed at theory testing per se.
In the end, I am not entirely convinced that this is that different from the mission and practice of the Academy of Management Journal, and I can see a scenario where we get an AMJ #2. However, the journal is open to replication research and “evidence-based assessments”, and certainly the first characteristic would seem to set it apart from the AMJ (even if replication research and evidence-based assessments would seem to pull away from phenomenon-driven discovery and towards theory testing).
Here is a brief YouTube clip with Van de Ven talking about the kind of research that the AMD will publish.
Manuscripts can be submitted here.
| Nicolai Foss |
Fritz Machlup famously argued that economists should not care about the specificities (e.g., internal organization) of individual firms, as this was unlikely to bring substantial additional insight in the market outcomes that were the real objects of interests for economists (here). Thus, for the purposes of price theory, firms within an industry could essentially be taken to be homogenous. Machlup’s view has been reflected in much of the micro-economics of the firm, not just in the standard Marshallian approach, but also in later contract theoretic and transaction cost approaches. While contract theory and transaction cost insights are surely capable of contributing to the understanding of firm heterogeneity, explaining such heterogeneity per se has never been a central explanatory task of these approaches. However, while the Machlup view was still holding sway among economists (well into the 1990s), dissenting economists and management scholars highlighted that heterogeneity among firms could be understood in terms of differential capability—an idea that helped them to explain firm boundaries (see much of the work of O&M blogger Richard Langlois), competitive heterogeneity in a population of firms (evolutionary economics), and competitive advantage (the resource-based view in strategy.
However, while management research has done much to advance the notion of intra-industry heterogeneity, it may have been less forthcoming with respect to theorizing the antecedents of such heterogeneity. Most work on such antecedents has highlighted cognitive a variables, such as managerial cognition and absorptive capacity, and variables related to skill levels and the efficiency of routines. Surprisingly, virtually no work in management research has linked differential capability to organizational design (e.g., the structures of communication, delegation, and incentives) or even to the human capital characteristics of firms’ workforces. (more…)
| Nicolai Foss |
“IJEB” is the International Journal of the Economics of Business. The inaugural issue contained a veritable who-is-who in the management/economics intersection, and the journal has published much good stuff over the years (including papers by Peter Klein and yours truly, as well as lesser known people like Reinhart Selten, Richard Nelson, and Frederick Scherer). To mark the journal’s first twenty years, twenty of the more influential papers have been made available for free online (here), and the first issue of 2014 will be like the inaugural issue in that it will be composed of many short papers on the directions that the economics of business is going to take in the future.
| Nicolai Foss |
So, this year’s version of the Academy of Management Meetings, the major association of management researchers, took place in Orlando, Fl. The conference theme was “Capitalism in Question,” a theme with decidedly “lefty” connotations (see the official description of the theme here). The politization of the event was discussed in a Business Week blog that was dripping with irony.
Strikingly, however, I heard relatively few complain about the politization of the Academy implied by the theme (at least one very prominent scholar, however, erased “Capitalism in Question” from his badge, and so did I), but I heard lots of moaning, whining, and bickering about the location itself. In fact, I have never heard anything like it. So, there were complaints about the lack of decent restaurants, there not being enough coffee outlets, too many queques, sub-standard hotels, annoying American families, comments about Americans in general that, had the same thing been said about Europeans would …well … , and so on and so forth. Here is a pretty pathetic blog on the subject. And here is a lame and self-righteous letter to “Dear Minnie.”
Yes, Disney World may perhaps clash with the refined and elevated tastes of many a management professor (I didn’t myself particularly fancy those plastic baroque carpes (aka “dolphins”)), but, hey, this is a conference. You are supposed to be at work. To be sure, the Academy of Management is about hand-shaking and meeting friends, and building and maintaining networks are obviously productive input in any academic’s work process. And yet, 99% of the participants had their travel and stay and fee paid for by someone else (in many cases, the taxpayers). The sessions, PDWs, symposia, and so on were no worse than usual. No one presumably had to go hungry to bed. It was certainly possible to get the beers you wanted. The receptions were well-attended, noisy and alcoholic. In short, pretty much business as usual. So, perhaps it is time to cut the whining which fundamentally signals that you think of the AoM meetings as mainly about your own on-the-job consumption. It would have been much better to use energy spent on whining about diminished the consumption potential of Orlando on critique of the conference theme.
| Nicolai Foss |
Since the arguably first use of the “microfoundations” terminology in the context of macro management research in a 2005 Strategic Organization essay by Teppo Felin and me, the “microfoundations project” has gained considerable attention. Most recently, the Academy of Management Perspectives has featured a symposium on the subject with contributions from Sid Winter, Henrich Greve, Sid Winter, Andrew van de Ven, Jay Barney and Teppo, and Siegwart Lindenberg and me. One notable development is that positions have converged somewhat; notably, earlier outspoken critics, such as Winter, now see merit in the project. Another notable development is that the whole thing is moving from the admittedly preachy phase towards more of a “doing” phase.
An indication of not only the influence but also the acceptance of the project is that the Strategic Management Society now sponsors a “special conference” (so-called) in Copenhagen (specifically, at the Copenhagen Business School) on the subject of “Microfoundations for Strategic Management Research: Embracing Individuals.“ FB page here. A full program should be up soon, but let me anticipate this a bit by noting that we have a fabulous line-up with keynotes by Richard Rumelt, one of our field’s most important thought-leaders; Europe’s perhaps most currently influential economist, Ernst Fehr; and sociology heavy-weight Ron Burt. In addition we will have a debate on microfoundations between Teppo Felin, Russ Coff, Michael Jacobides and Rodolphe Durand; a panel on foresight with Giovanni Gavetti, Sid Winter and Dan Lovallo, and much other juice stuff!
Paper proposals (5-7 pages) are due no later than December 5. (Check the conference site for instructions in a week or two). Hope to see you in Copenhagen next year!
| Nicolai Foss |
When I was a graduate student 20-25 years ago I remember transaction cost economics being routinely mocked by all and sundry for “being static,” “neglecting learning,” and “not saying anything about innovation and entrepreneurs,” in addition, of course, to the usual charges of working with an impoverished and overly cynical view of human nature.
While TCE still highlights opportunism as a key assumption, it is fair to say that over the last decade important work has brought dynamics, learning and innovation within the orbit of TCE. This has mainly been brought about by a coterie — some of which are former students of Oliver Williamson — such as Nicholas Argyres, Kyle Mayer, Todd Zenger, Steve Michael, O&M’s Peter Klein, and last, but certainly not least, Jackson Nickerson.
Jackson is the author of a large number of truly innovative papers in management research and economics, many of which have a TCE bent. Thus, with Todd Zenger he has done important work on envy (and other aspects of social comparison processes) as an antecedent of internal transaction costs, on why firms seem to switch between extremes in their organizational forms, and, again with Zenger, he has pioneered a “problem-solving approach” to economic organization.
My department will feature this extremely original thinker as a speaker in our seminar series on Friday (here). Jackson will present a novel take on the dominant design stream of thinking about industry evolution, building on the US auto industry data base that (his co-authors) Lyda Bigelow and Nick Argyres have successfully exploited in earlier publications. Will be exciting!!
| Nicolai Foss |
So, my school is now deep into discussing the results of the recent “employee satisfaction survey.” Thus, each department is expected to spend minimum 2,5 hours discussing the results, and to come up with an action plan to handle those problems that — per definition — exist. And in my capacity as department head I have just ended this round of annual reviews which focus on the “competence development” of faculty. The practice of management has changed, to be sure. An approach that is decidedly not acceptable anymore, at least in my part of the world, is exemplified by this great drummer chewing out the band he led (more here; here is the mandatory Hitler version; and, in case you really want to practice, here are the transcriptions). Bob Sutton wouldn’t like it.And yet, badass approaches to management may work — perhaps not for those autonomously motivated, self-directed types (i.e., us), but certainly for those with motivational issues (see Emily Bazelon’s Slate piece on Rutgers coach Mike Rice). Toughness has costs and benefits. It seems that much current management thinking focuses on the costs of tough management approaches and neglects the potential benefits. No?