Posts filed under ‘Innovation’

Competition in Early Telephone Networks

| Peter Klein |

As with other technologies involving network effects, the early telephone industry featured competing, geographically overlapping networks. Robert MacDougall provides a fascinating history of this period in The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). From the book blurb:

In the decades around 1900, ordinary citizens—farmers, doctors, small-town entrepreneurs—established tens of thousands of independent telephone systems, stringing their own wires to bring this new technology to the people. Managed by opportunists and idealists alike, these small businesses were motivated not only by profit but also by the promise of open communication as a weapon against monopoly capital and for protection of regional autonomy. As the Bell empire grew, independents fought fiercely to retain control of their local networks and companies—a struggle with an emerging corporate giant that has been almost entirely forgotten.

David Hochfelder wrote a thoughtful review which appeared today on EH.Net. As Hochfelder points out, the history of the telephone is not just about technology and market structure, but broader social themes as well:

At one level, this is a story about industrial competition. At a deeper level, it reveals competing visions of an important technology, the social role that it ought to play. MacDougall shows that the Bell System and the Independents envisioned the telephone in far different ways. Bell, especially under Theodore Vail, president of AT&T between 1907 and 1919, sought to build a unified telecommunications network that spanned the United States. Bell Canada espoused a different vision, that the telephone ought to remain an expensive urban medium primarily used for business purposes. Both Bell systems shared the ideology that the telephone industry ought to be controlled by centralized, national corporations. On the other hand, the Independents described the Bell System as a grasping octopus that wanted a stranglehold over the nation’s communications. The Independents offered instead a vision of the telephone as a people’s network that enhanced local ties and preserved community autonomy. In the United States, MacDougall claims that the Independents’ vision for the telephone “descended from a civic understanding of communication that went back to the American Revolution,” that “free and open communications were a basic ingredient of democracy” (p. 5). On a more mundane level, the Independents encouraged social uses of the telephone — like gossiping and banjo-playing — that the Bell System actively discouraged at the time.

18 July 2014 at 6:38 pm Leave a comment

Gans on Lepore on Christensen

| Peter Klein |

Josh Gans has some useful remarks on Jill Lepore’s New Yorker essay on Clayton Christensen.

Lepore only deals with the easy marks in her take down of Christensen and one suspects Christensen and his supporters can easily fend those off. It is the fundamental contradiction in taking a positive theory towards prediction that is where this entire ‘disruption industry’ falls down. I’d like to see journalists engaging more on that level so that we can be done with those bridges too far for good.

What Josh means by “fundamental contradiction” is that a disruptive technology, in Christensen’s definition, must not only be behind the cutting edge in some technical dimension, but also satisfy unmet consumer demands. The latter must be uncertain ex ante, otherwise the market leaders would also be developing the disruptive technology. Christensen advises incumbents to “disrupt themselves,” but this assumes they know which technologies will eventually be disruptive. Because they don’t, they must choose among several alternatives, including “do nothing” (i.e., try to exploit late-mover advantage).

The incumbent’s decision, contrary to Christensen’s reasoning, reflects entrepreneurial judgment, which may or may not be correct. There is no formula for managing disruptive technologies.

See also Lynne’s insightful commenta.

17 June 2014 at 11:13 am 5 comments

Firm Boundaries Matter

| Peter Klein |

Do firm boundaries — defined as ownership of the relevant capital goods — affect firm behavior and performance? Or is the firm best understood as a nexus of contracts, in which ownership boundaries represent arbitrary legal distinctions? Coase, Williamson, Hart, and Foss and Klein take the former position, while Alchian (sometimes), Demsetz, Jensen, and Meckling lean toward the latter.

A very interesting paper from Amit Seru, “Firm Boundaries Matter: Evidence from Conglomerates and R&D Activity,” offers some empirical evidence on the effects of boundary choices on innovation, finding significant and important effects.

This paper examines the impact of the conglomerate form on the scale and novelty of corporate R&D activity. I exploit a quasi-experiment involving failed mergers to generate exogenous variation in acquisition outcomes of target firms. A difference-in-difference estimation reveals that, relative to failed targets, firms acquired in a diversifying mergers produce both a smaller number of innovations and also less novel innovations, where innovations are measured using patent-based metrics. The treatment effect is amplified if the acquiring conglomerate operates a more active internal capital market and is largely driven by inventors becoming less productive after the merger rather than inventor exits. Concurrently, acquirers move R&D activity outside the boundary of the firm via the use of strategic alliances and joint-ventures. There is complementary evidence that conglomerates with more novel R&D tend to operate with decentralized R&D budgets. These findings suggests that conglomerate organizational form affects the allocation and productivity of resources.

Here is a longer, less technical write-up on the Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation blog.

2 April 2014 at 10:35 am 1 comment

Creativity and Age

old-lady| Peter Klein |

A common myth is that successful technology companies are founded by people in their 20s (Scott Shane reports a median age of 39). Entrepreneurial creativity, in this particular sense, may peak at middle age.

We’ve previously noted interesting links between the literatures on artistic, scientific, and entrepreneurial creativity, organization, and success, with particular reference to recent work by David Galenson. A new survey paper by Benjamin Jones, E.J. Reedy, and Bruce Weinberg on age and scientific creativity is also relevant to this discussion. They discuss the widely accepted empirical finding that scientific creativity — measured by high-profile scientific contributions such as Nobel Prizes — tends to peak in middle age. They also review more recent research on variation in creativity life cycles across fields and over time. Jones, for example, has observed that the median age of Nobel laureates has increased over the 20th century, which he attributes to the rapid growth in the body of accumulated knowledge one must master before making a breakthrough scientific contribution (the “burden of knowledge” thesis). Could the same hold through for founders of technology companies?

4 February 2014 at 11:47 am Leave a comment

The Soft Underbelly of Business Model Innovation

| 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.

busmodWriters 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…)

29 January 2014 at 4:26 pm 3 comments

Disruptive Innovation and Job-Market Signaling

| Peter Klein |

The job-market value of education, as famously argued by Michael Spence (1974), derives from two sources: additions to human capital and signaling. By going to college, you learn some useful skills, but you also demonstrate to potential employers that you have the natural ability to earn a degree. Depending on the difficulty of obtaining a degree for students of varying abilities, a college degree may be valuable even if you don’t learn a thing — you distinguish yourself from those who weren’t clever or patient enough to jump through the necessary hoops.

Of course, the human-capital and signaling components aren’t mutually exclusive. But, as long as at least some part of the job-market value of education comes from signaling, the demand for higher education depends on its perceived signaling value, relative to the cost of signaling. And herein lies the rub: getting a college degree is a very costly signal. Suppose high-ability workers could demonstrate their value to the job market by obtaining some credential that low-ability workers can’t or won’t obtain, without forgoing the explicit and opportunity costs of 4+ years at college. This would be an attractive alternative for many, and bad news for the higher-education industry, which today has a virtual monopoly on credentialing.

Michael Staton makes precisely this argument in today’s HBR Blog: “The Degree Is Doomed.” Staton argues that new technologies increasingly allow the unbundling of the learning and signaling functions of higher education, and that alternative signals such as “work samples, personal representations, peer and manager reviews, shared content, and scores and badges” are undermining the value of the college degree.

There are sites — notably Degreed and Accredible — that adapt existing notions of the credential to a world of online courses and project work. But there are also entire sectors of the innovation economy that are ceasing to rely on traditional credentials and don’t even bother with the skeumorph of an adapted degree.  Particularly in the Internet’s native careers – design and software engineering — communities of practice have emerged that offer signals of types and varieties that we couldn’t even imagine five years ago.   Designers now show their work on Dribbble or other design posting and review sites.  Software engineers now store their code on GitHub, where other software engineers will follow them and evaluate the product of their labor.  On these sites, peers not only review each other but interact in ways that build reputations within the community. User profiles contain work samples and provide community generated indicators of status and skill.

These are specialized areas, and probably not substitutes for the credentialing function for other fields and industries. But low-cost, innovative, specialized signaling methods could pose a significant challenge to the university establishment.

Of course, even if higher education loses its credentialing function, it can still add value the old-fashioned way, through teaching.

8 January 2014 at 10:54 am 4 comments

Recent Videos from Top Business Professors

| Peter Klein |

Michael Porter: “Why Business Can Be Good at Solving Social Problems”

 
Costas Markides: “Strategy Is about Making Choices”

 
Clayton Christensen: “Disruptive Innovation”

22 October 2013 at 9:26 am 1 comment

NBER Papers of Interest

| Peter Klein |

Three recent NBER papers on compensation, performance, and productivity:

Ann Bartel, Brianna Cardiff-Hicks, Kathryn Shaw
NBER Working Paper No. 19412, September 2013

Due to the limited availability of firm-level compensation data, there is little empirical evidence on the impact of compensation plans on personal productivity. We study an international law firm that moves from high-powered individual incentives towards incentives for “leadership” activities that contribute to the firm’s long run profitability. The effect of this change on the task allocation of the firm’s team leaders is large and robust; team leaders increase their non-billable hours and shift billable hours to team members. Although the motivation for the change in the compensation plan was the multitasking problem, this change also impacted the way tasks were allocated within each team, resulting in greater teamwork.

William Mullins, Antoinette Schoar
NBER Working Paper No. 19395, September 2013

Using a survey of 800 CEOs in 22 emerging economies we show that CEOs’ management styles and philosophy vary with the control rights and involvement of the owning family and founder: CEOs of firms with greater family involvement have more hierarchical management, and feel more accountable to stakeholders such as employees and banks than they do to shareholders. They also see their role as maintaining the status quo rather than bringing about change. In contrast, professional CEOs of non-family firms display a more textbook approach of shareholder-value-maximization. Finally, we find a continuum of leadership arrangements in how intensively family members are involved in management.

George J. Borjas, Kirk B. Doran
NBER Working Paper No. 19445, September 2013

Knowledge generation is key to economic growth, and scientific prizes are designed to encourage it. But how does winning a prestigious prize affect future output? We compare the productivity of Fields medalists (winners of the top mathematics prize) to that of similarly brilliant contenders. The two groups have similar publication rates until the award year, after which the winners’ productivity declines. The medalists begin to “play the field,” studying unfamiliar topics at the expense of writing papers. It appears that tournaments can have large post-prize effects on the effort allocation of knowledge producers.

Thank goodness I haven’t won the Clark Medal, Nobel Prize, or a MacArthur Award. I want to keep my productivity high!

23 September 2013 at 9:34 am Leave a comment

More on Collaboration and Innovation

| Peter Klein |

Following up my earlier post on artistic collaboration, and its relationship to entrepreneurial collaboration, here’s a quote from Paul Cantor on his new book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV:

Many people who condemn pop culture and dismiss it as artistically worthless dwell on the fact that films and television shows are almost never the products of a single artist working on his own. It is therefore important to show that many of the great works of high culture grew out of a collaborative process too. There is nothing about cooperation in artistic creation that precludes high quality. Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but they may also each add a distinctive flavor and work together to bring the recipe to perfection. The processes of synergy and feedback work in popular culture just the way they do in other areas of human endeavor. This is all part of my defense of popular culture — to demonstrate that the conditions of production in film and television are not necessarily incompatible with artistic as well as commercial success.

Likewise, entrepreneurship and innovation are collaborative media — which is easy to see once you realize that entrepreneurship is not about recognizing “opportunities,” but acquiring and controlling resources that are used in production.

20 August 2013 at 9:51 am 5 comments

Culture, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation: French Edition

| Peter Klein |

Quote of the day, from Peter Gumbel’s France’s Got Talent: The Woeful Consequences of French Elitism, an interesting first-person account of the French educational system:

[T]he patterns of behavior established at [French] school appear to continue in later life, reproducing themselves most obviously in the workplace. If you learn from an early age that volunteering answers at school may prompt humiliating put-downs from your teachers, how active a participant will you be in office strategy discussions in the presence of an authoritarian boss? If working together in groups was discouraged as a child, how good a team player will you be as a grown-up? If you are made to believe as a 10-year-old that it’s worse to give a wrong answer than to give no answer at all, how will that influence your inclination to take risks?

I won’t repeat the apocryphal George W. Bush quote that “the problem with France’s economy is that the French have no word for entrepreneur,” but I will say that I have found French university students to be less aggressive than their US or Scandinavian equivalents. To be fair, when I’ve taught in France it has been in English, and I initially attributed the students’ reluctance to speak up, to answer questions, and to challenge the instructor to worries about English proficiency. But talking to French colleagues, and reading accounts like Gumbel’s (based on his experiences teaching at Sciences Po), I think the problem is largely cultural. The French system tends to favor conformity and memorization over creativity and spontaneity, which may or may not have a harmful effect on the performance of French organizations and French attitudes toward entrepreneurship and innovation.

I’m curious to know what our French readers think (but don’t hammer me with Bourdieu or Crozier references, please).

6 July 2013 at 11:36 pm 2 comments

Steven Klepper

| Dick Langlois |

I just learned (via Rajshree Agarwal) of the passing, at a young age, of Steven Klepper. Steven was an acquaintance of many years, a stand-up guy as well as a great researcher. His work on the lifecycle of firms and the role of spinoffs is a model for how to do good empirical work in organization and technology. By coincidence, this new paper (with Russell Golman) crossed my screen only a few minutes after I learned the news.

Spinoffs and Clustering

Geographic clustering of industries is typically attributed to localized, pecuniary or non-pecuniary externalities. Recent studies across innovative industries suggest that explosive cluster growth is associated with the entry and success of spinoff firms. We develop a model to explain the patterns regarding cluster growth and spinoff formation and performance, without relying on agglomeration externalities. Clustering naturally follows from spinoffs locating near their parents. In our model, firms grow and spinoffs form through the discovery of new submarkets based on innovation. Rapid and successful innovation creates more opportunities for spinoff entry and drives a region’s growth.

28 May 2013 at 3:31 pm 3 comments

Online Education, Organizational Diversity, and Higher Education

| Peter Klein |

On this blog we’ve tended to celebrate, rather than denigrate, diversity in higher education. While others fear that MOOCs and other forms of online learning will cheapen the product, we think that “education,” like “health care,” is not a homogeneous blob but a set of discrete, marginal goods and services that can be offered in a variety of combinations, at different prices, and via many forms of delivery, local and remote. Naturally, the dominant incumbents try to resist the innovative incumbents by erecting entry barriers — what else would you expect?

A recent New Yorker piece on MOOCs recognizes this diversity, and makes the fundamental point that US higher education is already diverse — in other words, the digital revolution is simply pushing the industry down a path it was already going.

When people refer to “higher education” in this country, they are talking about two systems. One is élite. It’s made up of selective schools that people can apply to—schools like Harvard, and also like U.C. Santa Cruz, Northeastern, Penn State, and Kenyon. All these institutions turn most applicants away, and all pursue a common, if vague, notion of what universities are meant to strive for. When colleges appear in movies, they are verdant, tree-draped quadrangles set amid Georgian or Gothic (or Georgian-Gothic) buildings. When brochures from these schools arrive in the mail, they often look the same. Chances are, you’ll find a Byronic young man reading “Cartesian Meditations” on a bench beneath an elm tree, or perhaps his romantic cousin, the New England boy of fall, a tousle-haired chap with a knapsack slung back on one shoulder. He is walking with a lovely, earnest young woman who apparently likes scarves, and probably Shelley. They are smiling. Everyone is smiling. The professors, who are wearing friendly, Rick Moranis-style glasses, smile, though they’re hard at work at a large table with an eager student, sharing a splayed book and gesturing as if weighing two big, wholesome orbs of fruit. Universities are special places, we believe: gardens where chosen people escape their normal lives to cultivate the Life of the Mind.

But that is not the kind of higher education most Americans know. The vast majority of people who get education beyond high school do so at community colleges and other regional and nonselective schools. Most who apply are accepted. The teachers there, not all of whom have doctorates or get research support, may seem restless and harried. Students may, too. Some attend school part time, juggling their academic work with family or full-time jobs, and so the dropout rate, and time-to-degree, runs higher than at élite institutions. Many campuses are funded on fumes, or are on thin ice with accreditation boards; there are few quadrangles involved. The coursework often prepares students for specific professions or required skills. If you want to be trained as a medical assistant, there is a track for that. If you want to learn to operate an infrared spectrometer, there is a course to show you how. This is the populist arm of higher education. It accounts for about eighty per cent of colleges in the United States.

Most citizens of the elite world described above know little about the second world, but have a vague sense that it is cheap and tawdry (and that its uninformed consumers are exploited by fly-by-night, for-profit producers). The online revolution has already had a huge effect on vocational education, though most of the media attention is on the so-far modest, very marginal effects on the elite world.

14 May 2013 at 11:36 am Leave a comment

Clusters of Entrepreneurship and Innovation

| Peter Klein |

That’s the title of a new review paper by Aaron Chatterji, Ed Glaeser, and William Kerr (a gated NBER working paper, unfortunately). Agglomeration has been a huge issue in the entrepreneurship, technology strategy, innovation policy, and economic growth literatures and it’s nice to have an up-to-date, not-very-technical review paper. (Hopefully there is an ungated copy out there somewhere.)

Clusters of Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Aaron Chatterji, Edward L. Glaeser, William R. Kerr
NBER Working Paper No. 19013, May 2013

This paper reviews recent academic work on the spatial concentration of entrepreneurship and innovation in the United States. We discuss rationales for the agglomeration of these activities and the economic consequences of clusters. We identify and discuss policies that are being pursued in the United States to encourage local entrepreneurship and innovation. While arguments exist for and against policy support of entrepreneurial clusters, our understanding of what works and how it works is quite limited. The best path forward involves extensive experimentation and careful evaluation.

Update: ungated version here.

6 May 2013 at 10:01 am 4 comments

Rational Inattention

| Dick Langlois |

The idea of attention as a scarce resource goes back at least to Herbert Simon and Nelson and Winter. I hadn’t seen much application of this idea in a while until I ran across this interesting paper called “Rational Inattention and Organizational Focus” by Wouter Dessein, Andrea Galeotti, and Tano Santos. Here’s the abstract:

We examine the allocation of scarce attention in team production. Each team member is in charge of a specialized task, which must be adapted to a privately observed shock and coordinated with other tasks. Coordination requires that agents pay attention to each other, but attention is in limited supply. We show how organizational focus and leadership naturally arise as the result of a fundamental complementarity between the attention devoted to an agent and the amount of initiative taken by that agent. At the optimum, all attention is evenly allocated to a select number of “leaders”. The organization then excels in a small number of focal tasks at the expense of all others. Our results shed light on the importance of leadership, strategy and “core competences” in team production, as well as new trends in organization design. We also derive implications for the optimal size or “scope” of organizations: a more variable environment results in smaller organizations with more leaders. Surprisingly, improvements in communication technology may also result in smaller but more balanced and adaptive organizations.

Apparently, Dessein has been working on attention models for some time, though I hadn’t noticed. (But, of course, Peter had.) I should also note that this model is similar in spirit to the work of Sharon Gifford, now 20 years old, which Dessein et al. do not cite.

22 March 2013 at 2:49 pm Leave a comment

Trento Summer School on Modularity

| Dick Langlois |

This summer I am directing a two-week summer school on “Modularity and Design for Innovation,” July 1-12. I am working closely with Carliss Baldwin, who will be the featured speaker. Other guest speakers will include Stefano Brusoni, Annabelle Gawer, Luigi Marengo, and Jason Woodard.

The school is intended for Ph.D. students, post-docs, and newly minted researchers in technology and operations management, strategy, finance, and the economics of organizations and institutions. The school provides meals and accommodations at the beautiful Hotel Villa Madruzzo outside Trento. Students have to provide their own travel. More information and application here.

This is the fourteenth in a series of summer schools organized at Trento by Enrico Zaninotto and Axel Leijonhufvud. In 2004, I directed one on institutional economics.

12 March 2013 at 5:28 am 1 comment

I, Coke Can

coke-can-198x300| Peter Klein |

Via Craig Newmark, a modern riff on Leonard Read’s classic:

The number of individuals who know how to make a can of Coke is zero. The number of individual nations that could produce a can of Coke is zero. This famously American product is not American at all. Invention and creation is something we are all in together. Modern tool chains are so long and complex that they bind us into one people and one planet. They are not only chains of tools, they are also chains of minds: local and foreign, ancient and modern, living and dead — the result of disparate invention and intelligence distributed over time and space. Coca-Cola did not teach the world to sing, no matter what its commercials suggest, yet every can of Coke contains humanity’s choir.

No surprises here to students of open innovation, but a vivid illustration nonetheless.

11 March 2013 at 10:53 am 4 comments

The Myth of the Flattening Hierarchy

| Peter Klein |

We’ve written many posts on the popular belief that information technology, globalization, deregulation, and the like have rendered the corporate hierarchy obsolete, or at least led to a substantial “flattening” of the modern corporation (see the links here). The theory is all wrong — these environmental changes affect the costs of both internal and external governance, and the net effect on firm size and structure are ambiguous — and the data don’t support a general trend toward smaller and flatter firms.

Julie Wulf has a paper in the Fall 2012 California Management Review summarizing her careful and detailed empirical work on the shape of corporate hierarchies. (The published version is paywalled, but here is a free version.) Writes Julie:

I set out to investigate the flattening phenomenon using a variety of methods, including quantitative analysis of large datasets and more qualitative research in the field  involving executive interviews and a survey on executive time use. . . .

We discovered that flattening has occurred, but it is not what it is widely assumed to be. In line with the conventional view of flattening, we find that CEOs eliminated layers in the management ranks, broadened their spans of control, and changed pay structures in ways suggesting some decisions were in fact delegated to lower levels. But, using multiple methods of analysis, we find other evidence sharply at odds with the prevailing view of flattening. In fact, flattened firms exhibited more control and decision-making at the top. Not only did CEOs centralize more functions, such that a greater number of functional managers (e.g., CFO, Chief Human Resource Officer, CIO) reported directly to them; firms also paid lower-level division managers less when functional managers joined the top team, suggesting more decisions at the top. Furthermore, CEOs report in interviews that they flattened to “get closer to the businesses” and become more involved, not less, in internal operations. Finally, our analysis of CEO time use indicates that CEOs of flattened firms allocate more time to internal interactions. Taken together, the evidence suggests that flattening transferred some decision rights from lower-level division managers to functional managers at the top. And flattening is associated with increased CEO involvement with direct reports —the second level of top management—suggesting a more hands-on CEO at the pinnacle of the hierarchy.

As they say, read the whole thing.

28 January 2013 at 12:56 am 4 comments

Searle Center Conference Innovation and Entrepreneurship:

| Peter Klein |

Northwestern’s Searle Center, headed by Dan Spulber, is holding its sixth annual conference on innovation and entrepreneurship 6-7 June 2013. I have attended before and the papers and discussion are typically very high quality. Proposals are due 15 February. The full call for papers is here and below the fold. (more…)

16 January 2013 at 1:08 pm Leave a comment

Web-Savvy Profs

| Peter Klein |

top_web_savvy_professor_2012I’m #57 on a new list of Top 100 Web-Savvy Professors. Teppo smokes me at #19, but I’m right up there with Clay Christensen, Noriel Roubini, Austan Goolsbee, Richard Thaler, and other luminaries. I don’t know the group behind the list or how the ranking was compiled, but it looks good to me. In any case, this will give you more names to follow on blogs or Twitter. Enjoy!

11 December 2012 at 10:27 pm 2 comments

Complementaries in the Age of the App

| Peter Klein |

Josh Gans asks if “we have yet evolved to the right set of institutions in the app economy,” comparing contracts between app developers and distributors/publishers to those between book authors and publishers. He also notes, correctly I think, that app development may have more to do with signaling programming skill than making money from selling the app. Still, there are important contractual issues to be sorted out in the age of the app.

More generally, Josh’s post highlights the need for organizational scholars to think more broadly about the complementarities between technology, organization, and strategy. Milgrom and Roberts (1990, 1995) are the pioneers here, but there management literatures on modularity and other aspects of fit among organizational attributes are relevant too. (Here’s an example from outside the tech sector.) Milgrom and Roberts put it this way:

[C]hange in a system marked by strong and widespread complementarities may be difficult and . . . centrally directed change may be important for altering systems. Changing only a few of the system elements at a time to their optimal values may not come at all close to achieving all the benefits that are available through a fully coordinated move, and may even have negative payoffs. Of course, if those making the choices fail to recognize all the dimensions across which the complementarities operate, then they may fail to make the full range of necessary adaptations, with unfortunate results. At the same time, coordinating the general direction of a move may substantially ease the coordination problem while still retaining most of the potential benefits of change. Moreover, the systematic errors associated with centrally directed change are less costly than similarly large but uncoordinated errors of independently operating units.

In other words, when a system is characterized by strong complementarities, the diffusion and evolution of business practices requires simultaneous, coordinated changes among all complementary features within the system — technology, organizational form, strategy, and perhaps other elements as well. When simultaneous or coordinated changes occur within strongly complementary systems, business practices like contractual form will also tend to evolve, and to do so rapidly. By contrast, when simultaneous or coordinated changes within systems characterized by strong complementarities do not occur, organizational change will tend to be slow or uneven.

The rapid growth of the app economy might seem an exception to these principles, as the app market has exploded without (it appears) complementary changes in the contractual and organizational aspects of app production. As noted above, this may be because app design performs a signaling role independent of its ability to generate profits. If this becomes less important over time — perhaps because clever programmers find more effective ways to signal ability — then getting the compensation system right will be critical to ensure the success of this particular business model.

11 December 2012 at 12:32 am 3 comments

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Our Recent Books

Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Peter G. Klein and Micheal E. Sykuta, eds., The Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (Edward Elgar, 2010).
Peter G. Klein, The Capitalist and the Entrepreneur: Essays on Organizations and Markets (Mises Institute, 2010).
Richard N. Langlois, The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler, and the New Economy (Routledge, 2007).
Nicolai J. Foss, Strategy, Economic Organization, and the Knowledge Economy: The Coordination of Firms and Resources (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Raghu Garud, Arun Kumaraswamy, and Richard N. Langlois, eds., Managing in the Modular Age: Architectures, Networks and Organizations (Blackwell, 2003).
Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, eds., Entrepreneurship and the Firm: Austrian Perspectives on Economic Organization (Elgar, 2002).
Nicolai J. Foss and Volker Mahnke, eds., Competence, Governance, and Entrepreneurship: Advances in Economic Strategy Research (Oxford, 2000).
Nicolai J. Foss and Paul L. Robertson, eds., Resources, Technology, and Strategy: Explorations in the Resource-based Perspective (Routledge, 2000).

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