Posts filed under ‘Management Theory’

I Agree with Larry Summers

| Peter Klein |

Justin Fox reports on a recent high-powered behavioral economics conference featuring Raj Chetty, David Laibson, Antoinette Schoar, Maya Shankar, and other important contributors to this growing research stream. But he refers also to the “Summers critique,” the idea that key findings in behavioral economics research sound like recycled wisdom from business practitioners.

Summers [in 2012] told a story about a college acquaintance who as a cruel prank signed up another classmate for 60 different subscriptions of the Book-of-the-Month-Club ilk. The way these clubs worked is that once you signed up, you got a book in the mail every month and were charged for it unless you (a) sent the book back within a certain period of time or (b) went through the hassle of extricating yourself from the club altogether. Customers had to opt out in order to not keep buying books, so they bought more books than they otherwise would have. Book marketers, Summers said, had figured out the power of defaults long before economists had.

More generally, Fox asks, “Have behavioral economists really discovered anything new, or have they simply replaced some wrong-headed notions of post-World War II economics with insights that people in business have understood for decades and maybe even centuries?”

I took exactly the Summers line in a 2010 post, observing that behavioral economics “often seems to restate common, obvious, well-known ideas as if they are really novel insights (e.g., that preferences aren’t stable and predictable over time). More novel propositions are questionable at best.” I used a Dan Ariely column on compensation policy as an example:

He claims as a unique insight of behavioral economics that when people are evaluated according to quantitative measures of performance, they tend to focus on the measures, not the underlying behavior being measured. Well, duh. This is pretty much a staple of introductory lectures on agency theory (and features prominently in Steve Kerr’s classic 1975 article). Ariely goes on to suggest that CEOs should be rewarded not on the basis of a single measure of performance, but multiple measures. Double-duh. Holmström (1979) called this the “informativeness principle” and it’s in all the standard textbooks on contract design and compensation structure (e.g., Milgrom and Roberts, Brickley et al., etc.) (Of course, agency theory also recognizes that gathering information is costly, and that additional metrics are valuable, on the margin, only if the benefits exceed the costs, a point unmentioned by Ariely.)

Maybe Larry and I should hang out.

22 September 2015 at 12:03 pm 6 comments

Foss Wins Best Article Award

| Peter Klein |

Nicolai is far too modest to mention it (and no, he did not make me do this), but he has won Sloan Management Review’s best article prize:

The editors of MIT Sloan Management Review are pleased to announce the winners of this year’s Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize, awarded to the authors of the most outstanding MIT SMR article on planned change and organizational development published between fall 2013 and summer 2014.

This year’s Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize goes to the spring 2014 MIT SMR article by Julian Birkinshaw, Nicolai J. Foss, and Siegwart Lindenberg, entitled “Combining Purpose With Profits.”

In this article, the authors examine a familiar and important question for managers: How can the tension between purpose and profits be best managed? The authors explore the kinds of structures companies need to put in place to provide clarity and direction for employees while also serving to both motivate individuals and draw people together in a common pursuit.

As the judges for the prize pointed out, the tension between purpose and profit is well-known, and many companies claiming to have “pro-social goals” have difficulty backing up their claims. However, the judges were impressed with the examples the authors presented of companies that have actually been able to balance purpose and profit. Some were familiar (such as Whole Foods Market and Tata Group), but others were less so (such as the Swedish bank Svenska Handelsbanken and HCL Technologies, an India-based IT-services company).

The pro-social goals the companies emphasize — for example, putting employees first or investing in local communities — are hardly elaborate or surprising. What is important is that companies put systems in place to meet these goals. For instance, at Tata, where the pro-social goal is “to improve the quality of life in the communities we serve,” the supporting systems include charitable trusts that own the majority of the equity capital of the Tata Sons holding company. Pro-social goals require what the authors call a “counterweight,” such as an employee council or a measuring system, to ensure that the pro-social goals continue to have influence.

The judges thought the article was well aligned with the beliefs of Richard Beckhard, who insisted that what truly motivates employees is the sense that what they do matters and serves a purpose that goes beyond organizational profitability or personal gain. As the judges observed, “What engages people is the broader, value-centered question of why we do what we do — precisely what the three authors of this year’s winning article make evident.”

This year’s panel of judges consisted of distinguished members of the MIT Sloan School faculty: Schussel Family Professor and chairman of the MIT Sloan Management Review managing board Erik Brynjolfsson, retired senior lecturer Cyrus Gibson, and Erwin H. Schell Professor of Management John Van Maanen.

Nicolai, you can do great things, when you pick the right coauthors….

20 August 2015 at 3:42 pm 2 comments

Piece Rates and Multitasking

| Peter Klein |

pieceA canonical result of multitask agency theory is that, when agents are assigned to multiple activities and some are more easily measured than others, piece-rate incentive schemes encourage agents to focus on the measurable activities while shirking the others. Professors at research universities, for example tend to focus on research at the expense of teaching — not because they don’t care about teaching, but because research output is easy to measure, while teaching quality isn’t, so administrators wishing to reward good performance tend to base their evaluations on research productivity. Or so I’ve heard (ahem). The implication is that, to encourage balanced effort and performance across activities, supervisors should rely at least partly on subjective, holistic evaluation criteria, and not just objective, quantitative measures of employee performance, or even do away with incentive compensation altogether.

An interesting paper in the January 2015 Southern Economic Journal offers a different theory, and some experimental evidence to back it up, suggesting that piece rates may actually be better than other schemes under multitasking. The idea is that agents may be uncertain about the principal’s monitoring ability, and the choice of a piece-rate scheme signals that the principal is a good monitor. This signaling effect can, under certain conditions, overcome the standard distortionary effect described above. Put differently, relying on subjective, holistic evaluation criteria, or abandoning performance measurement altogether (Alfie Kohn cheers!), may signal a sophisticated, experienced principal, but may also signal a principal who is too lazy to pay attention to employee behavior at all.

The paper is by Omar Al-Ubaydli, Steffen Andersen, Uri Gneezy, and John List and is cleverly titled “Carrots That Look Like Sticks: Toward an Understanding of Multitasking Incentive Schemes.” (Yes, it is part of the List Project on which we have mixed opinions.) Here is more on multitasking.

20 July 2015 at 8:32 am 1 comment

Casson on Methodological Individualism

| Peter Klein |

Thanks to Andrew for the pointer to this weekend’s Reading-UNCTAD International Business Conference featuring Mark Casson, Tim Devinney, Marcus Larsen, and many others. Mark’s talk (not yet online) focused on the need for methodological individualism in international business research. “Firms don’t take decisions, individuals do. When you say that a firm pursued an international strategy, you really mean that that the CEO persuaded the individuals on the board to go along with his or her strategy.” As Andrew summarizes:

Casson spoke at great length about the need for research that focuses on named individuals, is based on the extensive study of primary sources in archives, takes social and political context into account, and which looks at case studies of entrepreneurs in different time periods. In effect, he was calling for the re-integration of Business History into International Business research.

And a renewed emphasis on entrepreneurship, not as a standalone subject dealing with startups or self-employment, but as central to the study of organizations — a theme heartily endorsed on this blog.

14 June 2015 at 1:53 pm Leave a comment

Review of Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment

| Peter Klein |

OrganizingEntrepreneurialJudgmentBook2David Howden’s generous review of Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment appears in the March 2015 issue of the International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal. Excerpt:

This ambitious book has a three-fold purpose. First, it seeks to clarify “entrepreneurship” in a manner amenable to both modern management and economics literature. Second, it redefines the theory of the firm in order to integrate the role of the entrepreneur more fully and give a comprehensive view on why firms exist. Finally, and most successfully, it sheds light on the internal organization of the firm, and how entrepreneurship theory can augment our understanding of why firms adopt the hierarchies they do. . . .

Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment is a massive undertaking, and one that ambitiously spans the unnecessary divide between management studies and economics literature. For the scholar seriously contemplating exploiting this gap further, the book is highly recommended. Having thoroughly enjoyed reading this rendition of their entrepreneurial theory of the firm, it is this reviewer’s hope that Foss and Klein continue to carve out this growing niche straddling the two disciplines. Following up with a more direct and focused primer on their firm would be a welcome contribution to further the growing field.

Also, at last November’s SDAE conference, the book received the 2014 FEE Prize for best book in Austrian economics.

We have several new papers coming out that develop, extend, and defend the judgment-based perspective. Details to follow.

12 February 2015 at 10:05 am 3 comments

Two Large-Sample Empirical Papers on Strategy and Organization

| Peter Klein |

Bryan Hong, Lorenz Kueng, and Mu-Jeung Yang have two new NBER papers on strategy and organization using a seven-year panel of about 5,500 Canadian firms. The papers exploit the Workplace and Employee Survey administered annually by Statistics Canada. The data, the authors’ approach, and the results should be very interesting to O&M readers. Here are the links to the NBER versions; there may be ungated versions as well.

Business Strategy and the Management of Firms
NBER Working Paper No. 20846, January 2015

Business strategy can be defined as a firm’s plan to generate economic profits based on lower cost, better quality, or new products. The analysis of business strategy is thus at the intersection of market competition and a firm’s efforts to secure persistently superior performance via investments in better management and organization. We empirically analyze the interaction of firms’ business strategies and their managerial practices using a unique, detailed dataset on business strategy, internal firm organization, performance and innovation, which is representative of the entire Canadian economy. Our empirical results show that measures of business strategy are strongly correlated with firm performance, both in the cross-section and over time, and even after controlling for unobserved profit shocks exploiting intermediates utilization. Results are particularly striking for innovation, as firms with some priority in business strategies are significantly more likely to innovate than firms without any strategic priority. Furthermore, our analysis highlights that the relationship between strategy and management is driven by two key organizational trade-offs: employee initiative vs. coordination as well as exploration of novel business opportunities vs. exploitation of existing profit sources.

Estimating Management Practice Complementarity between Decentralization and Performance Pay
NBER Working Paper No. 20845, January 2015

The existence of complementarity across management practices has been proposed as one potential explanation for the persistence of firm-level productivity differences. However, thus far no conclusive population-level tests of the complementary joint adoption of management practices have been conducted. Using unique detailed data on internal organization, occupational composition, and firm performance for a nationally representative sample of firms in the Canadian economy, we exploit regional variation in income tax progression as an instrument for the adoption of performance pay. We find systematic evidence for the complementarity of performance pay and decentralization of decision-making from principals to employees. Furthermore, in response to the adoption of performance pay, we find a concentration of decision-making at the level of managerial employees, as opposed to a general movement towards more decentralization throughout the organization. Finally, we find that adoption of performance pay is related to other types of organizational restructuring, such as greater use of outsourcing, Total Quality Management, re-engineering, and a reduction in the number of layers in the hierarchy.

22 January 2015 at 10:50 pm 3 comments

More on Strategy and Game Theory

| Peter Klein |

downloadRecent posts on strategy and game theory (here and here) generated quite a lot of discussion here and on social media. Avinash Dixit offers more grist for the mill in his December 2014 Journal of Economic Literature essay on Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History (Oxford, 2013). (An ungated version is here.) Dixit’s essay contrasts the economist’s and the historian’s view of strategy — “strategy” being game theory for the former, a broader, interpretive, interdisciplinary exercise for the latter — but the discussion is highly relevant for strategic management. The management literature has traditionally taken a wide, flexible view of “strategy,” closer to the historian’s sense than the economist’s, though that is rapidly changing as game theory becomes more widespread in strategic management research and teaching.

Here’s an excerpt from Dixit’s opening, which gives you the flavor:

[Freedman] heads the preface with a memorable quote from Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” Later he quotes another fighter, the legendary German Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke: “no plan survived contact with the enemy” (p. 104). The game theorist will respond: “Those plans are not strategies. They are incomplete. They fail to specify any action at the node of the game tree where you get punched in the mouth or meet the enemy army, or in the ensuing subgame.” It would be extreme stupidity, or arrogance tantamount to stupidity, for a boxer not to recognize the possibility of getting punched in the mouth. And although avoiding battle may be an important aspect of military strategy in many situations (see pp. 47–9), every plan should include a provision for action if or when battle commences. Tyson, or Freedman, will probably counter that even if the boxer starts with a complete plan that specifies the action for this contingency, the punch will make him forget the plan and react hot-headedly. Modern game theorists exposed to behavioral ideas will admit some truth in this, and agree that the boxer’s System 2 calculations are likely to fly out of the ring when the punch lands and System 1 instincts will take over. But they will add that that makes it all the more important for the boxer to strategize better in advance—to take actions before getting punched, either to reduce the risk, or to arrange matters in such a way that the anger and instinct (or the prospects of such reactions) are put to more effective use, as with the strategy of brinkmanship. More generally, “the art of creating power” often entails strategic moves like commitments, threats and promises that game theorists have analyzed following Thomas Schelling (1960). And Freedman’s picture of “strategy as a System 2 process engaged in a tussle with System 1 thinking” (p. 605) looks remarkably like Schelling’s (1984, ch. 3) “intimate contest for self-command.”

I have a twofold purpose in constructing the above exchange. One is to highlight the difference between the perspectives of economists and historians in thinking about the same situation. The second is to argue that each has something to learn from the other, and a fuller understanding can result from their dialog. The two perspectives share a lot of middle ground, and have useful complementarities.

The thoughtful essay is well worth reading in its entirety.

29 December 2014 at 2:47 pm 2 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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