Posts filed under ‘Management Theory’

Is Human Capital Theory Compatible with the Strategy Literature?

[Another Becker-themed guest post, this one from former guest blogger Russ Coff, a leader in the emerging field of Strategic Human Capital.]

| Russ Coff |

Human capital theory (HCT) has brought a lot to the strategy literature. It has also held it back as scholars import logic that is inconsistent with core assumptions of the literature.

Before I launch into my heretical rant, let me acknowledge, as others have said so eloquently, Gary Becker was a truly innovative thinker. The most unique part was that, while he was firmly grounded in economic logic, he did not hesitate to venture into new terrain. Though he is most known for his work in HCT, his thoughtful explorations of marriage, discrimination, crime, and many other topics demonstrate the breadth and depth of his intellect.

However, strategy represents new terrain that is often inconsistent with the logic of HCT. In this sense, I think Becker would have relished the opportunity to examine this context as a new problem. Human capital challenges the strategy literature in the most fundamental ways possible – if we go beyond a cursory integration with Becker’s world. Here are some examples:

How much does firm-specific human capital (FSHC) matter? Drawing on HCT, scholars often assume firm specificity is important since it hinders mobility and allows the firm to capture rent. However, recent work suggests that this effect may be overstated. It requires strong information about human capital as opposed to the coarse signals that employers often rely upon. Thus, a worker moving from a successful firm may have ample opportunities as the firm’s success serves as a signal of the worker’s capabilities – FSHC investments are ignored. Even with strong information, individuals who invest in FSHC may be in demand by firms seeking employees who are willing and able to make such investments. When we consider such market imperfections (at the core of strategy theory), some of the classical HCT logic breaks down.

General human capital as a source of competitive advantage? Recent work in economics (Lazear’s skill-weights model) and the literature on stars focuses on workers who have skills that are valuable across firms. Both literatures point out how valuable and rare such skills can be (at very high levels). The scarcity and imperfect markets suggest that general human capital can be a source of advantage. Such people may be much more scarce and much less mobile than is assumed in classical HCT. Practitioners focus extensively on this type of knowledge. Can it lead to an advantage?

What is competitive advantage? From this, we might ask some more fundamental questions about competitive advantage, firms, and ownership. Most scholars implicitly adopt an agency theoretic view where shareholders are the only residual claimant and competitive advantage is therefore rent that flows to shareholders. Any value that flows to employees is considered not to have been captured by the firm. Joe Mahoney points out that shareholders would be the sole residual claimants if all factors are traded in perfectly competitive markets (e.g., wage = MRP). For this to be true, firms would have to be homogeneous and human capital would need to be a commodity. As such, this logic assumes away the possibility of competitive advantage altogether. If firms are heterogeneous and there are factor market failures, shareholders would not generally be sole residual claimants. What, then, is competitive advantage? (more…)

7 May 2014 at 5:37 pm 3 comments

Spender on Strategy

| Dick Langlois |

The always-interesting J.-C. Spender has kindly sent me a copy of his new book from Oxford, Business Strategy: Managing Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Enterprise. Not surprisingly, this very much the kind of book readers of this blog will find interesting. In addition to covering (and interpreting) standard practitioner and academic models of strategy, the book spends considerable time on language, persuasion, and rhetoric. Those of you who teach strategy should definitely have a look.

16 April 2014 at 12:18 pm 1 comment

Epistemic Mind Games

| Dick Langlois |

I had a brief mental hiccup today when I received an email advertisement from Stanford University Press for a book called Epinets: The Epistemic Structure and Dynamics of Social Networks by Mihnea C. Moldoveanu and Joel A. C. Baum. Because the ad carried prominently the SUP logo — a stylized fir tree — and because epinette is the Canadian French word for spruce tree, I thought for a nanosecond that I was being offered a treatise on conifer biology, penned by a man whose name means “tree.” But no. It’s a book of organizational sociology. “Drawing on artificial intelligence, the philosophy of language, and epistemic game theory, Moldoveanu and Baum formulate a lexicon and array of conceptual tools that enable readers to explain, predict, and shape the fabric and behavior of social networks.” Might be worth glancing at, if only to find out what epistemic game theory is. (Perhaps it is as opposed to ontological game theory.)

Of course, the Palo Alto of the Stanford seal is not a spruce. It’s a coast redwood, also called a sequoia.

6 March 2014 at 7:50 pm Leave a comment

Temporary versus Permanent Behavioral Responses

| Peter Klein |

As a behavioral economics skeptic I was intrigued by a recent NBER paper on worker responses to a change in the employment contract. Rajshri Jayaraman, Debraj Ray, and Francis de Vericourt studied an Indian tea plantation that changed its employment contract to weaken pay-for-performance incentives and found, initially, a substantial increase in output, suggesting a “happy-is-productive” effect that would make the pop psychologists proud. “This large and contrarian response to a flattening of marginal incentives is at odds with the standard model, including one that incorporates dynamic incentives, and it can only be partly accounted for by higher supervisory effort. We conclude that the increase is a ‘behavioral’ response.”

Alas, the effect was only temporary, becoming entirely reversed within a few months:

In fact, an entirely standard model with no behavioral or dynamic features that we estimate off the pre-change data, fits the observations four months after the contract change remarkably well. While not an unequivocal indictment of the recent emphasis on “behavioral economics,” the findings suggest that non-standard responses may be ephemeral, especially in employment contexts in which the baseline relationship is delineated by financial considerations in the first place. From an empirical perspective, therefore, it is ideal to examine responses to a contract change over an substantial period of time.

This looks to me like a Hawthorne effect. Given that much of the empirical literature in behavioral social science uses relatively short time horizons, I wonder how many of the findings can be explained this way? How many key “behavioral” results are short-term responses to changing management practices, workplace conditions, the employment contract, etc., rather than indicators of something more substantial about human behavior and motivation?

5 March 2014 at 11:40 am Leave a comment

The Theory of Mind in Agency Theory

| 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.

20 February 2014 at 1:54 pm 1 comment

Micro-foundations Happening: Strategic Human Capital

| 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.

16 February 2014 at 5:19 am 1 comment

Relational Contracts and the Decline of General Motors

| 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.

8 February 2014 at 2:29 pm 1 comment

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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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