Posts filed under ‘Theory of the Firm’

Mark Casson’s The Entrepreneur at 30

| Peter Klein |

2012 marked the 30th anniversary of Mark Casson’s classic work The Entrepreneur: An Economic Theory. Casson was one of the first economists since Frank Knight to elaborate on the role that uncertainty and judgment play in entrepreneurial decisions. Casson’s book offers not only a critique of the theories of competition and the firm offered in neoclassical microeconomics, but also a positive theory of the entrepreneur as a judgmental decision-maker under uncertainty. Casson’s work had a strong influence on the Foss-Klein approach to entrepreneurship, as well as Dick’s work on the theory of the firm.

Sharon Alvarez, Andrew Godley, and Mike Wright have written a nice tribute to The Entrepreneur in the latest edition of the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal.

Mark Casson’s The Entrepreneur: An Economic Theory (1982) has become one of the most influential books in the field of entrepreneurship. For the first time, this article outlines its origins and summarizes its main themes. The article goes on to show how Casson’s subsequent research has closely followed the research agenda he set for himself in The Entrepreneur and illustrates the continuing challenge his work presents to entrepreneurship scholars. The article is based on an interview the authors conducted with Mark Casson on the thirtieth anniversary of the book’s publication.

As Sharon, Andrew, and Mike note, “Casson’s incorporation of Knightian judgment into a broader economic framework is probably the area where the book has had its greatest impact (albeit mostly among management scholars and not economists).” For Casson — as well as Knight — judgment constitutes decision-making under uncertainty that cannot be captured in a set of formal decision rules, such that “different individuals, sharing similar objectives and acting under similar circumstances, would make different decisions” (Casson, 1982, p. 21). Unfortunately, while judgment continues to play an important role in entrepreneurship research, it has been largely overshadowed (in my reading) by the opportunity-discovery perspective that builds on Kirzner rather than Knight (though that perspective is itself coming under heavy fire).

The paper is gated, unfortunately. But you can access Casson’s own summary of his (and others’) ideas in this EconLib article.

6 June 2014 at 10:42 pm 2 comments

The New Empirical Economics of Management

| Peter Klein |

That’s the title of a new review paper by Nicholas Bloom, Renata Lemos, Raffaella Sadun, Daniela Scur, and John Van Reenen, summarizing the recent large-sample empirical literature on management practices using the World Management Survey (modeled on the older World Values Survey). Here’s the NBER version and here’s an ungated version from the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance.

This literature has been rightly criticized for its somewhat coarse, survey-based measures of management practices, but its measures are probably the most precise that can be reliably extracted from a large sample of firms across many countries. In that sense it is on par with the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, the Economic Freedom Index, and other databases that attempt to capture subtle and ultimately subjective characteristics across a broad sample.

Here’s the abstract of the Bloom et al. paper:

Over the last decade the World Management Survey (WMS) has collected firm-level management practices data across multiple sectors and countries. We developed the survey to try to explain the large and persistent TFP differences across firms and countries. This review paper discusses what has been learned empirically and theoretically from the WMS and other recent work on management practices. Our preliminary results suggest that about a quarter of cross-country and within-country TFP gaps can be accounted for by management practices. Management seems to matter both qualitatively and quantitatively. Competition, governance, human capital and informational frictions help account for the variation in management.

It provides a nice overview for those new to this literature. An earlier review paper by Bloom, Genakos, Sadun, and Van Reenen, “Management Practices Across Firms and Countries,” appeared in the Academy of Management Perspectives in 2011, along with some critical comments by David Waldman, Mary Sully de Luque, and Danni Wang.

12 May 2014 at 1:46 pm 2 comments

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

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

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

CFP: Coase Memorial Issue of Man and the Economy

| Peter Klein |

An important announcement from Ning Wang, editor of Man and the Economy:

Man and the Economy
Call for Papers for a Special Issue in Memory of Ronald Coase

“R. H. Coase: The Man and His Ideas”

Man and the Economy will devote a special issue (December 2014) to the life and ideas of Ronald Coase, the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Economics and Founding Editor of this journal. During his long academic life, Coase devoted himself to economics, which, in his view, should investigate how the real world economy works, with all its imperfections. Coase viewed and practiced economics as a social science, a study of man creating wealth in society through various institutional arrangements. To honor the memory of Coase, we welcome original research articles that extend and develop the Coasian economics, including empirical studies of the structure of production and exchange. We also welcome critical and constructive commentaries that clarify and elaborate the Coasian themes, from a law-and-economics/new institutional economics perspective, which include, but not limited to, topics on transaction costs, property rights, theories of the firm and China’s economic transformation. In addition, we also welcome personal reflections and reminiscences of Coase as a colleague, a teacher, an editor, and/or a friend.

Submissions must be made online via the Journal’s website: http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/me

Deadline for submissions is September 30, 2014.

12 February 2014 at 8:51 am Leave a comment

Property Rights Economics — Mark I and Mark II

| 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.

10 February 2014 at 9:46 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

What Are “Transaction Costs” Anyway?

| Peter Klein |

A friend complains that management and entrepreneurship scholarship is confused about the concept of transaction costs. Authors rarely give explicit definitions. They conflate search costs, bargaining costs, measurement costs, agency costs, enforcement costs, etc. No one distinguishes between Coase’s, Williamson’s, and North’s formulations. “Transaction costs seem to be whatever the author wants them to be to justify the argument.”

It’s a fair point, and it applies to economics (and other social sciences and professional fields) too. I remember being asked by a prominent economist, back when I was a PhD student writing under Williamson, why transaction costs “don’t simply go to zero in the long run.” Indeed, contemporary organizational economics mostly uses terms like “contracting costs,” and since 1991 Williamson  has tended to use “maladaptation costs” (while retaining the term “transaction cost economics”).

When I teach transaction costs I typically assign Doug Allen’s excellent 2000 essay from the Encyclopedia of Law and Economics and Lee and Alexandra Benhams’ more recent survey from my Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (unfortunately gated). Doug, for example, usefully distinguishes between a “neoclassical approach,” in which transaction costs are the costs of exchanging well-defined property rights, and a “property-rights approach,” in which transaction costs are the costs of defining and enforcing property rights.

What other articles, chapters, and reviews would you suggest to help clarify the definition and best use of the “transaction costs”? Or should we avoid the term entirely in favor of narrower and more precise words and phrases?

6 February 2014 at 12:28 pm 17 comments

Focused Firms and Conglomerates: Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

| Peter Klein |

A renewed interest in conglomerates has brought forth a HBR blog post from Herman Vantrappen and Daniel Deneffe, “Don’t Write Off the (Western) Focused Firm Yet.” As they rightly point out, the choice between a focus and diversity “depends on the context in which the business operates. Specifically, focused firms fare better in countries where society expects and gets public accountability of both firms and governments, while conglomerates succeed in nations with high public accountability deficits.” I would put it slightly differently: the choice between focused, single-business firms and diversified, multi-business enterprises depends on the relative performance of internal and external capital and labor markets. The institutional environment — the legal system, regulatory practices, accounting rules — plays a huge rule here, but social norms, technology, and the competitive environment also affect the efficient margin between between intra-firm and inter-firm resource allocation.

The point is that all forms of organization have costs and benefits. There is no uniquely “optimal” degree of diversification or hierarchy or vertical integration or any other aspect of firm structure; the choice depends on the circumstances. Instead of favoring one particular organizational form we should be promoting an environment in which entrepreneurs can experiment with different approaches, with competition determining the right choice in each  context. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Update: From Joe Mahoney I learn that not only was Chairman Mao’s actual exhortation “Let a hundred flowers blossom,” but also he may have meant it sarcastically: “It is sometimes suggested that the initiative was a deliberate attempt to flush out dissidents by encouraging them to show themselves as critical of the regime.” My usage was of course sincere. :)

28 January 2014 at 10:54 am 1 comment

The Modular Kimono

| Dick Langlois |

I recently ran across this interesting paper on vertical integration and subcontracting in the Japanese kimono industry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By this period, most of the Japanese silk (and cotton) industries had adopted the factory system. But there remained a few industrial districts that relied on the putting-out system. This paper is most interested in presenting a risk-aversion model that explains why “premier subcontractors” got relational contracts in the putting-out system. I’m not sure I buy it, but in any case what caught my eye was something else — a modularity story:

In the weaving industry of Kiryu, the factory system equipped with hand looms had been chosen to weave the luxury fabrics, while the putting-out system had been used for most other fabrics, until the factory system equipped with power looms became dominant for most kinds of fabrics in the 1910s and later. Instead of being replaced, the putting-out system developed and dispersed within Kiryu, especially from the 1860s to the 1900s, when the main products of Kiryu were yarn-dyed silk fabrics. “Yarn dying” means material yarn is dyed before weaving. For the luxury fabrics that were dyed after weaving, the cleaning and finishing processes undertaken after weaving were important, and those processes were conducted inside the manufacturers’ workshops. In contrast, in the production of the yarn-dyed fabrics, dying, arranging warps, cleaning yarn, throwing, re-reeling, and other preparation processes were essential. Because those processes needed special skills, the craftsmen who specialized in each process were organized as subcontractors by manufacturers. … With the moving weight from production of traditional piece-dyed (dyed-after-weaving) fabrics to production of yarn-dyed (dyed-before-weaving) silk fabrics, the throwing process, the finishing process, and the designing process, as well as the weaving process, came to be put-out. Manufacturers decreased the production inside of their workshops and established subcontracting relations with independent artisans. This case suggests that the technological change induced by the change of products from piece-dyed fabrics to the yarn-dyed fabrics affected production organization.

This has a bit of a Christensen flavor to it. When “performance” needs were high — high-end kimonos — the industry used a non-modular technology (dyed-after-weaving) and an integrated organization. When performance needs were lower — lower-quality kimonos — it used a modular technology (dyed-before-weaving) and a vertically disintegrated structure.

14 January 2014 at 12:50 pm 1 comment

Business Groups in the US

| Peter Klein |

Diversification continues to be a central issue for strategic management, industrial organization, and corporate finance. There are huge research and practitioner literatures on why firms diversify, how diversification affects financial, operating, and innovative performance, what underlies inter-industry relatedness, how diversification ties into other aspects of firm strategy and organization, whether diversification is driven by regulation or other policy choices, and so on. There are many surveys of these literatures (Lasse and I contributed this one).

Some of the most interesting research deals with the institutional environment. For example, many US corporations were widely diversified in the 1960s and 1970s when the brokerage industry was small and protected by tough legal restrictions on entry, antitrust policy frowned on vertical and horizontal growth (maybe), and a volatile macroeconomic environment encouraged internalization of inter-firm transactions (also maybe). After the brokerage industry was deregulated in 1975, the antitrust environment became more relaxed, and the market for corporate control heated up, many conglomerates were restructured into more efficient, specialized firms. To quote myself:

The investment community in the 1960s has been described as a small, close-knit group wherein competition was minimal and peer influence strong (Bernstein, 1992). As Bhide (1990, p. 76) puts it, “internal capital markets … may well have possessed a significant edge because the external markets were not highly developed. In those days, one’s success on Wall Street reportedly depended far more on personal connections than analytical prowess.” When capital markets became more competitive in the 1970s, the relative importance of internal capital markets fell. “This competitive process has resulted in a significant increase in the ability of our external capital markets to monitor corporate performance and allocate resources” (Bhide, 1990, p. 77). As the cost of external finance has fallen, firms have tended to rely less on internal finance, and thus the value added from internal-capital-market allocation has fallen. . . .

Similarly, corporate refocusing can be explained as a consequence of the rise of takeover by tender offer rather than proxy contest, the emergence of new financial techniques and instruments like leveraged buyouts and high-yield bonds, and the appearance of takeover and breakup specialists like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which themselves performed many functions of the conglomerate headquarters (Williamson, 1992). A related literature looks at the relative importance of internal capital markets in developing economies, where external capital markets are limited (Khanna and Palepu 1999, 2000).

The key reference is to Amar Bhide’s 1990 article “Reversing Corporate Diversification,” which deserves to be better known. But note also the pointer to Khanna and Palepu’s important work on diversified business groups in emerging markets, which has also led to a vibrant empirical literature. The idea there is that weak institutions lead to poorly performing capital and labor markets, leading firms to internalize functions that would otherwise be performed between firms. More generally, firm strategy and organization varies systematically with the institutional environment, both over time and across countries and regions.

Surprisingly, diversified business groups were also common in the US, in the early 20th century, which brings me (finally) to the point of this post. A new NBER paper by Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, and Yishay Yafeh studies these groups and reaches some interesting and provocative conclusions. Check it out:

Business Groups in the United States: A Revised History of Corporate Ownership, Pyramids and Regulation, 1930-1950

Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, Yishay Yafeh
NBER Working Paper No. 19691, December 2013

The extent to which business groups ever existed in the United States and, if they did exist, the reasons for their disappearance are poorly understood. In this paper we use hitherto unexplored historical sources to construct a comprehensive data set to address this issue. We find that (1) business groups, often organized as pyramids, existed at least as early as the turn of the twentieth century and became a common corporate form in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly in public utilities (e.g., electricity, gas and transportation) but also in manufacturing; (2) In contrast with modern business groups in emerging markets that are typically diversified and tightly controlled, many US groups were focused in a single sector and controlled by apex firms with dispersed ownership; (3) The disappearance of US business groups was largely complete only in 1950, about 15 years after the major anti-group policy measures of the mid-1930s; (4) Chronologically, the demise of business groups preceded the emergence of conglomerates in the United States by about two decades and the sharp increase in stock market valuation by about a decade, so that a causal link between these events is hard to establish, although there may well be a connection between them. We conclude that the prevalence of business groups is not inconsistent with high levels of investor protection; that US corporate ownership as we know it today evolved gradually over several decades; and that policy makers should not expect policies that restrict business groups to have an immediate effect on corporate ownership.

12 December 2013 at 11:40 am Leave a comment

ISNIE 2014

| Peter Klein |

logoThe ISNIE 2014 Call for Papers is now available. The conference is at Duke University, 19-21 June 2014, home of President-Elect and Program Committee Chair John de Figueiredo. Bob Gibbons and Timur Kuran are keynote speakers. ISNIE is one of our favorite conferences, so please consider submitting a proposal! Submissions are due 30 January 2014.

3 December 2013 at 10:04 am Leave a comment

Field Experiment in Multitasking

| Peter Klein |

It finds what you’d expect: When agents are assigned multiple tasks, and evaluated using objective performance criteria, they will tend to favor those tasks that produce measurable outputs, at the expense of equally important, but harder-to-measure tasks. This is why, for example, professors at research universities often neglect their teaching duties. Sure it’s important, but quality is hard to demonstrate, so I’ll concentrate on publications, grants, and other research activities.

Testing the Theory of Multitasking: Evidence from a Natural Field Experiment in Chinese Factories
Fuhai Hong, Tanjim Hossain, John A. List, and Migiwa Tanaka
NBER Working Paper No. 19660, November 2013

A well-recognized problem in the multitasking literature is that workers might substantially reduce their effort on tasks that produce unobservable outputs as they seek the salient rewards to observable outputs. Since the theory related to multitasking is decades ahead of the empirical evidence, the economic costs of standard incentive schemes under multitasking contexts remain largely unknown. This study provides empirical insights quantifying such effects using a field experiment in Chinese factories. Using more than 2200 data points across 126 workers, we find sharp evidence that workers do trade off the incented output (quantity) at the expense of the non-incented one (quality) as a result of a piece rate bonus scheme. Consistent with our theoretical model, treatment effects are much stronger for workers whose base salary structure is a flat wage compared to those under a piece rate base salary. While the incentives result in a large increase in quantity and a sharp decrease in quality for workers under a flat base salary, they result only in a small increase in quantity without affecting quality for workers under a piece rate base salary.

25 November 2013 at 5:59 pm 2 comments

Ronald Coase at Dundee

| Peter Klein |

The University of Dundee’s Scottish Centre for Economic Methodology is hosting a conference 18 November 2013, “Origins of the Theory of the Firm: Ronald Coase at Dundee, 1932-1934.” The program looks really interesting:

  • Keith Tribe, “Dundee and Interwar Commercial Education.”
  • Billy Kenefick, “‘A great industrial cul-de-sac, a grim monument to “man’s inhumanity to man.” ‘ Dundee by the early 1930s.”
  • Carlo Morelli, “Market & Non-Market Co-ordination: Dundee and its Jute Industry – The Case Study for Ronald Coase?”
  • David Campbell, “Agency, Authority and Co-operation in the Firm: Coase, Macneil, Marx.”
  • Alice Belcher, “Coase and the Concept of Direction: How Valuable are Legal Concepts in the Theory of the Firm?”
  • Brian Loasby, “Ronald Coase’s Theory of the Firm and the Scope of Economics.”
  • Alistair Dow & Sheila Dow, “Coase and Scottish Political Economy.”
  • Eyup Ozveren & Ilhan Can Ozen, “Coase versus Coase: What if the Market Were One Big Firm Instead?”
  • Neil Kay, “Coase, The Nature of the Firm, and the Principles of Marginal Analysis.”

More information here and here.

30 October 2013 at 4:45 pm Leave a 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

Reflections on the Explanation of Heterogeneous Firm Capability

| 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…)

17 September 2013 at 9:17 am 1 comment

Ronald Coase (1910-2013)

| Peter Klein |

Ronald Coase passed away today at the age of 102. One of the most influential economists of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. His “Problem of Social Cost” (1960) has 21,692 Google Scholar cites, and “The Nature of the Firm” has 24,501. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, summed across editions, has about 30,000. Coase changed the way economists think about the business firm and the way they think about property rights and liability. He largely introduced the concepts of transaction costs, comparative institutional analysis, and government failure. Not all economist have agreed with his arguments and conceptual frameworks, but they radically changed the terms of debate in the economics of law, welfare, industry, and more. He is the key figure in the “new institutional economics” (and co-founder, and first president, of the International Society for New Institutional Economics).

Coase did all these things despite — or because of? — not holding a PhD in economics, not doing any math or statistics, and not, for much of his career, working in an economics department.

We’ve written so much on Coase already, on these pages and in our published work, that it’s hard to know what else to say in a blog post. Perhaps we should just invite you to browse old O&M posts mentioning Coase (including this one, posted last week).

The blogosphere will be filled in the coming days with analyses, reminiscences, and tributes. You can find your favorites easily enough (try searching Twitter, for example). I’ll just share two of my favorite memories. The first comes from the inaugural meeting of the International Society for New Institutional Economics in 1997. After a discussion about the best empirical strategy for that emerging discipline. Harold Demsetz stood up and said “Please, no more papers about Fisher Body and GM!” Coase, who was then at the podium, surprised the crowd by replying, “I’m sorry, Harold, that is exactly the subject of my next paper!” (That turned out to be his 2005 JEMS paper, described here.) A few years later, I helped entertain Coase during his visit to the University of Missouri for the CORI Distinguished Lecture. At lunch we talked about his disagreement with Ben Klein on asset specificity. After the lunch he got up, shook my hand, and announced, with evident satisfaction: “I see all Kleins are not alike.”

2 September 2013 at 9:40 pm 4 comments

Two AoM PDWs of Interest

| Peter Klein |

O&Mers attending the AoM conference may find these Professional Development Workshops, sponsored by the Academy of Management Perspectives and based on recent AMP symposia, of particular interest:

The first PDW is on “Private Equity” and features presentations on the managerial, strategic, and public policy implications of private equity transactions. Presenters include Robert Hoskisson (Rice University), Nick Bacon (City University London), Mike Wright (Imperial College London), and Peter Klein (University of Missouri). The private equity session takes place Saturday, Aug 10, 2013 from 11:30AM – 12:30PM at WDW Dolphin Resort in Oceanic 5.

The second is on “Microfoundations of Management,” and features presentations from Nicolai Foss (Copenhagen Business School), Henrich Greve (INSEAD), Sidney Winter (Wharton), Jay Barney (Utah), Teppo Felin (Oxford), Andrew Van de Ven (Minnesota), and Arik Lifschitz (Minnesota). The microfoundations session takes place Monday, Aug 12, 2013 from 9:00AM
– 10:30AM at WDW Dolphin Resort in Oceanic 5

Preregistration isn’t required but please let Don Siegel or Tim Devinney know if you plan to attend, as space is limited.

25 July 2013 at 8:47 am Leave a 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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