Technology and Firm Size and Organization

14 July 2008 at 8:47 am 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

As a New Economy skeptic (1, 2, 3, 4) I worry about sweeping claims that information technology has rendered obsolete the large, vertically integrated, publicly held corporation and its managerial hierarchy. Such claims suffer from two problems: First, they tend to be thinly documented — evidence on the economy-wide distribution of organizational forms is largely fragmentary and anecdotal. Second, they usually exaggerate what’s new about those changes that we can document. As I wrote in my review of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks:

Benkler proposes social production as an alternative to the traditional organizational modes of “market” and “hierarchy,” to use Oliver Williamson’s terminology. Indeed, open-source production differs in important ways from spot-market interaction and production within the private firm. But here, as elsewhere, Benkler tends to overstate the novelty of social production. Firms, for example, have long employed internal markets, delegated decision rights throughout the organization, formed themselves into networks, clusters, and alliances, and otherwise taken advantage of openness and collaboration. There exists a variety of organizational forms that proliferate within the matrix of private property rights. Peer production is not new; the relevant question concerns the magnitude of the changes.

Here, the book suffers from a problem common to others in this genre. Benkler provides a wealth of anecdotes to illustrate the revolutionary nature of the new economy but little information on magnitudes. How new? How large? How much? Cooperative, social production itself is hardly novel, as any reader of “I, Pencil,” can attest. Before the web page, there was the pamphlet; before the Internet, the telegraph; before the Yahoo directory, the phone book; before the personal computer, electric service, the refrigerator, the washing machine, the telephone, and the VCR. In short, such breathlessly touted phenomena as network effects, the rapid diffusion of technological innovation, and highly valued intangible assets are not really really new. (Tom Standage’s history of the telegraph and its own revolutionary impact, The Victorian Internet [New York: Walker & Company, 1998], is well worth reading in this regard.)

A new paper by Giovanni Dosi, Alfonso Gambardella, Marco Grazzi, and Luigi Orsenigo, “Technological Revolutions and the Evolution of Industrial Structures: Assessing the Impact of New Technologies upon the Size and Boundaries of Firms,” looks at the empirical evidence more systematically and concludes that the effect of information technology on firm size and organization is real, but modest:

In this work we discuss the impact of the new ICT techno-economic paradigm upon the vertical and horizontal boundaries of the firm and ask whether the change in the sources of competitive advantage has resulted in changes in the size of distribution of firms and also in the degree of concentration of industries. Drawing both on firm-level and national statistical data we assess the evolution of the overall balances between the activities which are integrated within organizations and those which occur through market interactions.

While the new paradigm entails “revolutionary” changes in the domain of technology, the modification in industrial structures has been somewhat more incremental. Certainly, the vertical and horizontal boundaries of firms have changed and together one is observing a turnover in the club of biggest world firms, accounting also for a shift in the relative importance of industrial sectors. Nonetheless, we do not observe any abrupt fading away of the Chandlerian multidivisional corporation in favour of smaller less-integrated firms.

Worth a read. And I’m sure Dick will have more to say about this!

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Management Theory, Myths and Realities, Strategic Management, Theory of the Firm.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Conspirama  |  14 July 2008 at 10:01 am

    Technology and Firm Size and Organization…

    Before the web page, there was the pamphlet; before the Internet, the telegraph; before the Yahoo directory, the phone book; before the personal computer, electric service, the refrigerator, the washing machine, the telephone, ……

  • 2. Dick Langlois  |  14 July 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Yes, I have already started writing a “letter” commenting on the Dosi et al. paper as well as on Bill Lazonick’s accompanying discussion. (Capitalism and Society is a BEPress online journal, which allows such things.) I imagine they will agree to publish the “letter,” but be assured that, in any event, it will be linked from O&M as soon as available.

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