Is the Internet “Transforming” Business?

12 July 2011 at 12:15 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

In the 1990s and early 2000s there was a huge debate about the impact of information technology on productivity. Robert Solow famously quipped, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Robert Gordon, Erik Brynjolfsson, Jack Triplett, and many others participated in this debate, with issues revolving around productivity measurement, workplace incentives, organizational complementarities, and more. (I did some work on this too.) The end result was a rough consensus that IT did increase productivity, but that the effects were modest.

The buzz over “wikified” organizations — open-source communities, highly disaggregated firms, crowdsourced production, and the like — gives me a strong sense of déjà vu. Indeed, we have not been kind to the wikinomics view in these pages. Now Don Tapscott, a leader of this movement, seems to be having second thoughts:

In our 2006 book Wikinomics, Anthony D. Williams and I looked at dozens of companies that have used the Internet to transform their business models and achieve tremendous success.

However, in the five years since the book’s publication, we’ve noticed something striking: the rate of business model innovation has not accelerated. Yes, some individual companies have achieved competitive advantage by exploiting the web and networked business models. But overall the gains have been modest.

The reason, says Tapscott, is that “it’s becoming difficult or even impossible for companies to achieve breakthrough success without changing their entire industry’s modus operandi.” This reminds me of the conclusion from the earlier literature that IT has the biggest effect when combined with complementary organizational practices (e.g., Milgrom and Roberts, 1995), which suggests that change doesn’t occur until all elements of the complementary bundle are in place — maybe a long time after the initial innovation.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Innovation, Management Theory, Myths and Realities, Strategic Management, Theory of the Firm.

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