Archive for January, 2014

The Soft Underbelly of Business Model Innovation

| Nicolai Foss |

Business models have become important tools in the top-manager’s toolbox.  A business model is the articulation of the logic by which a business creates and delivers value to customers. It also outlines the system of revenues and costs that allows the business to earn a profit. It is both a map—i.e., a mental representation—and the real structure of the company’s internal and external activity systems.

However, in spite of more than a decade’s interest in business models and the innovation, their specific leadership and organization design challenges are only beginning to be understood. What is specific about these challenges is that top-management needs a map of the existing business model and the one it aspires to implement and execute, and a plan of how to get there.  Moreover, business models can be very complex systems, with many interlocking elements, requiring coordination.  Hence, business model innovations are truly major organizational change projects.

busmodWriters on business models typically outline a number of elements of a company’s business model. These include the value proposition, segments, the value chain, and revenue model. But many writers and practitioners alike tend to stress only or a few of these.

Indeed, very often a single element of the business does stand out. For example, the tipping point business model of Groupon, Moolala and similar seems to be all about the value proposition centered on providing discounts on meals, products and services with local merchants. (more…)

29 January 2014 at 4:26 pm 3 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

In the Journals

| Peter Klein |

Some interesting review issues and special collections are hot off the virtual presses. The Journal of Management has just released its annual review issue with a number of valuable papers, including this one of particular interest to the O&M crowd:

The Many Futures of Contracts: Moving Beyond Structure and Safeguarding to Coordination and Adaptation
Donald J. Schepker, Won-Yong Oh, Aleksey Martynov, and Laura Poppo

In this article, we review the literature on interfirm contracting in an effort to synthesize existing research and direct future scholarship. While transaction cost economics (TCE) is the most prominent perspective informing the “optimal governance” and “safeguarding” function of contracts, our review indicates other perspectives are necessary to understand how contracts are structured: relational capabilities (i.e., building cooperation, creating trust), firm capabilities, relational contracts, and the real option value of a contract. Our review also indicates that contract research is moving away from a narrow focus on contract structure and its safeguarding function toward a broader focus that also highlights adaptation and coordination. We end by noting the following research gaps: consequences of contracting, specifically outcome assessment; strategic options, decision rights, and the evolution of dynamic capabilities; contextual constraints of relational capabilities; contextual constraints of contracting capabilities; complements, substitutes, and bundles; and contract structure and social process.

The always-interesting Strategic Organization has also released a package of previously published papers as a virtual special issue titled “Whither Strategy?” I have a soft spot for anything using the word “whither,” but this is a great collection by any name. Check out the ToC:

17 January 2014 at 12:02 pm 3 comments

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 2 comments

Hydraulic Keynesianism Lives

| Peter Klein |

I believe it was Alan Coddington who coined the term “hydraulic Keynesianism” to describe the typical macroeconomics textbooks of the 1950s, “conceiving the economy at the aggregate level in terms of disembodied and homogeneous flows.” The term also has a great visual quality, bringing forth an image of the economy as a giant machine with pumps and tubes and dials and levers, carefully controlled by wise government planners. (Such a machine was actually built by Bill Phillips of Phillips Curve fame.)

Apparently the Atlanta Fed has produced an educational video, “Money as Communication,” solemnly explaining the vital role of the Federal Reserve System in maintaining price stability. Mike Shedlock provides an amusing point-by-point commentary on the video, which surely ranks among  the best of government propaganda films. I especially liked the image below, taken from the video, which neatly encapsulates the Fed’s view of its own role in the economic system.

price stability

The woman at the keyboard has the wrong hair color to be Janet Yellen, and the man in the middle has too much hair to be Ben Bernanke, but I’m sure the intended audience — schoolchildren and New York Times reporters — will get the idea.

Update: Here is an earlier post by Nicolai on the Phillips Machine.

13 January 2014 at 11:28 am Leave a comment

Gordon Winston

| Dick Langlois |

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of Gordon Winston, an interesting economist who should have been better known (to readers of this blog) than he was.

I’m sure I knew of Gordon when I was a student at Williams in the early 1970s, but as I didn’t take any economics as an undergraduate, I never had any contact with him. I really first met him when he interviewed me for a job at Williams in 1983 (which I didn’t get — not his fault). We kept in contact for a number of years after that, including during at least one Liberty Fund conference in the 1980s.

Gordon is probably best known for his later work on the economics of higher education, which I use in teaching. But readers might be even more interested in his earlier work on the timing of economic activities, which resulted in a 1982 Cambridge book by that title. In essence, Gordon was trying to work out in detail how to think about time in a production-function model of economic activity, something that the late Armen Alchian had adumbrated in his famous paper “Costs and Output” (the original 1958 RAND working paper version of which is now available here). Gordon cites Lachmann and Shackle, but I think his biggest influence was Georgescu-Roegen. The book ought to be especially interesting to grad students, since I suspect it opens up a lot of ideas for further exploration.

9 January 2014 at 2:22 pm Leave a comment

Disruptive Innovation and Job-Market Signaling

| Peter Klein |

The job-market value of education, as famously argued by Michael Spence (1974), derives from two sources: additions to human capital and signaling. By going to college, you learn some useful skills, but you also demonstrate to potential employers that you have the natural ability to earn a degree. Depending on the difficulty of obtaining a degree for students of varying abilities, a college degree may be valuable even if you don’t learn a thing — you distinguish yourself from those who weren’t clever or patient enough to jump through the necessary hoops.

Of course, the human-capital and signaling components aren’t mutually exclusive. But, as long as at least some part of the job-market value of education comes from signaling, the demand for higher education depends on its perceived signaling value, relative to the cost of signaling. And herein lies the rub: getting a college degree is a very costly signal. Suppose high-ability workers could demonstrate their value to the job market by obtaining some credential that low-ability workers can’t or won’t obtain, without forgoing the explicit and opportunity costs of 4+ years at college. This would be an attractive alternative for many, and bad news for the higher-education industry, which today has a virtual monopoly on credentialing.

Michael Staton makes precisely this argument in today’s HBR Blog: “The Degree Is Doomed.” Staton argues that new technologies increasingly allow the unbundling of the learning and signaling functions of higher education, and that alternative signals such as “work samples, personal representations, peer and manager reviews, shared content, and scores and badges” are undermining the value of the college degree.

There are sites — notably Degreed and Accredible — that adapt existing notions of the credential to a world of online courses and project work. But there are also entire sectors of the innovation economy that are ceasing to rely on traditional credentials and don’t even bother with the skeumorph of an adapted degree.  Particularly in the Internet’s native careers – design and software engineering — communities of practice have emerged that offer signals of types and varieties that we couldn’t even imagine five years ago.   Designers now show their work on Dribbble or other design posting and review sites.  Software engineers now store their code on GitHub, where other software engineers will follow them and evaluate the product of their labor.  On these sites, peers not only review each other but interact in ways that build reputations within the community. User profiles contain work samples and provide community generated indicators of status and skill.

These are specialized areas, and probably not substitutes for the credentialing function for other fields and industries. But low-cost, innovative, specialized signaling methods could pose a significant challenge to the university establishment.

Of course, even if higher education loses its credentialing function, it can still add value the old-fashioned way, through teaching.

8 January 2014 at 10:54 am 4 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).