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. :)