Archive for June, 2014

Louise Mors on Ambidexterity

| Nicolai Foss |

Margarethe Wiersema interviews my colleague Louise Mors about her forthcoming article in Organization Science on Ambidexterity.

26 June 2014 at 6:03 pm Leave a comment

The Origin of Social Norms

| Peter Klein |

Some findings that would not have surprised Carl Menger:

Ode to the sea: Workplace Organizations and Norms of Cooperation
Uri Gneezy, Andreas Leibbrandt, John A. List
NBER Working Paper No. 20234, June 2014

The functioning and well-being of any society and organization critically hinges on norms of cooperation that regulate social activities. Empirical evidence on how such norms emerge and in which environments they thrive remains a clear void in the literature. To provide an initial set of insights, we overlay a set of field experiments in a natural setting. Our approach is to compare behavior in Brazilian fishermen societies that differ along one major dimension: the workplace organization. In one society (located by the sea) fishermen are forced to work in groups whereas in the adjacent society (located on a lake) fishing is inherently an individual activity. We report sharp evidence that the sea fishermen trust and cooperate more and have greater ability to coordinate group actions than their lake fishermen counterparts. These findings are consistent with the argument that people internalize social norms that emerge from specific needs and support the idea that socio-ecological factors play a decisive role in the proliferation of pro-social behaviors.

I await comments below about how social norms emerge and persist not because they facilitate cooperation and joint gains, but because they legitimize existing social structures or support exploitation or power or. . . .

23 June 2014 at 2:43 pm 5 comments

Gans on Lepore on Christensen

| Peter Klein |

Josh Gans has some useful remarks on Jill Lepore’s New Yorker essay on Clayton Christensen.

Lepore only deals with the easy marks in her take down of Christensen and one suspects Christensen and his supporters can easily fend those off. It is the fundamental contradiction in taking a positive theory towards prediction that is where this entire ‘disruption industry’ falls down. I’d like to see journalists engaging more on that level so that we can be done with those bridges too far for good.

What Josh means by “fundamental contradiction” is that a disruptive technology, in Christensen’s definition, must not only be behind the cutting edge in some technical dimension, but also satisfy unmet consumer demands. The latter must be uncertain ex ante, otherwise the market leaders would also be developing the disruptive technology. Christensen advises incumbents to “disrupt themselves,” but this assumes they know which technologies will eventually be disruptive. Because they don’t, they must choose among several alternatives, including “do nothing” (i.e., try to exploit late-mover advantage).

The incumbent’s decision, contrary to Christensen’s reasoning, reflects entrepreneurial judgment, which may or may not be correct. There is no formula for managing disruptive technologies.

See also Lynne’s insightful comments.

17 June 2014 at 11:13 am 5 comments

Knowledge Elites, Inequality, and Economic Growth

| Peter Klein |

An interesting paper from Mara P. Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer examines the role of “knowledge elites” — individuals at the upper tail of the human capital distribution* — in French economic growth around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Key passage:

To measure the historical presence of knowledge elites, we use city-level subscriptions to the famous Encyclopédie in mid-18th century France. We show that subscriber density is a strong predictor of city growth after 1750, but not before the onset of French industrialization. Alternative measures of development confirm this pattern: soldier height and industrial activity are strongly associated with subscriber density after, but not before, 1750. Literacy, on the other hand, does not predict growth. Finally, by joining data on British patents with a large French firm survey from 1837, we provide evidence for the mechanism: upper tail knowledge raised the productivity in innovative industrial technology.

In other words, growth is driven by the knowledge (and, presumably, skills, preferences, and beliefs) of the elites, not the population at large.

Squicciarini and Voigtländer don’t deal directly with the distribution of income and wealth (they do show that regions with higher Encyclopédie subscriber density had higher per-capita incomes), presumably those individuals in the upper tail of the knowledge distribution were also one-percenters in income or wealth. This brings to mind one of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s arguments about inequality, namely that it spurs technological innovation:

[I]t is a commonplace that things which are now provided inexpensively to the many, say spices or the newspaper, were originally luxuries which could be offered only because some few were willing and able to buy them at high prices. It is difficult to say what the economic development of the West would have been . . . if the productive effort had been aimed at providing more of the things needed by all, to the exclusion of a greater variety of things desired by minorities [i.e., elites]. . . . History shows us that each successive enlargement of the opportunities to consume was linked with unequal distribution of the means to consume.

I suspect Squicciarini and Voigtländer’s knowledge elites were largely the same as de Jouvenel’s “minorities” (in a robustness check for reverse causation, Squicciarini and Voightländer use membership in scientific societies as a proxy for knowledge elites, and these scientific societies were the primary producers and consumers of scientific instruments, for example). What would Monsieur Piketty say about this, I wonder?

* Caveats about human capital notwithstanding (1, 2).

16 June 2014 at 9:32 am 2 comments

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


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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).