November 15, 2018

The End of the Firm

 

“The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smallest details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to higher-ups. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing — and so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern workplace.”

Bob Black, The Abolition of Work and Other Essays (1985)

Peter Drucker’s famous dictum “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” established math and management as the indisputable co-sovereigns of the modern workplace. As it turns out, Drucker apparently never actually said that[1], but the concept has dominated the workplace since the advent of factories and railroads, telegraphs and electricity. Consider, for example, what it’s like to work at Amazon.

But, while math and management prospered together under the Industrial Revolution’s mechanistic worldview, today’s digitally-driven marketplace demands a freshly-nuanced management style, or in some cases, no management at all. Either idea challenges an even more foundational historical assumption: that commerce is best conducted by a firm that must be managed. Eliminate the firm and you eliminate the need to manage it. Get rid of both, and you have an unimaginably different “description of the modern workplace” than Bob Black wrote about 33 years ago.

Last time, we looked at an article by science writer and artificial intelligence engineer George Zarkadakis called “The Economy Is More A Messy, Fractal Living Thing Than A Machine.” In it, he says this about the firm:

Ever since the invention of the assembly line, corporations have been like medieval cities: building walls around themselves and then trading with other “cities” and consumers. Companies exist because of the need to protect production from volatile market fluctuations, and because it’s generally more efficient to consolidate the costs of getting goods and services to market by putting them together under one roof. So said the British economist Ronald Coase in his paper “The Nature of the Firm” (1937).

“Why do firms exist?” asks Ryan Avent in his book The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016). He provides the same answer as Zarkadakis:

According to a 1937 paper by Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase, it’s to bring all the necessary people, processes, and information under one roof, instead of contracting it all out. In exchange for the convenience of one-stop shopping, one-size-fits-all, employees trade their independence and the possibility of greater personal market returns for the firm’ management structure and financial capital, which — as long as they conform to the company culture – the way we do things around here — promises to keep them on task and to deliver a paycheck in return.

Today, however, the new “gig economy” is fast making that unimaginable the new normal — and that’s only the beginning, says Zarkadakis:

Now, in an era of Ubers-for-everything, companies are changing into platforms that enable, rather than enact, core business processes. The cost of reaching customers has dropped dramatically thanks to the ubiquity of digital networks, and production is being pushed outside the company wall, on to freelancers and self-employed contractors. Market and price fluctuations have been defanged as machine learning and predictive analytics help companies manage such ructions, and on-demand services for labour, office space and infrastructure allow them to be more responsive to changing conditions. Coase’s theory is nearing its expiry date.

The so-called “gig economy” is only the beginning of a profound economic, social and political transformation. For the moment, these new ways of working are still controlled by old-style businesses models – platforms that essentially sell “trust” via reviews and verification, or by plugging into existing financial and legal systems. Airbnb, eBay and Uber succeed in making money out of other people’s work and assets because they provide guarantees for good seller-buyer behaviour, while connecting to the “old world” of banks, courts and government. But this hybrid model of doing digital business is about to change.

Avent concurs, and describes two key dynamics of the new anti-firm business model, operating culture and rent — how a business gets things done, and whether it owns the kinds of assets it can let others use, for a price:

Current workplace trends are bidding fair to tear down the firm model of operating. If you take employees out from under the firm umbrella — make them mostly freelancers, outsource jobs to countries on the make — then what’s left of value is mostly the company’s way of getting things done and the assets for which it can charge rent, in the economic sense of billing a premium for scarce assets. How assets become scarce becomes an essential policy-making function. These become essential “intangible” or “social” capital, replacing “human” capital.]

We’ll be talking more about social capital, rent, and other changing dynamics of the workplace.


[1] According to the Drucker Institute, he never did. And see this Forbes article for a rousing condemnation of the idea.

 

Kevin Rhodes writes about individual growth and cultural change, drawing on insights from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, psychology, and personal experience, including his own unique journey to wellness — dealing with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning. Check out his latest LinkedIn Pulse article: “Rolling the Rock: Lessons From Sisyphus on Work, Working Out, and Life.”

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