Torben Juul Andersen and Carina Antonia Hallin
Contemporary organizations operate under turbulent business conditions and must adapt their strategies to ongoing changes. Sustainable performance can be achieved when the organization engages in interactive processes that link emerging opportunities to forward-looking analytics. But few organizations are able to practice this consistently. Fast processes performed by managers at the frontline respond to ongoing environmental stimuli and slow processes initiated by managers at the center interpret events and reasons about updated strategic actions. Current experiential insights from the fast processes can be aggregated systematically to inform the slow processes of reasoning. When the fast and slow processes interact they can form a dynamic system that adapts organizational activities to changing conditions.
G. Tyge Payne and Oleg V. Petrenko
Agency theory is one the most prominent theoretical perspectives utilized in business and management research. Agency theory argues—using fundamental assumptions that agents are: (a) self-interested, (b) boundedly rational, and (c) different from principals in their goals and risk-taking preferences—that a problem occurs when one party (a principal) employs another (an agent) to make decisions and act in their stead. Essentially, the value of a principal-agent relationship is not optimized because the two contracted parties may have different interests and information is asymmetric (not equal). Agency costs are the result of principal and agent conflicts of interest and disagreements regarding actions that are taken. As such, monitoring and incentive-alignment systems are used to curb costs associated with opportunist behavior.
Agency theory is commonly utilized to understand and explain corporate governance phenomena, including executive incentive alignment, board monitoring, and control of top managers; this strand of the literature is founded in economics and represents the bulk of the research in business and management. However, other important principal-agent relationships are commonly seen in business and society, such as with politicians/voters, brokers/investors, and lawyers/clients, and have benefited from the vast stream of research that has explored the principal-agent relationship in various forms and contexts. Also, alternative theoretical perspectives have emerged to accommodate variations of the principal-agent relationship. Namely, principal-principal agency, behavioral agency, and stewardship theories are prominent alternative theories that challenge, expand, or relax the basic assumptions of the classic theory to extend our understanding of important relationships and mechanisms in business and management.
The board of directors serves multiple corporate governance functions, including monitoring management, providing oversight on strategic issues, and linking the organization to the broader external environment. Researchers have become increasingly interested in board interlocks and how content transmitted via these linkages shapes firm outcomes, such as corporate structure and strategies. As influential mechanisms to manage environmental uncertainty and facilitate information exchange, Board interlocks are created by directors who are affiliated with more than one firm via employment or board service and allow the board to capture a diversity of strategic experiences. One critical corporate decision that may be influenced by interlocks and strategic diffusion is diversification (i.e., in which products and markets to compete). Directors draw on their own experiences with diversification strategies at other firms to help guide and manage ongoing strategic decision-making. There is broad scholarship on interlocks and the individuals who create them, with extant research reporting that some firms are more likely to imitate or learn from their interlock partners than others. Prior findings suggest that the conditions under which information is transmitted via interlock, such as an individual director’s experience with diversification strategies at other firms, may make that information more influential to the focal firm’s own strategic decision-making related to diversification. A more holistic framework captures factors related to the individual interlocking director, the board and firm overall and the context surrounding these linkages and relationships, helping to promote future research. Understanding the social context surrounding board interlocks offers opportunities to more deeply examine how these interconnections serve in pursuit of the board’s fundamental purpose of protecting shareholder investment from managerial self-interest. Overall, integrating multi-level factors will offer new insights into the influence of board interlocks on firm strategies on both sides of the partnership. Expanding knowledge of how inter-firm linkages transmit knowledge influential to board decision-making can also improve our understanding of board effectiveness and corporate governance.
Mallory E. Compton and Kenneth J. Meier
Pathologies inherent in democratic political systems have consequences for bureaucracy, and they need to be examined. Limited in time, resources, and expertise, elected officials turn to bureaucratic institutions to carry out policy goals but all too often give public agencies too little support or too few resources to implement them effectively. In response to the challenges imposed by politics, public agencies have sought organizational solutions. Bureaucracies facing shortages of material resources, clear goals, representation of minority interests, or public trust have in recent decades adopted less hierarchical structures, exploited networks and privatization, and taken a representative role. In other words, the evolution of postbureaucratic governance institutions is in part a consequence of political incentives. Efforts to diagnose and resolve many of the shortcomings attributed to bureaucracy therefore require an accounting of the political processes shaping the context in which public managers and bureaucrats operate.
Asli M. Colpan and Alvaro Cuervo-Cazurra
Business groups are an organizational model in which collections of legally independent firms bounded together with formal and informal ties use collaborative arrangements to enhance their collective welfare. Among the different varieties of business groups, diversified business groups that exhibit unrelated product diversification under central control, and often containing chains of publicly listed firms, are the most-studied type in the management literature. The reason is that they challenge two traditionally held assumptions. First, broad and especially unrelated diversification have a negative impact on performance, and thus business groups should focus on a narrow scope of related businesses. Second, such diversification is only sustainable in emerging economies in which market and institutional underdevelopment are more common and where business groups can provide a solution to such imperfections. However, a historical perspective indicates that diversified business groups are a long-lived organizational model and are present in emerging and advanced economies, illustrating how business groups adapt to different market and institutional settings. This evolutionary approach also highlights the importance of going beyond diversification when studying business groups and redirecting studies toward the evolution of the group structure, their internal administrative mechanisms, and other strategic actions beyond diversification such as internationalization.
Thomas Donaldson and Diana C. Robertson
Serious research into corporate ethics is nearly half a century old. Two approaches have dominated research; one is normative, the other empirical. The former, the normative approach, develops theories and norms that are prescriptive, that is, ones that are designed to guide corporate behavior. The latter, the empirical approach, investigates the character and causes of corporate behavior by examining corporate governance structures, policies, corporate relationships, and managerial behavior with the aim of explaining and predicting corporate behavior. Normative research has been led by scholars in the fields of moral philosophy, theology and legal theory. Empirical research has been led by scholars in the fields of sociology, psychology, economics, marketing, finance, and management.
While utilizing distinct methods, the two approaches are symbiotic. Ethical and legal theory are irrelevant without factual context. Similarly, empirical theories are sterile unless translated into corporate guidance. The following description of the history of research in corporate ethics demonstrates that normative research methods are indispensable tools for empirical inquiry, even as empirical methods are indispensable tools for normative inquiry.
Erik E. Lehmann
Corporate governance is a recent concept that encompasses the costs caused by managerial misbehavior. It is concerned with how organizations in general, and corporations in particular, produce value and how that value is distributed among the members of the corporation, its stakeholders. The interrelation of value production and value distribution links the ubiquitous technological aspect (the production of value) with the moral and ethical dimension (the distribution of value). Corporate governance is concerned with this link in general, but more specifically with the moral and ethical dimensions of distributing the generated value among the stakeholders. Value in firms is created by firm-specific investments, and the motivation and coordination of value-enhancing activities and investment is protected by the power concentrated at the pyramidal top of the organization. In modern companies, it is the CEO and the top management who decide how to create value and how to distribute it among the relevant stakeholders. Due to asymmetric information and the imperfect nature of markets and contracts, adverse selection and moral hazard problems occur, where delegated (selected) managers could act in their own interest at the costs of other relevant stakeholders.
Corporate governance can be understood as a two-tailed concept. The first aspect is about identifying the (most) relevant stakeholder(s), separating theory and practice into two different and conflicting streams: the stakeholder value approach and the shareholder value approach. The second aspect of the concept is about providing and analyzing different mechanisms, reducing the costs induced by moral hazard and adverse selection effects, and balancing out the motivation and coordination problems of the relevant stakeholders. Corporate governance is an interdisciplinary concept encompassing academic fields such as finance, economics, accounting, law, taxation, and psychology, among others.
As countries differ according to their institutions (i.e., legal and political systems, norms, and rules), firms differ according to their size, age, dominant shareholders, or industries. Thus, concepts in corporate governance differ along these dimensions as well. And while the underlying characteristics vary in time, continuously or as a result of an exogenous shock, concepts in corporate governance are dynamic and static, offering a challenging field of interest for academics, policymakers, and firm managers.
Elissa L. Perry and Aitong Li
Although defined in numerous and sometimes inconsistent ways in the literature, diversity climate can be described as employees’ shared perceptions of the extent to which their organization values diversity as reflected in the policies, practices, and procedures that the organization rewards, supports, and expects. Diversity climate studied at the individual level (individual perceptions of the impact of the work environment on the individual’s own well-being) is referred to as psychological climate. When it is conceived of and studied at the group or organization level (employees’ shared perceptions of their work environment aggregated to the unit level), it is referred to as group- or organizational-level climate. Two consistent criticisms raised in recent reviews continue to plague diversity climate research. These can most simply be stated as a lack of clarity about what diversity climate is and is not, and inconsistency in how diversity climate is measured and aligns (or does not) with how it has been conceptualized. Despite these criticisms, there is evidence that diversity climate can positively impact individuals’ (especially minority group members’) work-related attitudes (e.g., organizational commitment, satisfaction) and unit-level outcomes (e.g., performance). As a result, diversity climate is both practically relevant to organizations and conceptually meaningful to researchers.
Felice B. Klein, Kevin McSweeney, Cynthia E. Devers, Gerry McNamara, and Spenser Blosser
Scholars have devoted significant attention to understanding the determinants and consequences of executive compensation. Yet, one form of compensation, executive severance agreements, has flown under the radar. Severance agreements specify the expected payments and benefits promised executives, upon voluntary or involuntary termination. Although these agreements are popular among executives, critics continually question their worth. Yet severance agreements potentially offer three important (but less readily recognized) strategic benefits. First, severance agreements are viewed as a means of mitigating the potential risks associated with job changes; thus, they can serve as a recruitment tool to attract top executive talent. Second, because severance agreements guarantee executives previously specified compensation in the event of termination, they can help limit the downside risk naturally risk-averse executives face, facilitating executive-shareholder interest alignment. Third, severance agreements can aid in firm exit, as executives and directors are likely to be more open to termination, in the presence of adequate protection against the downside.
Severance agreements can contain provisions for ten possible termination events. Three events refer to change in control (CIC), which occurs under a change in ownership. These are (1) CIC without termination, (2) CIC with termination without cause, and (3) CIC with termination for cause. Cause is generally defined by events such as felony, fraud, embezzlement, neglect of duties, or violation of noncompete provisions. Additional events include (4) voluntary retirement, (5) resignation without good reason, (6) voluntary termination for good reason, (7) involuntary termination without cause, (8) involuntary termination with cause, (9) death, and (10) disability. Voluntary retirement and resignation without good reason occurs when CEOs either retire or leave under their own volition, and voluntary termination with good reason occurs in response to changes in employment terms (e.g., relocation of headquarters). Involuntary termination refers to termination due to any reason not listed above and is often triggered by unsatisfactory performance.
Although some prior work has addressed the antecedents, consequences, and moderators of severance, the findings from this literature remain unclear, as many of the results are mixed. Future severance scholars have the opportunity to further clarify these relationships by addressing how severance agreements can help firms attract, align the interests of, and facilitate the exit of executives.
Carol T. Kulik and Belinda Rae
The “glass ceiling” metaphor represents the frustration experienced by women in the 1980s and 1990s who entered the workforce in large numbers following equal opportunity legislation that gave them greater access to education and employment. After initial success in attaining lower management positions, the women found their career progress slowing as they reached higher levels of their organizations. A formal definition of the glass ceiling specifies that a female disadvantage in promotion should accelerate at the highest levels of the organization, and researchers adopting this formal definition have found mixed evidence for glass ceilings across organizations and across countries. Researchers who have expanded the glass ceiling definition to encompass racial minorities have similarly found mixed results. However, these mixed results do not detract from the metaphor’s value in highlighting the stereotype-based practices that embed discrimination deep within organizational structures and understanding why women continue to be underrepresented in senior organizational roles around the world. In particular, researchers investigating the glass ceiling have identified a variety of obstacles (including glass cliffs, glass walls, and glass doors) that create a more complete understanding of the barriers that women experience in their careers. As organizations offer shorter job ladders and less job security, the career patterns of both women and men are exhibiting more downward, lateral, and static movement. In this career context, the glass ceiling may no longer be the ideal metaphor to represent the obstacles that women are most likely to encounter.
Heather A. Haveman and Gillian Gualtieri
Research on institutional logics surveys systems of cultural elements (values, beliefs, and normative expectations) by which people, groups, and organizations make sense of and evaluate their everyday activities, and organize those activities in time and space. Although there were scattered mentions of this concept before 1990, this literature really began with the 1991 publication of a theory piece by Roger Friedland and Robert Alford. Since that time, it has become a large and diverse area of organizational research. Several books and thousands of papers and book chapters have been published on this topic, addressing institutional logics in sites as different as climate change proceedings of the United Nations, local banks in the United States, and business groups in Taiwan. Several intellectual precursors to institutional logics provide a detailed explanation of the concept and the theory surrounding it. These literatures developed over time within the broader framework of theory and empirical work in sociology, political science, and anthropology. Papers published in ten major sociology and management journals in the United States and Europe (between 1990 and 2015) provide analysis and help to identify trends in theoretical development and empirical findings. Evaluting these trends suggest three gentle corrections and potentially useful extensions to the literature help to guide future research: (1) limiting the definition of institutional logic to cultural-cognitive phenomena, rather than including material phenomena; (2) recognizing both “cold” (purely rational) cognition and “hot” (emotion-laden) cognition; and (3) developing and testing a theory (or multiple related theories), meaning a logically interconnected set of propositions concerning a delimited set of social phenomena, derived from assumptions about essential facts (axioms), that details causal mechanisms and yields empirically testable (falsifiable) hypotheses, by being more consistent about how we use concepts in theoretical statements; assessing the reliability and validity of our empirical measures; and conducting meta-analyses of the many inductive studies that have been published, to develop deductive theories.
Robert J. David, Pamela S. Tolbert, and Johnny Boghossian
Institutional theory is a prominent perspective in contemporary organizational research. It encompasses a large, diverse body of theoretical and empirical work connected by a common emphasis on cultural understandings and shared expectations. Institutional theory is often used to explain the adoption and spread of formal organizational structures, including written policies, standard practices, and new forms of organization. Tracing its roots to the writings of Max Weber on legitimacy and authority, the perspective originated in the 1950s and 1960s with the work of Talcott Parsons, Philip Selznick, and Alvin Gouldner on organization–environment relations. It subsequently underwent a “cognitive turn” in the 1970s, with an emphasis on taken-for-granted habits and assumptions, and became commonly known as “neo-institutionalism” in organizational studies. Recently, work based on the perspective has shifted from a focus on processes involved in producing isomorphism to a focus on institutional change, exemplified by studies of the emergence of new laws and regulations, products, services, and occupations. The expansion of the theoretical framework has contributed to its long-term vitality, though a number of challenges to its development remain, including resolving inconsistencies in the different models of decision-making and action (homo economicus vs. homo sociologicus) that underpin institutional analysis and improving our understanding of the intersection of socio-cultural forces and entrepreneurial agency.
Jeff Hearn and David Collinson
Even though gender and gender analysis are still often equated with women, men and masculinities are equally gendered. This applies throughout society, including within organizations. Following pioneering feminist scholarship on work and organizations, explicitly gendered studies on men and masculinities have increased since the 1980s. The need to include the gendered analysis of men and masculinities as part of gender studies of organizations, leadership, and management, is now widely recognized at least within gender research. Yet, this insight continues to be ignored or downplayed in mainstream work and even in some studies seen as “critical.” Indeed the vast majority of mainstream work on organizations still has either no gender analysis whatsoever or relies on a very simplistic and rather crude understanding of gender dynamics.
Research on men and masculinities has been wide ranging and has raised important new issues about gendered dynamics in organizations, including cultures and countercultures on factory shopfloors; historical transformations of men and management in reproducing patriarchies; the relations of bureaucracy, men, and masculinities; management-labor relations as interrelations of masculinities; managerial and professional identity formation; managerial homosociality; and the interplay of diverse occupational masculinities. Research has revealed how structures, cultures, and practices of men and masculinities continue to persist and to dominate in many contemporary organizations. Having said this, the concepts of gender, of men and masculinities, and of organization have all been subject to complex and contradictory processes that entail both their explicit naming and their simultaneous deconstruction and critique. This is illustrated, respectively, in the intersectional construction of gender; the pressing need to name men as men in analysis of organizational dominance, but also deconstruct the category of men as provisional; and in the multiplication of organizational forms as, for example, interorganizational relations, net-organizations, and cyberorganizations.
These contradictory historical and conceptual namings and deconstructions are especially important in the analysis of transnational organizations operating within the context of globalization, transnationalizations, production, reproduction, and trans(national) patriarchies. Within transnational organizations such as large gendered multinational enterprises, the taken-for-granted nature of transnational gendered hierarchies and cultures persists in management, maintained partly through commonalities across difference, gendered horizontal specializations, and controls. Transnational organizations are key sites for the production of a variety of developing forms of (transnational) business masculinities, some more individualistic, some marriage based, some nation based, some transcending nation. These masculinities have clear implications for gendered practices in private spheres, including the provision of domestic servicing often by Black and minority ethnic women. The growth of the knowledge economy brings further complications to these transnational patterns, through elaboration of techno-masculinities, and interactions of men, masculinities, and information and communication technologies. This is particularly relevant in the international financial sector, where constructions of men and masculinities are impacted by the gendering of capital and financial crisis, and gender regimes of financial institutions, as in men financiers’ risky behavior. Further studies are needed addressing the “gender-neutral” hegemony of organizations, leaderships, and managements, especially in transnational arenas, and organizations subject to changing technologies. Other key research issues concern analysis of neglected intersectionalities, including intersectional privileges, male/masculine/men’s bodies, and the taken-for-granted category of “men” in and around organizations.
Innovation is a complex construct and overlaps with a few other prevalent concepts such as technology, creativity, and change. Research on innovation spans many fields of inquiry including business, economics, engineering, and public administration. Scholars have studied innovation at different levels of analysis such as individual, group, organization, industry, and economy. The term organizational innovation refers to the studies of innovation in business and public organizations.
Studies of innovations in organizations are multidimensional, multilevel, and context-dependent. They investigate what external and internal conditions induce innovation, how organizations manage innovation process, and in what ways innovation changes organizational conduct and outcome. Indiscreet application of findings from one discipline or context to another, lack of distinction between generating (creating) and adopting (using) innovations, and likening organizational innovation with technological innovation have clouded the understanding of this important concept, hampering its advancement. This article organizes studies of organizational innovation to make them more accessible to interested scholars and combines insights from various strands of innovation research to help them design and conduct new studies to advance the field.
The perspectives of organizational competition and performance and organizational adaptation and progression are introduced to serve as platforms to position organizational innovation in the midst of innovation concepts, elaborate differences between innovating and innovativeness, and decipher key typologies, primary sets of antecedents, and performance consequences of generating and adopting innovations. The antecedents of organizational innovation are organized into three dimensions of environmental (external, contextual), organizational (structure, culture), and managerial (leadership, human capital). A five-step heuristic based on innovation type and process is proposed to ease understanding of the existing studies and select suitable dimensions and factors for conducting new studies. The rationale for the innovation–performance relationship in strands of organizational innovation research, and the employment of types of innovation and performance indicators, is articulated by first-mover advantage and performance gap theory, in conjunction with the perspectives of competition and performance and of adaptation and progression. Differences between effects of technological and nontechnological innovation and stand-alone and synchronous innovations are discussed to articulate how and to what extent patterns of the introduction of different types of innovation could contribute to organizational performance or effectiveness. In conclusion, ideas are proposed to demystify organizational innovation to allure new researches, facilitate their learning, and provide opportunities for the development of new studies to advance the state of knowledge on organizational innovation.
Henrich R. Greve
Organizational learning theory is motivated by the observation that organizations learn by encoding inferences from experience into their behavior. It seeks to answer the questions of what kinds of experiences influence behaviors, how and under what circumstances behaviors change, and how new behaviors are stabilized and have consequences for organizations’ adaptation to their environment. Organizational learning research has as key mechanisms innovations and other triggering events that lead to major behavioral change, knowledge accumulation and experimentation that encourage incremental change, and interpretations that guide each of these processes. Organizational learning research has gained a central position in organizational theory because it has implications for organizational behaviors that also affect other theoretical perspectives such as institutional theory, organizational ecology, and resource dependence.
Key research topics in organizational learning and adaptation are (a) organizational routines and their stability and change, (b) performance feedback and its consequences for organizational search and change, (c) managerial goal formation and coalition building, (d) managerial attention to goals and organizational activities, and (e) adaptive consequences of learning procedures. Each of these topics has seen significant research, but they are far from completing their empirical agenda. Recently, organizational learning research has been very active, especially on the topics of routines, performance feedback, and attention, resulting in a strong increase in learning and adaptation research in management journals.
Michael K. Bednar
Corporate governance scholars have long been interested in understanding the mechanisms through which firms and their leaders are held accountable for their actions. Recently, there has been increased interest in viewing the media as a type of corporate governance mechanism. Because the media makes evaluations of firms and leaders, and can broadcast information to a wide audience, it has the potential to influence the reputation of firms and firm leaders in both positive and negative ways and thereby play a role in corporate governance.
The media can play a governance role and even influence firm outcomes by simply reporting about firm actions, giving stakeholders a larger voice with which to exert influence, and through independent investigation. However, despite the potential for the media to play a significant governance role, several barriers limit its effectiveness in this capacity. For example, media outlets have their own set of interests that they must strive to fulfill, and journalists often succumb to several cognitive biases that could limit their ability to successfully hold leaders accountable.
While significant progress has been made in understanding the governance role of the media, future research is needed to better understand the specific conditions in which the media is effective in this role. Understanding how social media is changing the nature of journalism is just one example of the many exciting avenues for future research in this area.
Entrepreneurial activity is facilitated by the ties that connect founders and their venture to a broader network of actors. This insight on the value of social capital has been enriched by a large body of research that builds on core concepts of network content, governance, and structure. Network content refers to the resources, information and social support that is exchanged or flows between actors. Governance encompasses the mechanisms that organize and regulate the exchange. Network structure refers to broader patterns created from the relationships between actors. With these building blocks, key findings that have emerged over 30 years of research can be organized into two domains: how networks influence entrepreneurial outcomes and how networks develop over the entrepreneurial process. Core findings regarding the performance consequences of social capital underscore its benefits while identifying limitations due to decreasing returns to growing and maintaining a large network or to contingencies tied to the stage of the venture’s growth. Our understanding of the sources of network evolution and the resulting patterns have also developed significantly. As a motor of network change, scholars have emphasized the goal-oriented behavior of the entrepreneur, but recognize social relationships also engender mutual concern, obligation, and emotional attachment. From a focus on founder and founding team ties to start-up, small firm networks, the literature now spans multiple levels and accounts for contextual variation between industries and institutional environments. Advances within each of these domains of inquiry have led to rich insights and greater conceptual complexity. Future research opportunities will arise that leverage cross-fertilization of the process and performance research streams.
Sarah A. Soule
Do the activities of social movements (e.g., public protest, shareholder activism, boycotts, and sabotage) impact businesses, and if so, how do they impact businesses? When confronted by activist demands, how do firms respond, and does this response vary depending on who the activists are and what their relationship is to the firm? Answering these questions is critical for businesses and activists alike, as we move into an era of heightened activism directed at firms. A growing area of research that is situated at the intersection of economic and political sociology, social movement studies, history, and organizational theory, tackles these questions, in an increasingly methodologically sophisticated and nuanced manner. As a result, a number of important articles and books have been published, and several high-profile, interdisciplinary conferences have been held. This body of research shows that social movements have both direct and indirect effects on businesses, and that these effects are amplified by media attention to activism. For example, we know that activism impacts the financial performance of firms, as well as their reputation. And, we know that the activities of social movements have consequences on firm policies and practices. In turn, businesses have developed a varied repertoire of ways to respond to activist demands. While some businesses ignore activists, others decide to retaliate against activists. Increasingly, businesses concede to the demands of activists in material ways by changing policies and practices that are criticized, while others devise symbolic ways to respond to activist demands, thereby preserving their reputation without necessarily changing their activities.
Mikko Ketokivi and Joseph T. Mahoney
Which components should a manufacturing firm make in-house, which should it co-produce, and which should it outsource? Who should sit on the firm’s board of directors? What is the right balance between debt and equity financing?
These questions may appear different on the surface, but they are all variations on the same theme: how should a complex contractual relationship be governed to avoid waste and to create transaction value? Transaction Cost Economics (TCE) is one of the most established theories to address this fundamental question.
Ronald H. Coase, in 1937, was the first to highlight the importance of understanding the costs of transacting, but TCE as a formal theory started in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an attempt to understand and to make empirical predictions about vertical integration (“the make-or-buy decision”). In its history spanning now over five decades, TCE has expanded to become one of the most influential management theories, addressing not only the scale and scope of the firm but also many aspects of its internal workings, most notably corporate governance and organization design. TCE is therefore not only a theory of the firm, but also a theory of management and of governance.
At its foundation, TCE is a theory of organizational efficiency: how should a complex transaction be structured and governed so as to minimize waste? The efficiency objective calls for identifying the comparatively better organizational arrangement, the alternative that best matches the key features of the transaction. For example, a complex, risky, and recurring transaction may be very expensive to manage through a buyer-supplier contract; internalizing the transaction through vertical integration offers an economically more efficient approach than market exchange.
TCE seeks to describe and to understand two kinds of heterogeneity. The first kind is the diversity of transactions: what are the relevant dimensions with respect to which transactions differ from one another? The second kind is the diversity of organizations: what are the relevant alternatives in which organizational responses to transaction governance differ from one another? The ultimate objective in TCE is to understand discriminating alignment: which organizational response offers the feasible least-cost solution to govern a given transaction? Understanding discriminating alignment is also the main source of prescription derived from TCE.
The key points to be made when examining the logic and applicability of TCE are:
(1) The first phenomenon TCE sought to address was vertical integration, sometimes dubbed “the canonical TCE case.” But TCE has broader applicability to the examination of complex transactions and contracts more generally.
(2) TCE could be described as a constructive stakeholder theory where the primary objective is to ensure efficient transactions and avoidance of waste. TCE shares many features with contemporary stakeholder management principles.
(3) TCE offers a useful contrast and counterpoint to other organization theories, such as competence- and power-based theories of the firm. These other theories, of course, symmetrically inform TCE.
How do firms organize economic transactions? This question can be thought of as a question of firm boundaries or as a decision about a firm’s scope, encompassing the choice along a continuum of governance structures, including spot markets, short-term contracts, long-term contracts, franchising, licensing, joint ventures, and hierarchy (integration). Although there is no unified theory of vertical integration, transaction cost economics, agency theory, and more recently property rights theory have been influential not only in analyzing make-or-buy decisions but also in understanding “hybrid forms” or inter-firm alliances, such as technology licensing contracts, equity alliances, joint ventures, and the like.
Before Coase’s work became widely known, whatever theoretical underpinnings there were of vertical integration were provided by applications of neoclassical theory. Here, the firm was viewed as a production function that utilized the most technologically efficient way to convert input into output. In particular, neoclassical theory was concerned primarily with market power and the distortions that it created in markets for inputs or outputs as the main driver of vertical integration. Hence, the boundaries of the firm—that is, where to draw the line between transactions that occur within the firm and those outside the firm—were irrelevant within this framework. It was Coase’s question “Why is there any organization?” that first suggested that price mechanisms in the market and managerial coordination within firms were alternative governance mechanisms. That is, the choice between these alternative mechanisms was driven by a comparative analysis of the costs of implementing either mechanism.
Oliver Williamson built on Coase to provide the theoretical foundations for vertical integration by joining uncertainty and small numbers with opportunism in defining exchange hazards, and consequently established comparative analysis of alternative governance forms as the way to analyze vertical integration. More recently, property rights theory brought attention to ownership of key assets as a way to distinguish between the governance of internal organizations and those of market transactions, where ownership confers the authority to determine how these assets will be utilized. And lastly, agency theory also provides important building blocks for understanding contractual choice by placing the emphasis on the different incentives that vary with different contractual arrangements between a principal and its agent.
Transaction cost economics, property rights theory, and agency cost theory complement one another well in explaining vertical integration in terms of alternative governance forms in a world of asymmetric information, bounded rationality, and opportunism. These theories have also been utilized in analyzing “hybrid” organizational forms, in particular strategic alliances and joint ventures. Together, vertical integration and alliances account for a significant part of corporate strategy decisions, and more research on the theoretical foundations as well as novel ways to apply these theories in empirical analyses will be productive avenues for a better understanding of firm behavior.