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The Application of Real Option Approach in International Business Research  

Tailan Chi and Yan Huang

The real option theory (ROT), a theory on investment decision making under uncertainty, has been applied to analyzing a broad range of questions in international business (IB). In the face of uncertainty, any discretion that the managers of a multinational enterprise (MNE) have over the timing, scale, speed, and sequence of investing or using the firm’s resources, in the forms of physical or intellectual capital or managerial time and effort, can be a real option. Such options confer upon the managers the right, but not the obligation, to exploit the upside potential while limiting the downside risk. Uncertainty, irreversibility, and absence of immediate and complete preemption are three necessary conditions for a real option to create value. Uncertainty offers opportunities to gather more information in the future, and such information can help managers make better decisions or alter prior decisions for improvement. Irreversibility is defined as the proportion of the investment committed to a project that cannot be recouped if the project is abandoned. Preemption refers to the revocation of the decision-making discretion that nullifies the option. It is possible to distinguish seven types of real options that have been examined in IB studies: (a) option to defer, (b) option to abandon/exit, (c) option to exchange, (d) option to grow/scale up, (e) option to contract/scale down, (f) option to switch, and (g) compound options. These types of options are found to influence a firm’s international market-entry strategies (e.g., location, timing, scale, speed, and mode) and the configuration and organization of the firm’s geographically dispersed production network. ROT has also been integrated with other economic theories, such as transaction cost economics and resource-based view, to better understand these decisions. Although ROT assumes a strong form of rationality on the part of the decision maker, it is also possible to incorporate cognitive or cultural biases into the theory and give the theory’s analysis greater realism. ROT represents a theoretical approach that can be integrated with various economic and noneconomic theories. More work in such theoretical integration can potentially help researchers gain deeper or more complete understandings of IB questions. Extant studies in IB typically analyze only a single type of option in isolation. But the global production network of a MNE typically has a portfolio of different types of options embedded, and the different types of options inevitably interact. The study of interactions among two or more types of options under different sources of uncertainty is likely to yield new insights on the strategy and organization of the MNE.