Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and computer technology are causing us to think again about some really basic questions: what is a firm? What can firms do better than markets? And what are the distinctive qualities of firms in a world of smart contracts and AI?
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While there has been a lot of discussion about “what’s left for humans?” as AI improves at exponential rates — the customary answer is that humans need to focus on the things they are uniquely good at, such as creativity, intuition, and personal empathy — I think we now have to ask, “what’s left for firms?”
In many ways this is an old question, because it takes us back to the arguments of Nobel Laureates Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson that firms exist to coordinate complex forms of economic activity in an efficient way. If computer technology has the capacity to simplify and streamline transaction costs, more and more work can be done through these smart-contract arrangements, making traditional human-managed firms obsolete. For example, when you say to Alexa “order more dog food,” a chain of activities is initiated that leads to the delivery of a fresh supply of Kibble 24 hours later, with little or no human intervention. This work is coordinated by a single firm, Amazon, but it often involves third parties (makers of dog food, delivery companies) whose systems interact seamlessly with Amazon’s.
But is this coordination logic, this ability to internalize transactions to make them more efficient, really the raison d’etre of firms? I would argue that it is just one among many reasons that firms exist. And as computer technology simplifies and reduces transaction costs further, it is these other things that firms do uniquely well that will come more to the forefront. Here are some areas where firms excel.
1. Firms create value by managing tensions between competing priorities.
In today’s parlance, firms have to exploit their established sources of advantage (to make profits today) while also exploring for new sources of advantage (to ensure their long-term viability). However, getting the right balance between these two sets of activities is tricky because each one is to a large degree self-reinforcing. Hence the notion of organizational ambidexterity — the capacity to balance exploitation and exploration. (…)
2. Firms create value by taking a long-term perspective.
As a variant of the first point, firms don’t just manage trade-offs between exploitation and exploration on a day to day basis, they also manage trade-offs over time. My former colleagues Sumantra Ghoshal and Peter Moran wrote a landmark paper arguing that, unlike markets, firms deliberately take resources away from their short-term best use, in order to give themselves the chance to create even more value over the long term. (…)
3. Firms create value through purpose — a moral or spiritual call to action.
There is a second dimension to long-term thinking, and that is its impact on individual and team motivation. We typically use the term purpose here, to describe what Ratan Tata calls a “moral or spiritual call to action” that leads people to put in discretionary effort — to work long hours, and to bring their passion and creativity to the workplace. […]