The Changing Nature of the Firm

From Wikipedia

The Nature of the Firm’ (1937), is an influential article by Ronald Coase. It offered an economic explanation of why individuals choose to form partnerships, companies and other business entities rather than trading bilaterally through contracts on a market.


Given that “production could be carried on without any organization that is, firms at all”, Coase asks, why and under what conditions should we expect firms to emerge? Since modern firms can only emerge when an entrepreneur of some sort begins to hire people, Coase’s analysis proceeds by considering the conditions under which it makes sense for an entrepreneur to seek hired help instead of contracting out for some particular task.

Mutopo Perspective – There is now additional choice as many entrepreneurs are finding. Non-financial exchanges that produce economic value for the firm. Example include: reviews on, comments on the, shares on, help on the HP support forums, wikipedia content contributions (such as this one), norms enforcement on Craigslist, Bandwidth Donation on Skype, Software testing for Mozilla Firefox, R&D help on Giffgaff, etc. etc

Coase noted, however, that there are a number of transaction costs to using the market; the cost of obtaining a good or service via the market is actually more than just the price of the good. Other costs, including search and information costs, bargaining costs, keeping trade secrets, and policing and enforcement costs, can all potentially add to the cost of procuring something via the market. This suggests that firms will arise when they can arrange to produce what they need internally and somehow avoid these costs.The traditional economic theory of the time suggested that, because the market is “efficient” (that is, those who are best at providing each good or service most cheaply are already doing so), it should always be cheaper to contract out than to hire.

There is a natural limit to what can be produced internally, however. Coase notices “decreasing returns to the entrepreneur function”, including increasing overhead costs and increasing propensity for an overwhelmed manager to make mistakes in resource allocation. This is a countervailing cost to the use of the firm.

Coase argues that the size of a firm (as measured by how many contractual relations are “internal” to the firm and how many “external”) is a result of finding an optimal balance between the competing tendencies of the costs outlined above. In general, making the firm larger will initially be advantageous, but the decreasing returns indicated above will eventually kick in, preventing the firm from growing indefinitely.

Other things being equal, a firm will tend to be larger:

  • the less the costs of organizing and the slower these costs rise with an increase in the transactions organized.
  • the less likely the entrepreneur is to make mistakes and the smaller the increase in mistakes with an increase in the transactions organized.
  • the greater the lowering (or the less the rise) in the supply price of factors of production to firms of larger size.

The first two costs will increase with the spatial distribution of the transactions organized and the dissimilarity of the transactions. This explains why firms tend to either be in different geographic locations or to perform different functions. Additionally, technology changes that mitigate the cost of organizing transactions across space will cause firms to be larger—the advent of the telephone and cheap air travel, for example, would be expected to increase the size of firms. On a related note the use of the internet and related modern information and communication technologies seem to lead to the existence of so called virtual organizations.

Coase does not consider non-contractual relationships , as between friends or family.

Mutopo Perspective – cost structures are shifting radically when enabled by social technologies and behaviors. Operational Costs [exploitation] – for these types of costs, there is simply a much reduced shift in the cost of managing these transactions outside the firm – software testing, translation, search engine optimization, administrative assistance, data quality, customer support, IT support, etc. These are exactly the areas in which we find flourishing crowdsourcing as one can see on this landscape map from
New Opportunities for Innovation [exploration] –  these costs don’t allow for easy direct comparison – i.e. the question is less inside or outside but more the possibility that the innovation might yield a new market opportunity or signficant efficiency gains. Examples include: P&G connect and develop as an ongoing focused approach to seeking innovation from outside. Or myStarbucksIdea. Or role of developers in App store ecosystems. Or challenge formats like GE ecomagination innocentive, jovoto, etc.
Taken together. These changes suggest that new forms of the firm will continue to evolve as the decisions about what takes place inside versus outside the firm undergo review after 75 years of relative stability. 
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