Tag: management

IBM as a Metaphor for Economic Success

International Business Machines Inc. is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a company today. In this time of economic worry and uncertainty, it’s worth taking a moment to consider a few policy lessons we might glean from its longevity.

Unlike government agencies and programs, private-sector companies competing in a free market come and go. In an essay posted on the IBM web site, company officials noted:

Of the top 25 industrial corporations in the United States in 1900, only two remained on that list at the start of the 1960s. And of the top 25 companies on the Fortune 500 in 1961, only six remain there today.

How did IBM not only survive but thrive during a century that took us from horses and buggies to FaceBook and iPhones? In a word, adaptability. IBM’s management has been willing to change to meet the evolving demands of a competitive and open marketplace.

When I was researching a speech last year to retired IBM employees, I was struck by how the company has transformed itself. As I shared with the audience, IBM stands as a metaphor for the positive changes under way in our more high-tech and globalized economy:

As you all know, [IBM] has re-engineered itself from a hardware company to a provider of software and services. Today, nearly 60 percent of the company’s revenue comes from services compared to 38 percent a decade ago. Revenue from hardware has been cut in half, to 17 percent.

IBM’s gone global in a big way, too. Almost two-thirds of its revenue now comes from outside the United States. That compares to an S&P average of 47 percent. Emerging markets now account for 50 percent of its revenue growth. IBM is the biggest IT services company in India. For $100 million, it’s helping the northeast China city of Shenyang—one of its most polluted—clean up its air and reduce carbon emissions.

Politicians nostalgic for an America where the dominant companies were unionized, heavy-industry behemoths producing mostly for the domestic market should take note. As I argued at length in my 2009 book Mad about Trade (see chapters 3 and 4) and more concisely in an essay for Barron’s Weekly, America has become a globalized, middle-class service economy. As the success of IBM demonstrates, this is not something we should fear, or try to resist with trade barriers and industrial policy.

The Importance of Incentives

NPR reports on more doctors giving up private practices and going to work for hospitals. Hospitals think they can manage care better and get more patients, and doctors like being relieved of administrative headaches. But it isn’t a perfect solution. Reporter Jenny Gold notes one of the problems:

GOLD: This isn’t the first time hospitals have gone doctor shopping. In the 1990s, hospitals bought up as many practices as possible. Dr. Bill Jessee is the president of the Medical Group Management Association. He remembers the ’90s as something of a disaster.

Dr. BILL JESSEE (President, Medical Group Management Association): The first thing a lot of physicians did was took a vacation. And when they came back, they weren’t working as hard as they were before their practice was acquired.

Indeed. This is a standard insight of economics. People work harder when they have something to gain. There are real benefits to the division of labor, including corporations where salaried employees contribute to a joint product, but there are also risks that employees won’t work as hard when their compensation isn’t directly tied to their output. Managers and economists have searched for solutions to the “shirking” problem. In this case the hospitals are experimenting with bonus systems based on how many patients the doctors see. The problem is much more significant, of course, in government, which is far more restricted in its ability to use merit pay, bonuses, or other performance-related pay systems. Thus the widespread impression that government employees don’t work as hard as private-sector employees – and one reason that it’s a good idea to leave as many services as possible in the private sector.

The NPR story also reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. Gladwell dismisses the romantic notion of the lone inventor and says that Farnsworth would have been better off working for a big corporation, where other people would have worried about raising capital, fending off lawsuits, and all the little details of management and left Farnsworth free to invent:

Farnsworth was forced to work in a state of chronic insecurity. He never had enough money….he did not understand how to raise money or run a business or organize his life. All he really knew how to do was invent, which was something that, as a solo operator, he too seldom had time for.

This is the reason that so many of us work for big companies, of course: in a big company, there is always someone to do what we do not want to do or do not do well–someone to answer the phone, and set up our computer, and arrange our health insurance, and clean our office at night, and make sure the building is insured. In a famous 1937 essay, “The Nature of the Firm,” the economist Ronald Coase said that the reason we have corporations is to reduce the everyday transaction costs of doing business: a company puts an accountant on the staff so that if a staffer needs to check the books all he has to do is walk down the hall. It’s an obvious point, but one that is consistently overlooked, particularly by those who periodically rail, in the name of efficiency, against corporate bloat and superfluous middle managers. Yes, the middle manager does not always contribute directly to the bottom line. But he does contribute to those who contribute to the bottom line, and only an absurdly truncated account of human productivity–one that assumes real work to be somehow possible when phones are ringing, computers are crashing, and health insurance is expiring–does not see that secondary contribution as valuable….

Philo Farnsworth should have gone to work for RCA. He would still have been the father of television, and he might have died a happy man.