Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bruce Wilder 06.25.14 at 12:37 am

J Thomas @ 28 I agree, Christensen’s ideas do seem to be a recycling of Schumpeter’s in some ways.

Schumpeter could use the term, economic rent, in a sentence and hope to be understood. He understood that the economy had a structure, and economic rents marked out power in that structure. Christensen’s ideas have evolved in the direction of emphasizing the business model, and the potential of a new technology to enable or require a different business model. Schumpeter would have understood “disruption” in terms of capturing or diverting sources of economic rent. Early Schumpeter celebrated the entrepreneur as a hero of wild spirit; late Schumpeter was very impressed by the organizational resources of the large American business corporation, with its R&D labs and planned obsolescence. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, when “Socialism” was closely associated with central planning, Schumpeter wondered aloud whether planning by giant corporations would not come close to driving what we would call start-ups — the founding of wholly new enterprise on new principles and producing new products — toward practical extinction.

Schumpeter did not foresee just how far the processes of incremental improvements would carry us. Nor do we fully appreciate how very different the world of work and business seems as a result of the progress of incremental innovation in the processes of making things. The business model for building a railroad wasn’t so hard to figure out: you bought land along the route, in anticipation of the effect building the road would have on property values. And, once the railroad was built, the railroad had considerable advantages in speed and cost of transport with which to bargain over rates, though many roads went bankrupt discovering that merchants gained considerable leverage as well, knowing that the railroad was stuck with its sunk-cost investments and sizeable overhead. Still, the business model, so to speak, had tangible elements forming a visible outline.

Did you know that a television network was originally based on ownership of a high-capacity transmission line connecting member stations? That was the eponymous “network” and its costs were considerable enough to form part of what economists used to call a barrier to entry, along with factors like the limited number of television channels in each market — there were only 12 on the VHF dial back in the day, and less than half of those available in any given city — and the huge costs of esoteric devices like cameras, not to mention the highly trained, unionized technicians.

Now what’s a television network? A website and a Roku app? One of the biggest sunk-cost investments might be the marketing concept and the logo design.

That’s an extreme example, but it’s the outcome of a general trend. The unit costs of manufactured goods has become remarkably low, and the proportionate effect of investments in intangibles like “brand” very large. Christensen is haunted, I understand, by a missed prophecy regarding the iPhone and Nokia, which he tries to explain away by a reference to smartphones competing with (disrupting) personal computers. But, personal computers are disrupting themselves, by becoming so cheap, that you cannot build a company with the overhead of a Dell or H-P around them.

I wouldn’t recommend that anyone get their religion from the Harvard Business School, but I can see why businessmen might feel the need for one.

The world must seem fragile, indeed, when business rests not on tangible brick-and-mortar and the quasi-rents of expensive machines or the expertise of loyal workforces, but on brand names, clever graphics and intellectual property claims.

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