Talent Flow and the Theory of the Firm

Both Vic Fleisher and Shubha Ghosh in their thoughtful commentary about Talent Wants to Be Free invoke the theory of the firm to raise question about the extent of desirable freedom in talent and knowledge flows. In its basic iteration, the theory of the firm suggests that arms-length contracting will not be optimal when one party has the ability to renegotiate and hold the other party up, which is the conventional rational for the desirability of talent controls. This is what I describe in the book as the Orthodox Model of employment intellectual property: firms fear making relational investment in employees and then having the employees renegotiate the contract under a threat of exit. Firms respond through mobility restrictions aimed at eliminating the transaction costs of this kind of opportunism. In the book, I accept, at least for some situations, this aspect of the benefits and confidence that are created for firms in internalizing production and ensuring ongoing loyalty by all players. The orthodox model thus explains post-employment controls as necessary to encourage optimal investment within the corporation. More company controls = more internal R&D and human capital investment. The new model developed in the book doesn’t deny these benefits but argues that the orthodox model is incomplete. The Dynamic-Dyadic Model asks about the costs and benefits when controls are employed.  It suggests that yes, often, protecting human capital and trade secret investments is often in the immediate interest of a company, but that too much control becomes a double-edged sword. This is because of both the demotivating effects on employee performance when lateral markets are reduced and because over-time, although information leakage and job-hopping by talented workers may provide competitors with undue know-how, expertise, and technologies, constraining mobility reduces knowledge spillovers and information sharing that outweigh the occasional losses. The enriched model is supported by a growing body of empirical evidence that finds that regions with less controls and more talent freedom, such as California, have in fact more R&D investment, quicker economic growth and greater innovation.

Vic is of course right that one solution to this problem is to recreate high-powered (market-like) incentives for performance within the firm. This is an aspect that I am greatly interested in and I analyze it in Talent Wants to Be Free as the question of whether controls and restrictions can effectively alternate with the carrots of performance-based compensation, vesting interests, loyalty inducing work environments, employee stock options and so forth. I too like Shubha am a fan of Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty and have found it useful in analyzing employment relations. I view the behavioral research as shedding light on these questions of what these intra-firm incentives need to look like in order to preserve the incentive to innovate. In a later post I will elaborate on the monitoring and motivational tradeoffs that exist in individual and group performance.

More generally, though, the research suggests that at least in certain industries, most paradigmatically fast-paced, high-tech fields, innovation is most likely when the contracting environments have thick networks of innovators that are mobile (i.e. Silicon valley) and firms themselves are horizontally networked. The flow of talent and ideas is important to innovation and rigid boundaries of the firm can stifle that interaction even with the right intra-firm incentives. The benefits in terms of innovation rise in these structures of denser inter-firm connections, but also, the costs of opportunism that drive the conventional wisdom are in fact lower than the traditional theory of the firm would predict. This is because talent mobility is a repeated game and at any given moment, a firm can be on either side of the raiding and poaching.   Policies against talent controls have the effect of reducing the costs of opportunistic renegotiation by ensuring the firm can hire replacement innovators when it loses its people. To push back on Vic’s phrasing, talent wants to be appreciated and free. MIT economist Daron Acemoglu’s analysis of investments and re-investments in workers as a key ingredient of production and growth is helpful in understanding some of this dynamic. People invest in their own human capital without knowing the exact work they will eventually do, just as companies must make investment decisions in technology and capital funds without always knowing who they will end up hiring. Acemoglu describes the positive upward trajectory under these conditions of uncertainty: When workers invest more in their human capital, businesses will invest more because of the prospects of acquiring good talent. In turn, workers will invest more in their human capital as they may end up in one or more of these companies.  The likelihood of finding good employers creates incentives for overall investments in human capital.

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