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Author: Victor Fleischer

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Talent Wants to be Appreciated

Orly’s book is terrific–a model for pulling together theory, stories, and data to argue for a dynamic system of free-flowing employees, resources, and ideas. I am persuaded that non-competes and other human capital controls often cause more harm than good.

But amidst the many stories and studies, I would have welcomed more theory. Okay, employee mobility is good. But how good? How far should we push this idea?

Consider a society where every worker is an at-will contractor, working singly on a single project or task. Such a purely contractual world would be dynamic, as workers jump from project to project like insects chasing nectar. But would it maximize the value of production?

To have a theory of employee mobility, one must have a theory of the firm. Why do we have firms and employees in the first place, instead of a web of independent contractor relationships?  The idea of team production (Alchian & Demsetz) may be useful here: production may be maximized by working in teams. This seems to be as likely to be true for innovative production as any other form of production.

Through this team production lens, the critical information cost is the difficult and costly monitoring and metering of individual performance within a group activity. While Orly notes that “[t]oo much supervision can smother creative sparks” (p. 133), too little supervision means that high performers are not appreciated and rewarded. Organizing team production within a firm gives entrepreneurs and managers an incentive to monitor effectively. It is impossible to get performance incentives precisely right at the individual level, and unhappy employees have a tendency to jump ship. But human capital controls–hard or soft–may induce employees to stay put and allow managers to evaluate employees over a longer period of time.

(Soft controls–under the umbrella of what Orly calls “stickiness”–include health insurance, deferred comp, workplace perks (e.g. free food, working on a beautiful campus), and the transaction costs of moving.)

Firms are themselves a soft form of human capital control. When we agree to work for someone else, we give up some freedom. But the existence of firms is, perhaps, a better way to maximize team production and, at least under some conditions, to promote innovation.

My point is that talent doesn’t want to be free, it wants to be appreciated. Firms that find the most efficient way to appreciate and reward talent (financially and otherwise) without devolving into an eat-what-you-kill culture have a competitive advantage.