The tradeoff between firm size and diversity in the pursuit of technological progress

Journal Article (Journal Article)

Our analysis lends support to both sides of the debate concerning the optimal firm size for achieving technical advance. It provides a basis for why industries composed of many small firms will tend to exhibit greater diversity in the approaches to innovation pursued, and why greater diversity will contribute to more rapid technological change. It also provides a basis for why industries populated by larger firms will achieve a more rapid rate of technical advance on the approaches to innovation that are pursued. These arguments together suggest that a tradeoff exists between the appropriability advantage of large size and the advantages of diversity that accrue from numerous small firms. Others, suchas Nelson (1981), have also recognized a tradeoff between the diversity-inducing advantage of more competitive industry structures and advantages of large firm size, but not the particular tradeoff we have identified. Our analysis has been more appreciative than rigorous and, indeed, often explicity speculative. While we attempted to raise important questions, our framework requires more structuring before we can be confident about any of our conclusions. Even in its inchoate form, however, our analysis demonstrates that much needs to be done before the current debate about firm size can seriously inform policy. If we accept the plausibility of our basic framework, it focuses attention on a range of issues and questions. The fundamental premise of our analysis is that firm capabilities and perceptions differ within industries. This premise is not, however, widely reflected in analyses of industry behavior and performance, which typically take some representative firm as their starting point. Indeed, the analytic utility of our particular premise deserves scrutiny. Are differences in firm capabilities and perceptions as critical to explaining the industry patterns in innovative activity and performance as we suggest? Do these differences persist? Is our abstract characterization of these differences and their effects on innovative activity up to the task of providing a basis for policy? These intraindustry differences in capabilities and perceptions underpin the hypothesized relationship in our framework between the number of firms within an industry and the number of distinct technological activities pursued by the industry as a whole. Surely this hypothesis should be tested. To establish the relationship between numbers of firms and technological diversity, we also made two important assumptions, which themselves should be examined. First, we assumed that firms independently decide upon which approaches to innovation to pursue.This assumption precludes the clustering of firms around innovative activities due to imitation, a phenomenon highlighted by Nelson (1981) and Scott (1991). To the degree that innovative activities yield relatively fast, public results, the assumption may be suspect. While our evidence indirectly suggests that such clustering may not be critical for explaining innovative activity in a wide range of industries, more research would be helpful. Second, we assumed that the number of approaches to innovation pursued by firms is independent of their size, implying large and small firms will tend to pursue the same number of approaches. This assumption probably does not apply to the smallest firms within an industry, particularly to the extent that such firms are often not full line manufacturing firms. Does it apply, however, to the medium to large firms that account for the preponderance of R&D and economic activity inthe manufacturing sector? While our evidence again provides indirect support for this claim, more empirical and theoretical research is indicated. We also made other claims and assumptions that deserve further attention. For example, we argued that greater technological diversity stimulates technical advance and provides gross increments to social welfare. Assuming it exists, the mechanism linking diversity and technical advance has never been examined empirically and is not obvious. Our assumption that expected firm growth due to innovation is increamental played an important role in permitting usto hypothesize an appropriability advantage of large size. Again, both the assumption and its alleged effect on innovative activity are worth examining. Finally, we also need to test whether the relationship between R&D and firm size within industries depends upon appropriability conditions, particularly upon the extent to which firms can sell their innovations or grow rapidly due to innovation.Cohen and Klepper (1990) demonstrate that if firms can sell some fraction of their innovations in disembodied form or if growth due to innovation is unconditioned by existing output levels, then large firm size will confer less of an advantage and R&D effort should rise less than proportionally with firm size. In conclusion, this litany of reasonable but unsubstantiated assumptions and arguments should make clear that this paper is only a modest beginning of a daunting research agenda. © 1992 Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Cohen, WM; Klepper, S

Published Date

  • March 1, 1992

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 4 / 1

Start / End Page

  • 1 - 14

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1573-0913

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0921-898X

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1007/BF00402211

Citation Source

  • Scopus