Oliver Williamson's influential contributions to the theory of firms were the stimulus for our discussion topic this week of the analysis of organizations. Posner gives an excellent discussion of various factors that determine organizational structure and efficiency, such as conflicts between principles, like stockholders, and agents, like employees and managers, the ease of communicating information and knowledge from the bottom to the top of the organization, and the number of "layers" in the command structure. I will concentrate my comments on the environment that organizations face, and especially on the degree of competition they have to deal with.
One of the most compelling observations from highly competitive environments is that many different organizational structures sometimes survive in the same industry. For example, in the retail grocery sector, large "warehouse" types of stores exist alongside small specialized grocery stores. Chains that own many supermarkets, such as Safeway and Whole Foods, compete against small mom and pop stores with few paid employees.
George Stigler argued many years ago in a classic article ("The Economies of Scale", reprinted in his collection of essays called The Organization of Industry) that different types of firms that survive in the competition for profits in very competitive environments must be of rather equal efficiency at producing profits. A corollary is that if a competitive industry were trending over time toward a narrower set of organizational types, this would imply that these types must have become relatively more efficient as the economic and political environments changed over time.
The fact that small supermarkets and large warehouse markets survive the tough competitive pressure of the retail grocery market suggest that both types must be of about the same efficiency in their respective niches of the grocery sector, although the trend seems to be toward larger supermarkets. That steel mills are much larger than textile factories suggest that economies of scale in steel production must be sufficiently larger than the scale economies in the production of textiles to overcome the larger number of command layers and other inefficiencies of a larger production scale in steel but not in textiles.
Also of relevance to understanding the efficiency of different organizational types is that very different types of firms survive in different countries, often even when they are in the same or similar industries. For example, Japan and South Korea (occupied by Japan for about 40 years in the 20th century) have large conglomerates that are active in many different industries, such as Korea's SK company whose products range from an oil refinery to cell phones, whereas Taiwan tends toward smaller firms that are more concentrated in particular sectors (although Taiwan was also occupied by Japan).
Both the inter country and within country evidence indicate that no single organizational form is always the most profitable even in a particular sector of the economy. Different combinations of scale economies, principle-agent problems, compensation practices, thickness of the span of control, and many other variables highlighted in the organizational literature often produce outcomes that are about equally efficient and profitable. The outcome of strong competition is the only really decisive way to determine which are the possibly quite different but about equally efficient combinations of all these different variables.
The major difficulty in evaluating many governmental organizations is that they often do not face such strong competition and they have no simple measure of success, such as profits. These two factors make it difficult to use Stigler's survival test. To take Posner's example, can the criminal catching activities of say the FBI be efficiently combined with a terrorist deterrent function? If this were a competitive industry with many different organizations and good observable measures of success, one could then look at whether such combinations compete successfully in the longer run against more specialized agencies. Lacking either much competition or such measures of success, one has to rely in good part on the insights of analyses of these issues. Similarly, the organization and efficiency of armies is only rarely tested against competition on the battlefield. When so tested, losing armies often try to reorganize so that they can look more like the successful armies, although generals are often accused of reorganizing to fight the last war.
Perhaps then it is best to try to create competition among governmental agencies, such as both the CIA and FBI trying to deter terrorism, and then provide greater resources to the more successful agency. This, however, runs into the difficulty that agencies may withhold information from each other in order to gain an advantage in such competition.