Eighty years ago, in The Nature of the Firm, Ronald Coase (1910 – 2013) explained why firms exist. His answer (transaction costs) both explains the recent rise in the number of sovereign professionals and highlights the challenge faced in building a high-value sovereign professional business.
Essentially, Coase argued that firms exist where the cost of contracting individual tasks becomes too burdensome. It is relatively cheap and easy to contract simple tasks in the open market, such as taking a taxi or paying a window cleaner. However, the myriad subtle responsibilities of, say, a personal admin assistant are more effectively met by hiring someone on a contract of employment.
The rise of technology, especially smartphones, the web and cloud computing, has dramatically reduced transaction costs on both sides. Size matters less and it is easy for an individual to market themselves, to be found, engaged and for all the requisite admin to take place. Those relatively concrete transaction costs are clearly lower as a result. One could imagine such relationships reaching a new equilibrium where it is now economical effective to contract out a larger set of “tasks” to sovereign professionals.
However, building on Coase’s work, Sanford Grossman and Oliver Hart described two types of rights over a firm’s assets: specific rights, which can be contracted out and residual rights which cannot. The more a sovereign professional works on a client’s strategic projects, the closer he or she comes to those residual rights. At that point, as The Economist describes in Coase’s Theory of the Firm “a merger would make more sense” – i.e., that work may be better done by an employee.
The challenge for the sovereign professional is to build the sort of “trusted adviser” relationship that gives access to strategically important (and therefore valuable) projects while maintaining independence.
Both papers are worth reading and digesting;
- Coase’s original, 1937 paper, The Nature of the Firm, is here.
- The recent Economist article, Coase’s Theory of the Firm, is here.
The Sanford and Hart paper, The Costs and Benefits of Ownership:
A Theory of Vertical and Lateral Integration, (which is on my “to read” pile) is here.
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