Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

The art of interaction, the design of digital and the science of social complexity

Tag: Human capital

Are markets the future of firms?

Amazon has joined Uber, Lyft and many others in redrawing the lines between independent contractors and employees. On March 30th Amazon announced an expansion into the “on-demand” economy. Amazon Home Services is a service marketplace that connects customers with builders, plumbers, cleaners and even teachers. Amazon has successfully made it very easy to buy books and goods. It now plans to do the same for professional services. It does so through (1) standardizing offerings so that prices can be agreed in advance, through (2) promising that the workers are trustworthy. Amazon scrutinizes workers through searches, interviews and reference checks and (3) providing a great interface experience for employers to a world that is very cumbersome: one-click hiring of workers and easy payments through Amazon.

Businesses are concluding more and more often that there are no reasons why certain activities should be performed by employees rather than contractors. The skills of these workers are seen as generic, making it easy for non-permanent workers to fit in quickly. This has created the Internet-based service platforms, the new job markets and the huge trend of on-demand work.

But hold on. A firm is essentially about creating long-term contracts when short-term contracts are too costly, or don’t make sense for other reasons. So is there a place for long-term contracts in the world of the Internet and these new markets? Is there a role for the firm, as we have known it?

One way to understand a firm is as a contracting mechanism between providers of financial capital (the principals) and managers (the agents). Principal-agent models are still extremely influential in corporate governance and  in reality continue to form the basis of mainstream compensation structures up to this day. In principal-agent thinking, employees are viewed as generic labor and agents for the managers. The managers are understood as having firm-specific skills and are viewed as agents of the shareholders.

The economist Brian Arthur from the Santa Fe Institute argues that the ever-increasing role of knowledge in value creation makes the foundations of economics and our thinking around firms badly outdated. Likewise, Peter Drucker predicted that “knowledge may come to occupy the place in the society which property occupied over the last three centuries.” As early as 1964 Gary Becker coined the term “human capital” to refer to the fact that many of the skills and knowledge required to do knowledge work could only be acquired if “some investment was made in time and resources”.

In his seminal work, Becker also considered the implications of the fact that some of the knowledge and skills acquired by employees have a much higher value in some relationships, some contexts, than they do in others. The labor services of employees with specialized skills thus cannot be modeled as undifferentiated generic market inputs, for which wages and quantity, the number of people, and the number of hours of work are determined. With context-specific human capital, the creativity and productivity of a particular individual depends on being part of a particular group of people engaged in particular assignments. Knowledge work is relation-specific and contextual.

More importantly, once acquired, knowledge and skills that are specialized are assets that are at risk following the very same logic as that by which financial assets are at risk. In practice, this would mean that knowledge workers should explicitly bear the long-term entrepreneurial accountability for the success or failure of the company, and additionally benefit from any possible upside, just as shareholders do today. From the point of view of corporate governance, it would mean that companies should be run in the interests of all their investors.

In firms where employees embody the critical capabilities, they must be encouraged to make creative decisions about how to act, interact, learn and innovate. One way to do that is to give them sufficient claims on the long-term returns, in other words to give them ownership rights and responsibilities.

The puzzling thing about the on-demand trend is that when it comes to actual work practices, there is really nothing new despite the powerful technologies and great new interfaces. It is a replication of the industrial model that separated labor, management and shareholders. If we believe Gary Becker, the big societal problem we are about to face is that on-demand work limits the value potential of human effort.

But there is an alternative conceptualization. Knowledge work is defined as creative work we do in interaction. The price of technology is going down rapidly and the cost of starting a company has decreased dramatically. These trends give knowledge workers more power relative to employers. If knowledge is more important than money, it gives human capital more power relative to financial capital, potentially changing the concept of the corporation.

The future of capitalism depends on whether firms create a much larger number of capitalists than they do today. Everybody will benefit if, in the future, a larger number of workers think like owners and act like long-term investors. A sense of ownership could be and should be the difference between firms and markets.

We should use the Internet to create the new, not to repeat the old.

A new theory of growth

For most of human history, creativity was held to be a privilege of supreme beings, initially, the gods who shaped the heavens and the earth, and then it was extraordinary human beings who were the creators and not the helpless, dependent subjects of the wrath of the gods. We switched our views further as we began to understand more how the world worked. Whether this has helped the human race is debatable. But it would help us if we realized the responsibility that comes with our new role.

Our future is tied to human creativity.

You would think that given its importance, creativity would have a very high priority among our concerns, but we face a disturbing reality if we look at what is really going on today. The arts are seen as unessential luxuries and instead of exploring creative new solutions, cutting expenses is the approach of most managers trying to deal with global competition.

What holds true for the arts and the economy, also applies to education. The models of mass society and mass production still prevail in the world of mass education. The industrial society is re-born daily at the expense of a different sociocultural context that would embrace creativity.

The sociocultural context matters because creativity is a systemic rather than an individual phenomenon. Workable new solutions to our most pressing concerns will not appear by themselves as isolated ideas of independent people. Creativity is born in connections and in enriching interaction.

To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or that Albert Einstein discovered relativity is a popular, but misleading simplification. These breakthroughs would have been inconceivable without (1) the social and intellectual network that stimulated and advanced their thinking and (2) the people who recognized the value of their contributions and spread them further. A good, new idea is not automatically passed on. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was one. One cannot be creative alone. These qualities are co-created in an active process of mutual recognition.

The creative era is about interdependence, not about superhuman individuals.

MiinaAn inspiring person is only inspiring by virtue of others who treat her this way. A good decision is only good if there are people around to agree with it. It is not enough to look at the individuals who seem to be responsible for a new idea. Their contribution, although important, is always a node in a network and a phase in a movement of thought. Creativity takes place in connections and communication. The network is the enabler and amplifier. It is time now for a new epistemology; new ways of talking about knowledge creation.

However, people have always networked. Scholars depended heavily on correspondence networks for the exchange of ideas before the time of the universities. These communities, known as the “Republic of Letters” were the social media of the era, and resembled the communication patterns of today astonishingly closely. The better-networked scientist was often the better scientist. Today, the better-networked knowledge worker is usually the better worker. In the future, the better-networked student will always be the better student.

The main difference from the time of letters and the printing press is the transformative efficiency of our new interaction tools. A “man of letters” may today be a man of tweets, posts and updates, but the principle is the same: what matters most is the way we are skilfully present and communicate using all the different means that are available.

Mutually recognizing and mutually supporting relationships are the core of creative progress and growth.

To be human means communicative interaction. Creativity is an emergent pattern of that interaction.

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Thank you Ari Manninen, Pasi Aaltola, Katri Saarikivi, Kenneth Gergen, Doug Griffin, Edmund Phelps, Esa Saarinen and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

More on creativity and non-routine work

Architectures of work and Internet-based firms

The characteristics of work in the network economy are different from what we are used to: the industrial production of physical goods was financial capital-intensive, leading to centralized management and manufacturing facilities where you needed to be at during predetermined hours. The industrial era also created the shareholder capitalism we now experience. In the network economy, individuals, interacting with each other by utilizing free or low cost social platforms and relatively cheap mobile, smart devices, can now create information products.

The production of information goods requires more human capital than financial capital. And the good news is that you are not limited to the local supply. Because of the Internet, work on information products does not need to be co-located. The infrastructure of work does not resemble a factory but a network.

Decentralized action plays a much more important role today than ever before.

Work systems differ in the degree to which their components are loosely or tightly coupled. Coupling is a measure of the degree to which communication between the components is predetermined and fixed or not. The architecture of the Internet is based on loose couplings and modularity. Modularity is the design principle that intentionally makes nodes of the network able to be highly responsive.

The Internet-based firm sees work and cognitive capability as networked communication. Any node in the network should be able to communicate with any other node on the basis of contextual interdependence and creative participative engagement. Work takes place in a transparent digital environment.

As organizations want to be more creative and knowledge-based, the focus of management thinking should shift towards understanding participative, self-organizing responsiveness.

The Internet is a viable model for making sense of the new value creating constellations of tomorrow.

But something crucially important needs to change:

The taken for granted assumption is that it is the independent employer/manager who exercises freedom of choice in choosing what is done and by whom. The employees of the organization are not seen autonomous, with a choice of their own, but are seen as rule-following, dependent entities. People are resources.

Dependence is the opposite of taking responsibility. It is getting the daily tasks that are given to you done, or at least out of the way. We are as used to the employer choosing the work objectives as we are used to the teacher choosing the learning objectives. The manager directs the way in which the employee engages with work, and manages the timing and duration of the work. This image of work is easy to grasp because it has been taught at school where the model is the same.

In contrast to the above, digital work and the Internet have brought about circumstances in which the employee in effect chooses the purpose of work, voluntarily selects the tasks, determines the modes and timing of engagement, and designs the outcomes. The worker here might be said to be largely independent of some other person’s management, but is in effect interdependent. Interdependence here means that the worker is free to choose what tasks to take up, and when to take them up, but is not independent in the sense that she would not need to make the choice.

The interdependent, task-based worker negotiates her work based on her own purposes, not the goals of somebody else, and chooses her fellow workers based on her network, not a given organization. The aim is to do meaningful things with meaningful people in meaningful ways utilizing networks and voluntary participation.

It is not the corporation that is in the center, but the intentions and choices of individuals. This view of work focuses attention on the way ordinary, everyday work-tasks enrich life and perpetually create the future we truly want through continuous learning.

The architecture of work is not the structure of a corporation, but the structure of the network. The organization is not a given hierarchy, but an ongoing process of organizing. The main motivation of work is not financial self-interest, but people’s different and yet, complementary expectations of the future.

The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the work is. The crowdsourcing logic of mass communication makes it possible to distribute work/tasks to where the right/willing/inspired people are, no matter where on the globe they may be.

Knowledge work is not about jobs or job roles but about tasks. Most importantly knowledge work can, if we want, be human-centric. Through mobile smart devices and ubiquitous connectivity, we can also create new opportunities and a better future for millions of presently unemployed people.

It is possible!

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Changing the way we work together

Many organizations are trying to ease into the social business environment. They take parts of the agenda in piecemeal fashion following an “easy steps” logic. Often this, in the end, means some additional communication tools inside the organization, or additional content through some additional new channels for customers. Nothing really changes what comes to the way people work together.

The way in which companies organize themselves and define their boundaries has essentially been determined by the way in which communication between people is planned and access to information is designed. The classic organizational structure was based on the assumption that a manager or worker could have rich interaction and exchange of information only with a limited number of predetermined people.

Our mainstream management theories are derived from the era of the production of tangible goods and high-cost/low-quality communications. These mind-sets are not only unhelpful, but wrong in a world of information products and ubiquitous, low-cost/high-quality connectivity.

New communication technologies have always had a strong impact on industries and the logistics around production. But this time, with information products, the societal changes are even bigger than before. The Internet is the first communication environment that decentralizes the financial capital requirements of production. Much of the capital is not only distributed, but largely owned by the workers, the individuals, who themselves own the smart devices, the machines of work.

The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the machines were. In knowledge work, the machines are where the people are. The logic of ubiquitous communication makes it possible for the first time to distribute work to where the willing people are, no matter where on the globe they may be. Knowledge work is not about jobs, but about tasks and interdependence between people. You don’t need to be present in a factory, or an office, but you need to connect with, and be present for other people.

Work is communication and cooperation, and there are so many new ways to do that.

We are living in a world that is built on the centrality of information and radically distributed contributions. As a result, the organization is not a given entity or structure, but an ongoing process of organizing. The accumulating failures of attempts at organizational resilience can be traced to the fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are vertical and/or horizontal arrangements, that guide and, as a consequence, limit interaction.

Information is the power plant that has the ability to change the organization. When information is transparent, people can organize effectively around changes and differences, around customers and new opportunities. Different people see different things and new interdependencies are created, thus changing the organization.  The easier the access that people have to one another and to information is, the more possibilities there are.

Rather than thinking of organization as an imposed structure, plan or design, organization arises from the interactions of interdependent individuals who need to come together. Sometimes people stay together for a long time, sometimes for a very, very short time. This is because any higher-value activity involves complementary and parallel contributions from more than one person, team, function, or a firm.

The focus of industrial management was on division of labor and the design of vertical/horizontal communication channels. The focus should now be on cooperation and emergent interaction based on transparency, interdependence and responsiveness.

What comes to the productivity of work, these may be the most important points on the social business agenda. The really big objective of social business is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings relationships into the center.

Success today is increasingly a result from skillful participation: it is about how we are present and how we communicate. Through new technologies, applications and ubiquitous connectivity, we have totally new opportunities for participation and communication – potentially changing the way we work together.

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More: the trend from routine to nonroutine work.

The ten commandments of digital work

Lately I have had a series of conversations with a group of leaders of global high-tech companies. It became very clear during my conversations that their vocabulary reflected a fresh, new way of thinking about work. The executives emphasized that the key to success in the new digital economy is likely to be a new position for knowledge professionals and a wide social acceptance of more sustainable values.

What could this new position look like?

Once acquired, knowledge and skills that are specialized to a given enterprise are assets that are at risk in the very same way that financial assets are at risk. If one can’t continue for some reason, the value of context-specific knowledge and competencies may be much lower somewhere else. Human capital then follows very much the same logic as financial capital and should be treated accordingly.

There is, however, one major difference. Human capital is by definition always social and contextual. The capabilities of the members of a team are worth more together than when applied alone. With context-specific human capital, the productivity of a particular individual depends not just on being part of a community, but on being part of a particular group engaged in a particular task. The contextual and social aspects of business matter much more than we have understood.

The ten principles of digital work, the new standards, that the leaders acknowledged:

  1. informed free choice, rather than compliance, is the basis for decisions
  2. active participation, rather than passively accepting instructions, is the basis of growth and development
  3. work activities are carried out within a framework of personal responsibility and goals for self-direction rather than direction from outside
  4. activities are carried out in a transparent way with the goal of distributing the cognitive load of work rather than work being based on reductionist principles and social isolation
  5. one is responsible for one’s own actions rather than being responsible to someone else
  6. a worker is engaging in complex, responsive activities with others in contrast with engaging in closed repetitions of the same activity
  7. the network, rather than offices or organizational hierarchies, is the main architecture of work
  8. productivity is a result of creative learning rather than doing more of the same. Increasing the quality and speed of learning matter more than increasing the quantitative output of work
  9. knowledge work can be understood as investments of human capital following the same logic we have used to understand financial investments. Workers should share the responsibilities and possible upsides that used to belong only to the investors of financial capital.
  10. knowledge work is about interdependent people in interaction. Intelligence, competence and learning are not any more about the attributes and qualities of individuals but about the attributes and quality of interaction

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The impact of technology on industrial jobs.

The human-centric future of work

The big move we are in the midst of is towards an economy that is more centred on information products than physical products. Examples of this are financial services, professional services, the online game industry and software.

The second transformative change is global access to relatively cheap and relatively high quality communication networks

New communication technologies have always had a strong impact on industries and the logistics around production. But this time, with information products, the societal changes are even bigger than before. The Internet is the first communication environment that decentralizes the financial capital requirements of production. Much of the capital is not only distributed but also largely owned by the end users – the workers who have their own smart devices.

The characteristics of the new economy are different from what we are used to: the production of physical goods was (financial) capital-intensive, leading to centralized management structures and the shareholder capitalism we have experienced. The production of information goods always requires more human capital than financial capital. It is much more about finding brains than finding money. The good news is that you are not limited to the local supply. Work on information products does not need to be co-located because of the Internet. If the task at hand is inviting and compelling, human capital investments can come from any part of the network.

This is why decentralized action plays a much more important role today than ever before. The architecture of work is the network and the basic unit of work is not a process or a job role but a task.

Our management and organizational approaches are derived from the era of the production of tangible goods and high-cost/low-quality communications. These mind-sets are not only unhelpful, but wrong in a world of widely distributed value creation and ubiquitous connectivity.

The opportunity we have is in new relational forms that don’t mimic the governance models of industrial, hierarchical firms. We are already witnessing the rise of very large-scale cooperative efforts that create tremendous value. Coordinated value in these cases is the result of uncoordinated actions by a large number of individuals with different goals, different values and different motivations to take part.

In the networked economy, information products and services can now be created and co-created in a human-centric way, by voluntary, interdependent individuals, interacting with each other by utilizing free or very low-cost social media.

Technology does not determine social and organizational change, but it does create new opportunity spaces for new social practices. Some things are becoming much easier than before and some things are becoming possible, perhaps for the first time.

We are living in a world that is built on the centrality of information and radically distributed intelligence. The organization is not necessarily a given entity or hierarchy any more, but an ongoing process of organizing. The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the work is. Work was a place. The crowdsourcing logic of mass communication makes it possible to distribute work to where the (willing) people are, no matter where on the globe they may be. Knowledge work is not about jobs or job roles but about tasks. Work is what you do, and most importantly what you want to do!

Knowledge work can, if we want, be human-centric.

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The post is a shortened version of my lecture today at the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management, Aalto University, School of Science.

Thank you Jochai Benkler and Bent Flyvbjerg


Social media and the change from information to formation

The change towards the creative economy has major implications for the nature of what we have called assets. In the industrial age, the assets were physical resources, plant and equipment. Most of the resources were traded in markets and could thus be valued. Taking care of the value of an organization could be understood as managing physical assets and resources.

Now knowledge and people are seen as the major assets. But since neither of them are efficiently traded in markets, their value cannot easily be measured. Neither can knowledge be understood as an asset that can be managed like a physical asset. This is what many people within the Knowledge Management community learned the hard way. Knowledge is not a thing! Thus it cannot be stored, measured or shared.

From a more modern point of view, knowledge creation is understood as an active process of communication between people. Knowledge cannot be stored but is constantly constructed and re-constructed in interaction. Knowledge cannot be shared but arises in action. Knowledge is the process of relating.

The assumption was that learning and knowledge management involve processes that transmit content. This notion derived from the information theory/model of communication developed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver. Their theory created a sender-receiver model of communication according to which person A sends a signal (message/content) to person B, who receives it and then perhaps sends a responding feedback signal back to A. From this perspective, learning and knowledge creation are processes that resemble transmission or the sharing of content. This is why schools and other educational institutions still look the way they do.

But Shannon & Weaver’s concept was meant to be purely technical. They were interested in whether a byte sent was a byte received in a technical sense. They said nothing about the meaning of the bytes. For a human being a message can evoke a very wide range of associations and interpretations depending on the experience and emotional state of the individual. One person’s interpretation is never quite the same as another person’s interpretation. There is no linear causality in the world of human beings.

If learning was understood from a more modern relational perspective it would resemble a process of many voices interacting at the same time. In this way, each comes to know the context in which the other makes meaning. The progression of B’s understanding of A’s story also constitutes a change to A’s story – creating new meaning, learning, for both.

Social media are most meaningful when giving voice to multiple perspectives, making it possible to seek out, recognize and respect differences as different but equal.

All stories continue, meaning that learning takes place, as participants create a more shared understanding of what the other means. Knowledge which used to be regarded as existing independently in people and things – becomes viewed as co-constructed in communication.

Communication does not represent things in the world. It brings people and things into being in constantly surprising ways.

Supportive, energizing and enabling patterns of interaction are the most important “assets” of a modern organization. That is what should be nurtured and taken care of. Communication either accelerates and opens up possibilities or slows down and limits what would be possible. Communication either creates value or creates waste. Communication either creates energy and inspiration or demeans and demotivates.

Information theory is not only unhelpful but harmful, when trying to understand communication between human beings. Communication is not about sharing information but a process of formation.

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Thank you Karl-Erik Sveiby and Doug Griffin. What a great meeting!

Contributions from many to participate with one

The nature of the relationship between customers and firms has changed dramatically. For over a hundred years, companies have assumed that consumers are an undifferentiated mass. Lately, we have moved through different degrees of market segmentation. Today, we have reached a point where the latest interaction technologies are creating an entirely new dynamic between the firm and the people we used to call consumers. Tomorrow firms will compete in making unique customer experiences possible.

The traditional approach was that the firm created value and then exchanged it with its customers. This firm-centric view of value creation is now being replaced by customers’ contextual experiences and co-created value. Value is created in interaction, but outside the corporate firewall. Even if a company is dealing with a very, very large number of customers, the firm must focus on one customer at a time.

We are in a world in which value is determined by co-created experiences – all a bit alike but all a bit different.

During the still (mentally) prevailing industrial era, most firms were vertically integrated. It was only around twenty-something years ago that firms started to source components from outside, from suppliers on a large scale. Today it is natural to rely on global supply chains. This is because the business goal is to access the most competent, knowledgeable sources and paradoxically, at the same time the lowest-cost producers. Access to resources and resource allocation is today by default multi-vendor, crowdsourced and global.

The changing relationships with customers and vendors are the main drivers behind the new ecosystems for communication and participation.

These trends also explain the situation we are in at the moment. The network is the architecture of work. People need to communicate and participate in order to invite contributions and to co-create unique experiences. It is about the relational view. It is not necessary to own the contributing parties. Capacity to connect and cooperate is what is needed. Cooperation is the new competition.

The world we live in today is in many ways the polar opposite of what we have been used to. The management challenge in the era of social media is to invite and combine the contributions of many in order to participate with one (at a time).

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Thank you C K

The social business redefining what binds individuals together

Almost all leadership concepts start with the assumption that a key role for the leader is to set a direction. This usually means designing and communicating a vision and a set of goals. Traditionally, the roles of vision and goals have been there to help people to understand the direction of the enterprise and how they can contribute to it. Today we need something more.

We need to redefine what binds individuals together. Separate individuals subscribing to the vision may not be enough if people don’t connect with one another. What we are striving to do is not enough if there is no discussion about who we are, and why we do the things we do. We cannot talk about an organization of people without referring to what makes them a collective.

Leadership in the era of the social business should be about providing a platform for discussing the meaning of work and the collective identity.

Leadership should address the human search for being part of something larger than one’s self. The more gifted people are, the more they want to connect with meaningful people doing meaningful things together.

As almost all organizations are becoming increasingly diverse and network-like, and as all boundaries are increasingly flexible, the notion of what brings people together is becoming even more critical.

When we think of intelligence, we usually think of extraordinary individuals. We imagine the thought processes of independent geniuses innovating in isolation. Nothing could be further away from the reality. Creativity is an interactive and social process for even the most gifted. Significant creative breakthroughs almost always represent years of sustained collaboration with others. Creative individuals need both independence and interdependence to do their best work. A creative organization thrives on the tension that arises from widely different but complementary abilities and views working with one another.

In industrial management, employees were taken for granted and had no choice or voice. The foundations of work relationships are still largely built on asymmetrical relationships between the employer and the employee, the manager and the worker. This antagonism is already affecting labor markets in developed countries: firms are finding it increasingly hard to hire good people. Younger people are more and more attracted to self-employment and entrepreneurial possibilities instead of joining a corporation.

The ideas and technological solutions around the social enterprise can help renew and refresh outdated approaches to work.

The social business is very different from the industrial corporation. In order to be successful, the firm needs to listen and involve people in the same manner that we are today trying to do with one group – customers. Successful corporations, no matter how large and established, are evolving collectives of talented, passionate and diverse individuals in interaction

Knowledge workers want to have a say in what they do in life; where and when they work and most importantly – why and with whom!

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More on the subject: New social networks. David Weinberger on impractical knowledge and knowledge is the network. Douglas Rushkoff on the future of jobs.

Coworking spaces in London, and Amsterdam and co-working as a phenomena.

Reinventing Capitalism

Economist Brian Arthur from the Santa Fe Institute argues that the ever increasing role of knowledge in value creation makes the foundations of economics badly outdated. Likewise, Peter Drucker predicted that “knowledge may come to occupy the place in the politics of the knowledge-based society which property and income occupied over the three centuries that we have come to call the age of capitalism.”

Luckily, an important and growing body of research and writing is exploring the theoretical nature of capital-centric enterprises. Although most of these efforts are still sketchy, they may well lead to normative implications concerning the allocation of claims and control rights in firms. If this happens, the new approaches may be very different from those principal-agent models that are the norm in capital-centric firms today.

In principal-agent models, employees are viewed as agents of the (managers of the) firm, and the managers of firms are viewed as agents of the shareholders. The only right management challenge is then to design the terms of the relationships in a way that will encourage the agents to behave in ways that benefit the principals.

The firm is viewed as a contracting mechanism between providers of financial capital (the principals) and managers (the agents). Principal-agent models are extremely influential in corporate governance and have in reality formed the basis of mainstream compensation structures.

As early as 1964 Gary Becker coined the term “human capital” to refer to the fact that many of the skills and knowledge required to do knowledge work could only be acquired if “some investment was made in time and resources”.

In his seminal work, Becker considered the implications of the fact that some of the knowledge and skills acquired by employees have a much higher value in some relationships than they do in others. The labor services of employees with specialized skills can thus no longer be modeled as undifferentiated, generic inputs, for which wages and quantity, the number of employees, and the number of hours of work, are determined. Once employees are understood to have specialized skills, it matters which employee does what tasks for what firm. With context-specific human capital, the productivity of a particular individual depends not just on being part of a firm, but on being part of a particular group of people engaged in a particular task.

More importantly, once acquired, knowledge and skills that are specialized are assets that are at risk following the very same logic as that by which financial assets are at risk.

Is human capital then conceptually the same as financial capital and should investors in firm specific human capital also be seen as principals? Should employees be shareholders? Should capitalism accordingly create a much larger number of capitalists?

According to the mainstream principal-agent view of the firm, a corporation is understood to be something apart from each of its participants. The nexus of investments view suggested here offers a view of corporations that stresses willing participation by both financial investors and human capital investors, and the ability of both parties to protect their interests. A firm is essentially about creating long-term contracts when short-term contracts are too bothersome. Reinventing capitalism is about renegotiating many of the things that we have too long taken for granted.

I believe that everybody will benefit, if, in the future, a larger number of workers think like owners and act like investors.

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Thank you Brian Arthur, Steve Denning, John Hagel, Umair Haque, Gary Becker, Margaret Blair, Ronald Coase, Oliver Williamson, Harold Demsetz, Oliver Hart and Jeff Gates

Background reading. Robert H. Frank in the Boston Globe.