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role of knowledge in value creation makes the foundations of economics and our thinking around firms badly outdated.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.