Worker Problem-Solving and the Nature of the Firm: New Theory, New Evidence

26 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2015

See all articles by Peter Dorman

Peter Dorman

Evergreen State College

Heike Nolte

University of Applied Sciences Emden-Leer

Date Written: June 5, 2015


This paper proposes a different theory of the firm and demonstrates how it can be employed to yield hypotheses about differences in innovation and human resource strategy according to the shareholder/stakeholder and liberal/coordinated market dichotomies. The theory assumes that feasible production and demand sets are nonconvex due to interaction among activities; thus firms exist to permit the identification and exploitation of profit opportunities through coordinated action. This implies that firms face a nonconvex profit landscape comparable to the fitness landscapes invoked in evolutionary biology. Given the complexity of these landscapes and the uncertainty of the location of profit hills, there is a tradeoff between exploiting existing or adjacent hills and prospecting for more distant ones: the first minimizes risk, the second maximizes potential profit. A further assumption is then introduced, that shareholder firms seek to maximizes the present value of expected future profit streams, while stakeholder firms maximize the likelihood of achieving profitability over a given time horizon. Combining these theoretical priors, we characterize the likely innovation, organizational and human resource characteristics of the two types of firms and the effects exerted by their external environment, as described in the Varieties of Capitalism literature. These theoretical predictions are confirmed in a set of case studies of a stakeholder firm in liberal and coordinated environments and a shareholder firm in a coordinated environment. This is seen through differences in the role of worker problem-solving, which brings together innovation and learning, organizational structure and human resource strategy.

Keywords: theory of the firm, nonconvexity, profit landscape, worker problem-solving, varieties of capitalism

JEL Classification: D21, D23, J24, J53, L21, L22, L23, L62, L66, M11, M12, M53, M54, P52

Suggested Citation

Dorman, Peter and Nolte, Heike, Worker Problem-Solving and the Nature of the Firm: New Theory, New Evidence (June 5, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Peter Dorman (Contact Author)

Evergreen State College ( email )

Olympia, WA 98505
United States
(360) 866-6000, X6899 (Phone)

Heike Nolte

University of Applied Sciences Emden-Leer ( email )

Constantiaplatz 4
Emden, 26723

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