Specializing in Generality: Firm Strategies When Intermediate Markets Work
45 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2018
Date Written: March 2018
This paper studies the relationship between two decisions shaping the organizational configuration of a firm: whether to make the upstream resources more general and deployable to more markets (vs. keeping them tailored to a few markets), and whether to trade with downstream firms as an upstream supplier of intermediate products and services (vs. directly entering downstream markets). While the literature has looked at these two decisions separately, we argue that they depend on each other. This has the important implication that they can generate organizational complementarities, inducing firms to implement them simultaneously. We are motivated in particular by the observation that an increasing number of firms invest in general upstream resources and exploit them as upstream suppliers of intermediate services or products-an organizational configuration resulting from a strategy that we refer to as specialization in generality. Interestingly, the literature following the seminal work by Penrose (1959) and Nelson (1959) has mainly highlighted the use of general upstream resources to enter new downstream markets. We identify the supply and demand conditions under which specialization in generality is instead more likely to emerge: lack of prior downstream assets, on the supply side, and a roughly equal distribution of buyers across intermediate markets (a "broad" demand), on the demand side. We test our predictions using a sample of firms in the U.S. laser industry between 1993 and 2001. A regulatory shock that increases the value of trading relative to downstream entry provides the setting for a quasi-natural experiment, which corroborates our theoretical predictions.
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