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What Firms Do? Coordination, Identity, and Learning


  • Bruce Kogut

    (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104)

  • Udo Zander

    (Stockholm School of Economics, Stockholm, Sweden)


Firms are organizations that represent social knowledge of coordination and learning. But why should their boundaries demarcate quantitative shifts in the knowledge and capability of their members? Should not knowledge reside also in a network of interacting firms?This line of questioning presents the challenge to state an alternative view to the “theory of the firm,” a theory that has moved from Coase's early treatment of what firms do to a concern with ownership, incentives, and self-interest. We return to Coase's original insight in understanding the cost and benefits of a firm but based on a view that individuals are characterized by an “unsocial sociality.” Does the perception of opportunism generate the need to integrate market transactions into the firm, or do boundaries of the firm lead to the attribution of opportunism?This basic dichotomy between self-interest and the longing to belong is the behavioral underpinning to the superiority of firms over markets in resolving a fundamental dilemma: productivity grows with the division of labor but specialization increases the costs of communication and coordination. The knowledge of the firm has an economic value over market transactions when identity leads to social knowledge that supports coordination and communication. Through identification, procedural rules are learned, and coordination and communication are facilitated across individuals and groups of diverse specialized competence.A firm is distinct from a market because coordination, communication, and learning are situated not only physically in locality, but also mentally in an identity. Since identity implies a moral order as well as rules of exclusion, there are limitations and costs to relying upon a firm for exchange as opposed to the market. These costs are not necessarily those traditionally assigned to the category of decreasing returns to hierarchy. For example, an identity implies that some practices, and businesses, may be notionally inconsistent with each other. Norms of procedural justice that are identified with a firm imply that not all technically feasible complements are permissible within the logic of a shared identity. There is consequently a cost to an identity that offsets the benefits. Because the assemblage of elements that compose an organization are subject to requirements of consistency, identities rule out potentially interesting avenues of innovation and creativity.We illustrate these ideas by returning to the original prisoners’ dilemma game and by an analysis of the coherence of a firm as a search for complements that are consistent with norms of procedural justice. We argue that the underlying dynamic of a prisoners' dilemma game reveals the problems of coordination, communication, and conflicts in norms of justice when players are deprived of social knowledge and shared identity. Similarly, the determination of a firm's coherence arises out of the demand for a moral and notional consistency in the “categorization” of its activities, as opposed to a technological necessity. These ideas are illustrated through an empirical examination of logical complements in high performance work systems.

Suggested Citation

  • Bruce Kogut & Udo Zander, 1996. "What Firms Do? Coordination, Identity, and Learning," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 7(5), pages 502-518, October.
  • Handle: RePEc:inm:ororsc:v:7:y:1996:i:5:p:502-518
    DOI: 10.1287/orsc.7.5.502

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    knowledge; identity; coordination; complementarities;


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