Good managers, not machines, drive productivity growth – John Van Reenen

MIT Sloan Professor John Van Reenen

From Bloomberg View

When people discuss what drives long-run productivity, they usually focus on technical change. But productivity is about more than robots, new drugs and self-driving vehicles. First, if you break down the sources of productivity across nations and firms there is a large residual left over (rather inelegantly named “Total Factor Productivity” or TFP for short). And observable measures of technology can only account for a small fraction of this dark matter.

On top of this, a huge number of statistical analyses and case studies of the impact of new technologies on firm performance have shown that there is a massive variation in its impact. What’s much more important than the amount spent on fancy tech is the way managerial practices are used in the firms that implement the changes.

Although there is a tradition in economics starting with the 19th-century American economist Francis Walker on the importance of management for productivity, it has been largely subterranean. Management is very hard to measure in a robust way, so economists have been happy to delegate this task to others in the case study literature in business schools.

Managers are more frequently the butt of jokes from TV shows like “The Office” to “Horrible Bosses,” than seen as drivers of growth. But maybe things are now changing.

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