Information Technology and Boundary of the Firm: Evidence from Plant-Level Data
Executive Summary — It has long been believed that information technology (IT) has the potential to shift the boundaries surrounding where production takes place. Specifically, networked IT investments are supposed to reduce costs of monitoring behavior of internal and external partners, thereby improving incentives and reducing the risk of opportunistic behavior. Networked IT can also reduce costs of coordinating economic activity within and between firms. This study, by Chris Forman and Kristina McElheran, explores how IT investments influence vertical integration in supply chain relationships. Key concepts include:
- The adoption of supplier-focused IT has an economically and statistically significant negative impact on the percentage of downstream within-firm transfers.
- Somewhat surprisingly, adoption of customer-focused IT has no significant effect on the percentage of downstream transfers.
- Adoption of supplier-focused IT has the largest impact on within-firm transfers when adopted in conjunction with customer-focused IT.
We study the relationship between different margins of information technology (IT) use and vertical integration using plant-level data from the U.S. Census of Manufactures. Focusing on the short-run decision of whether to allocate production output to downstream plants within the same firm or to external customers, we find that customer-focused IT, by itself, has surprisingly little impact. In contrast, adoption of upstream supplier-focused IT at a plant is associated with a significant decline in downstream vertical integration. However, the greatest decline in within-firm transfers occurs when supplier- and customer-facing IT are adopted together, suggesting the presence of complementarities in supply chain technology adoption. These results are consistent with the view that, by reducing external coordination costs, IT investments promote a decline in plant-level vertical integration, but only when those investments are made jointly with both suppliers and customers. Our results provide less support for the view that IT investments led to a decline in vertical integration by lowering transactions risks.