The Distinct Effects of Information Technology and Communication Technology on Firm Organization

by Nicholas Bloom, Luis Garicano, Raffaella Sadun & John Van Reenen

Overview — At what point in the corporate food chain are big decisions made? It depends on technology, according to new research, which finds that information-based software will help to push decisions further down the corporate ladder, whereas communication technologies will push decisions up to the top. Research was conducted by Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University; Assistant Professor Raffaella Sadun of Harvard Business School; and Luis Garicano and John Van Reenen of the London School of Economics. Key concepts include:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning software is a decentralizing technology: It provides information that enables lower-level managers to make more decisions without consulting their superiors.
  • By the same token, Computer Assisted Design software creates a situation in which the worker needs less access to superiors in order to make a decision.
  • On the other hand, the better the data network, the easier it is for workers to communicate with their superiors and to rely on them to make decisions.

Author Abstract

Empirical studies on information communication technologies (ICT) typically aggregate the "information" and "communication" components together. We show theoretically and empirically that this is problematic. Information and communication technologies have very different effects on the decisions taken at each level of an organization. Better information access pushes decisions down, as it allows for superior decentralized decision making without an undue cognitive burden on those lower in the hierarchy. Better communication pushes decisions up, as it allows employees to rely on those above them in the hierarchy to make decisions. Using an original dataset of firms from the U.S. and seven European countries we study the impact of ICT on worker autonomy, plant manager autonomy, and span of control. Consistent with the theory we find that better information technologies (Enterprise Resource Planning, ERP, for plant managers and CAD/CAM for production workers) are associated with more autonomy and a wider span of control. By contrast, communication technologies (like data networks) decrease autonomy for both workers and plant managers. Treating technology as endogenous using instrumental variables (distance from the birthplace of ERP and heterogeneous telecommunication costs arising from different regulatory regimes) strengthens our results.

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