What use is economic theory in business? It’s indispensable. It’s the necessary starting point for all businesses, brands and projects. Only when you have mastered theory can you master the navigation of specific situations, and be confident in your good decision-making and judgment. Per Bylund explains.
Good business starts with good theory.
Any type of study of people — how they act, how they interact, what they are trying to achieve, how they make decisions — requires a theory. That includes business, by definition. There must be a conception of what it means to be a human actor in the marketplace, what it means to act and to choose. We can’t understand merely through observation. Businesses must, therefore, have a theory of human action.
Austrian economics provides that theory in the action axiom: human action is purposeful behavior. Via action, human beings are trying to accomplish something. When they choose means to achieve that accomplishment, we can observe their choice. But we need theory to understand the ends they have in mind. Since they don’t always succeed, we can’t always observe the ends. Theory provides us with a framework of understanding: we can interpret what they were trying to accomplish, and why they went about it the way they did, and the situational variables influencing their action, and how they might respond to the outcome.
Empirical observations and measurements are not only often impractical, they can also be deceiving.
We can’t always know what people are aiming for. Moreover, theory tells us that they are acting with respect to whatever they are perceiving — i.e., subjectively — which is not observable to a third party. It’s the same phenomenon if we try to observe the actions of a firm, perhaps a competitor, because firms are not observable. Institutions are not observable.
Yet, there are patterns of behavior that can be deduced from theory. And that is the great power of Austrian economics for business: to uncover what is actually happening that observation can’t tell us.
With a framework of theory in place, businesses can add data to explain specific situations.
Theory can’t fully explain any specific situation. And pure inductive observation of data can’t provide any understanding without theory. Therefore, a balance between those two is called for.
This was the advice of economist Frank H. Knight, and Per Bylund calls the balanced position between pure theory and pure data “Frank’s Way”. There’s a continuum from pure theory to pure history (i.e. facts only). Pure history starts from facts and tries to make sense of them. Pure theory explains the structure of a market or the economy and then fits actual phenomena into the theoretical structure in order to understand them.
The balanced position between the two extremes applies particularly to entrepreneurial economics. Entrepreneurial economics aims at an understanding both of customer choices and actions and of entrepreneurs acting on their own judgment. It’s not abstract. Entrepreneurs develop a theory so as to be able to apply it effectively in order to build business, and they judge the sufficiency of the theory by business results.
Entrepreneurs have an Austrian understanding of how the market works. They have a good theory — subjective value theory — about what customers value, and how they determine that value. Entrepreneurs have an Austrian understanding of capital as a flexible and variable source of consumer revenue streams. There are several more components of entrepreneurial theory that we cover in the Economics For Business series.
With their theory in place, entrepreneurs gather feedback from customers in specific situations. They gather responses to a value proposition. They test different prices to apply the theory of Exchange Value. Business is not a theory. It’s based on theory, applied in a specific situation, and it is the specific situation that must be well-managed in order to make a profit.
A sampling of some theories of entrepreneurial economics.
- The Means-Ends Chain. Customers choose means to achieve ends. Different customers have different ends. Means-ends theory helps entrepreneurs understand the ends their customers aim at. Some customers in the car market seek admiration of others by signaling social success. They might choose a Ferrari or Bentley as their means. A construction company owner might be seeking efficacy and efficiency in hauling materials, and chooses a pick-up truck. Both customers make choices via the same means-ends model, and their specific situations point to different choices on their respective routes.
- Diminishing Marginal Utility. This theory posits that in certain markets, a customer, having purchased a product or service, may perceive a lower value in the next unit. Having bought one Ferrari to meet the need for social approbation, to continue our analogy, the customer may not find a second one equally as desirable as the first. The construction company owner, on the other hand, may see equal value in adding another pick-up truck as business grows. Where that same pick-up truck buyer may find diminishing marginal utility is in the proliferation of accessories and bundled features in which he or she does not perceive value. Too many features bundled together may deter a purchase for reasons of diminishing marginal utility. These considerations are important to entrepreneurs in the design of loyalty programs and multiple-purchase discounts.
- Uncertainty Theory. Entrepreneurs exercise judgment under conditions of uncertainty. Austrian economists employ uncertainty theory to focus their theorizing about entrepreneurship in action. In specific situations, entrepreneurs must apply the theory by choosing the tools to use to overcome uncertainty, such as the explore and expand tool, which identifies the many experiments to run (explore) and then the broad deployment of those experiments that work (expand).
- Network Theory. Economies and markets are networks, and theory looks into the attributes of densely and loosely connected networks, and those that are wired in different ways. The theory can identify the possibility of “structural holes” in networks, where there are nodes that can be productively connected, yet stay unconnected. Entrepreneurs in specific situations can establish whether such a gap exists in their own network, and work actively to fill the gap and increase their productive capacity, e.g., by connecting to a new vendor or a new customer or a new resource.
- Entrepreneurial Process Theory. Entrepreneurship is a process, and theory can identify the most productive processual methods, and can employ entrepreneurial history to reconstruct how productive processes have worked well in the past. Entrepreneurs operating in the present, and designing processes for the future, can utilize process theory and its illustrative histories (Per Bylund calls these “biographies of processes”) to help them make the best design choices for the most robust processes. As an example, our N-A-B-C process for innovation is a theoretical framework that every entrepreneur can apply in their own specific circumstances to arrive at unique innovative solutions for their business and their customers.
Take time to think and time to theorize.
Theorizing is hard, rigorous work. It requires identification of the theories you are actually using (consciously or not) in your own mental model, and then relentlessly questioning them and examining them for internal consistency and external validity. Are there gaps or soft spots? Is there something that doesn’t quite sit right with you? If so, you then work to change your assumptions or figure out better elements to add, or extending the theory further.
It requires thinking, and thinking requires the allocation of time. Per Bylund urges us all to be good thinkers. “Think better, think Austrian,” as he says.