Oliver Williamson: Not Examining All Costs Can Really Cost You

Posted: 07/04/2011 - 23:45

In anticipation of the return of Kate Vitasek’s column “The Academics of Sourcing,” Outsource is pleased to showcase some of her best articles from the archives.

“The Academics of Sourcing” is a series that regularly shares some of the best academic insights and translates the learnings from academia into sound advice for practitioners.

Read on to get reacquainted with Kate Vitasek’s insight and experience into the world of sourcing and the academics behind it. 

Many of the economists I’ve highlighted in this space, from Coase (do the math!) to Nash (win-win behavioral economics) to Solow (importance of innovation and technology) laid the economic foundation for outsourcing. Another Nobel laureate, Oliver Williamson, has taken those threads, added a few of his own and weaved them directly into modern outsourcing, which makes him, in my mind, the most influential. 

Williamson, professor emeritus of business, economics and law at the University of California at Berkeley, took transaction cost analysis to a new and seminal level with the concept of ‘transaction cost economics’ (TCE). TCE looks at all the costs of doing business, including: the contracting process; how organizations behave with regard to the contract; and how people behave during contract negotiations. 

Over a long career Williamson applied TCE directly to the vagaries of outsourcing and to the cost of contracting. His article in the April 2008 Journal of Supply Chain Management (“Outsourcing: Transaction Cost Economics and Supply Chain Management”) examined outsourcing from the TCE perspective. Williamson states that “all complex contracts will be incomplete – there will be gaps, errors, omissions and the like,” and he advises that organizations shift to contracts with a more flexible framework. Williamson advises that having a contract that is too rigorous ultimately leads to higher transaction costs and that companies should create mechanisms that preserve continuity and that can cope with unanticipated disturbances as they arise. 

I like to think of it as “business happens.” In short, we need to create outsourcing deals that embrace change, rather than fight about it. One of my favorite lessons from Williamson is that your style of working with suppliers matters. Williamson states that “muscular buyers not only use their suppliers, but they often ‘use up’ their suppliers and discard them.” Organizations that flex their “muscle” to gain an advantage over suppliers may have a short-term win, but they will lose over the long term. He stresses the need for companies to use a “credible” style of contracting that builds long-term trust. 

One tactic that Williamson says is effective for building trust is to leave money on the table when it comes to negotiating. It may sound counter-intuitive, but when striking a strong business relationship, leaving money on the table can signal a constructive intent to work cooperatively and helps build an environment that is credible from start to finish. 

Williamson also takes Nash’s concept of win-win behavioral economics out of the theoretical realm of strategy and into the reality of contracting by showing that the contract itself can have negative impacts on business if an organization does not think clearly about how to structure and negotiate the contract properly. It goes without saying that Williamson is an advocate of win-win thinking with his clear advocacy for creating contracts with “mutual advantage.” 

For those interested in learning more about Oliver Williamson’s Nobel Prize winning work, the University of Tennessee teamed with Georgia Southern University, Cranfield School of Business, and the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management to produce a white paper titled “Unpacking Oliver: 10 Lessons to Improve Collaborative Outsourcing”, which is available for a free download at the Vested Outsourcing site. I like Williamson’s thoughts on outsourcing because he digs beyond the numbers to substantiate the value of a collaborative, win-win approach to outsourcing. 

It is the best academic work I’ve seen that shows how to address contract and governance structures in developing advanced, collaborative outsourced relationships. The bottom line on Williamson’s work is that the bottom line is not always apparent; the contracting process is full of the hidden costs of doing business. 

I think Williamson brilliantly captured mathematically what my mamma always told me: you get what you pay for.

About The Author

Kate Vitasek's picture

Kate Vitasek is an international authority for her award-winning research and Vested business model for highly collaborative relationships. She is the author of six books on the Vested model and a faculty member at the University of Tennessee. She has been lauded by World Trade Magazine as one of the “Fabulous 50+1” most influential people impacting global commerce.