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Per Bylund: The Austrian School Approach to Business versus the Business School Approach

Business is a form of applied economics. Its purpose is to make people’s lives better. Profit is the signal from society that business is doing a good job in the customer’s estimation. This is a completely human system, a form of human action and interaction. Business schools take the approach of mainstream economics, that mathematics is the tool of choice, expressed in data analytics, accounting, financialization, and numbers-based plans and strategies. The Austrian school approach offers a very different path. Professor Per Bylund joins the Economics For Business podcast to highlight some important differences.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Business logic based on understanding subjective value.

The purpose of business to facilitate customer value. The pursuit of new economic value brings new firms into existence, the continuing realization of new value experiences for customers results in business growth, and recurrent refreshment of value propositions keeps businesses thriving and healthy.

Consequently, value is fundamental to business. Yet it is widely misunderstood. Sometimes it’s misconstrued as shareholder value, a function of stock price performance. Usually, it’s financialized as a set of numbers and indexes.

True value is in the mind of the customer. It’s the experience of feeling better off as result of interacting with a business — making a purchase, taking a subscription, or using a service that makes life feel better, and that feels like a superior choice compared to alternatives.

Customers decide what to value, and therefore what to purchase, and thereby decide the success of a business. All businesses must learn this value logic, and Austrian economics for business provides the understanding that points to the implications for business action.

Thinking in subjective terms.

An understanding of subjective value reverses the flow of business thinking. It’s easy and conventional to think in objective terms about products and prices — what a firm produces and offers and the price the firm charges. It’s harder and somewhat counter-intuitive for businesses to think about how each individual customer feels — what’s important to them, individually and personally, about the unique ecosystem in which they make their choices (e.g., their family profile, what kind of a house they live in, or the subjective resource allocation priorities of each of the individual firm they work for).

The customer decides what is valuable to them, and that’s the basis from which business action must proceed.

Value-guided creativity.

Business is a creative discipline. Because customer preferences and priorities are continuously changing, because competition is continuously aiming at making a superior customer proposition, because technology is continuously making new benefits and new customer experiences possible, and because we can’t possibly know how all this will work out in the future, businesses must always be changing, improving, adding, renewing, becoming somehow better in the future than they are today.

The only way to invent the future in this way is through creativity — new ideas, new combinations, new routes to convenience, new removal of barriers. Creativity can be random and unpredictable — we don’t know what is going to be successful out of all our creative ideas. Therefore, we apply constraints so that creativity operates within productive boundaries, and the generative constraint is customer value. If all our creative ideas are guided by the constraint of “will the customer find this more valuable”, then the opportunity for productive innovation is greater. If we place ourselves in the shoes of customers, and try to simulate what they will feel when they experience a new value proposition, we’re on the track to business success. This is value-guided creativity.

Business as a flow.

Business schools emphasize planning and strategy (and strategies are often just long-term, bigger plans). These are tools of prediction and control — predict the future (we will achieve $10 million in annual revenue this year) and control how we get there (100 salespeople must sell $100,000 each). The numbers can fill a spreadsheet.

Similarly with organization design: the spreadsheet in this case is an org chart, with layers and reporting pathways and divisions and units, another exercise in statics.

The Austrian recognition of constant change results in re-thinking business as a flow. Thinking in statics is potentially disastrous because the world can change while your firm does not. Thinking dynamically opens the firm to feedback loops from the marketplace, listening to customers and monitoring when their preferences change or competition shifts, and being open to adapting and adjusting.

Organization design gives way to orchestration, the constantly changing arrangements dedicated to the improvement of the customer’s value experience.

Every business can and must act entrepreneurially.

Our term for the orientation towards and capacity for constant change — constant pursuit of new customer value — is entrepreneurship.

In the popular vernacular, the word entrepreneurship has come to be associated with charismatic individuals, like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Reed Hastings. They are identified as the instigators of and catalysts for new value generation. That’s fine — such individuals are important in challenging the status quo. But for effective and commercial and sustainable new value generation, the entire firm must be entrepreneurial — highly sensitive to how a particular configuration of resources and a particular business model and value proposition serves customers, and to changes in the business environment that require adjustment on the firm’s part. The firm must be flexible enough to make these adjustments. Often, the market data comes to the firm from the edge, where front line employees working directly with customers gather the inbound information about change. The entrepreneurial firm ensures that the new information flows freely and is acted upon, and gives those closest to the customer the authority to make responsive changes.

Business schools often teach static and defensive concepts such as economies of scale and competitively insulated market structures. Business for them is production management. Business from the Austrian school perspective is value discovery, value facilitation and responsive change in the form of new products, new services, and new value.

Entrepreneurial empathy as a tool.

When we think of business tools highlighted in business schools, we might think of strategic planning, data analytics, accounting, process management, incentive compensation, and financialization.

The tool of choice for the entrepreneurial firm is empathy. Empathy is customer-first thinking. It focuses on identifying and understanding what customers feel is missing in their life, what they long for and wish for. There’s a gap between customers’ actual experiences and their desired experiences. They can’t articulate solutions, but they’re brilliant at identifying the potential for improvement. If the customer feels that some experiences could be better, or that they’re struggling in some capacity with an experience, that’s a signal for the creative entrepreneurial firm to experiment with new ways to deliver that betterment.

Entrepreneurial firms create better futures for their customers via empathy. They bring customers new things that they can want, that weren’t available to them in the past or of which they were not aware.

It’s not all numbers.

Just as mainstream economics has been rendered irrelevant and meaningless to real people because of its insistence on the use of algebra and mathematical models instead of real world observations, so mainstream business schools have made business into a world of spreadsheets, accounting, data analysis, bar charts and graphs, and structures and formulas.

Austrian school business thinkers understand the role of qualitative assessment — understanding people as humans as opposed to statistics, understanding emergent processes, understanding feelings and subjective value, and that the things that matter to people, both employees and customers, are values not numbers.

That’s why narrative and sense-making stories are taking the place of plans and strategies. Software development provides a good example: user experience design is a narrative about how customers prefer to interact with the software they are using, rather than a focus on lines of code.

Action and feedback loops.

The ultimate replacement for business school concepts of planning and strategy is action. Entrepreneurship is action. Action generates an effect — a feedback loop from the marketplace that signals the result of the action. The customer purchased or did not purchase. The rating improved or worsened. Revenue grew or declined. In the A/B test, B was preferred.

The feedback loop is processed as learning, and new decisions can be made and new actions taken based on that learning, eliminating some possibilities, and opening up others. Innovation is introduced to the market and new learning follows new innovation in a continuous loop.

In the thinking of entrepreneurial action, acting faster and sooner is better, because the effect is generated faster, the feedback loop accelerates, and the resulting new action is fresher and and more responsive to the customer’s needs. When action is bolder and more daring, the feedback loop is more informative and clearer in its signals. The future unfolds as a result of entrepreneurial action.

Entrepreneurs don’t act alone or in isolation. The unfolding of the future is the consequence of many actions on the part of many people and firms. The market, therefore, is a process. Action and reaction keep it moving in unpredictable ways — resulting in what complexity theorists call emergence.

The Austrian School is a complete system for business.

We didn’t have sufficient time with Professor Bylund in the podcast format to cover the complete range of business functions, including marketing and accounting and business model design, but these are all improved and enhanced by what we can call the Austrian approach. The goal of Economics For Business is to deliver this complete system in the form of tools, posts, articles, papers, books, videos, and podcasts like this one.

Additional Resources

Austrian School Versus Business School: A side-by-side comparison (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_187_PDF

How To Think About The Economy: A Primer by Per Bylund: Mises.org/Primer 

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