Outsourcing vertical integration: introducing the V-form network

Chris Berg, Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts are from the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub, the world’s first social science research centre into the economics, politics, sociology, and law of blockchain technology.

The Nobel laureate Oliver Williamson distinguishes between U-form companies and M-form companies.

Traditional U-form companies are unitary— their units are divided by business process (for instance, accounting, human resources, component manufacturing, assembly) and are not treated as separate cost centres.

M-form companies are multidivisional — their units are self-contained divisions that report profits and losses to an umbrella central body. They’re fully owned by a parent company, but they tend to have their own business services (accounting and human resources departments, for instance) and even market relationships.

But now we see a new corporate form — the V-form network — made possible because thanks to the application of distributed ledger technology to supply chain problems.

These V-form networks consist of a number of fully independent companies that effectively operate as one vertically integrated company through blockchain technology, coordinated and supplied by a third party.

This is a big change to the nature of the firm. We can already see V-form networks in the real world. They date as far back as January. It is surprising the economics community haven’t noticed them yet.

The IBM and Maersk TradeTech

Two weeks into 2018, IBM and the shipping giant Maersk announced a joint venture to develop a digital supply chain management system on their Hyperledger blockchain platform. Hyperledger is a private blockchain which requires permission to access.

In a previous Cryptoeconomics piece, we described how international trade is an information problem. As goods are shipped around the world, they are accompanied by information — really stacks of paperwork — that describe their provenance, destinations, regulatory and tax liabilities and so on.

In the IBM-Maersk system, each firm and bureaucracy in the supply chain — producers, shippers, port authorities, regulators, importers, retailers — will access and update a shared blockchain ledger containing all the information needed by each organisation.

And each organisation would have access to that information everywhere, ensuring complete visibility on where goods are in the world and which economic and regulatory hurdles they next need to overcome.

IBM and Maersk demo: Cross-border supply chain solution on blockchain

Before blockchains, there were only two basic ways to coordinate a supply chain: vertical integration, or regulation.

Vertical integration has problems. Large conglomerate firms struggle with the challenges of specialisation, and size tends to make firms less efficient.

Regulation has even worse problems. At the very minimum, regulation only works plausibly well within a single nation. The cost of multilateral harmonization — which includes things like treaties and global courts — is very high.

Blockchains can work to coordinate supply chains without the need for either (traditional) vertical integration or regulation. The vertical integration is outsourced to a distributed ledger. The blockchain provides the managerial service that coordinates each ‘unit’ (that is, firm) in the supply chain.

Regulators in any country can deal any firm in the supply chain as if it was a small unit of a larger, global company.

Each firm in the supply chain get the benefits of vertical integration through a network rather than a hierarchy.

The crucial role of IBM and Maersk

In this, the IBM and Maersk joint venture plays a novel economic role.

We’ve written in the past about the paradox of trust in the blockchain world: it takes a lot of trust to establish a trustless ledger.

Imagine a supply chain with seven firms in it: primary producer, manufacturer, exporter, shipper, importer, wholesaler, retailer. Each firm has an established and trusted business relationship with the firms above and below them on the supply chain. But do they have a similar relationship with those one- or two-steps removed? Would the wholesaler in one country necessarily trust the primary producer in another?

Flickr | Tinou Bao

A supply chain of two or three firms would be able to easily come to an agreement over shared digital systems. They wouldn’t even need a blockchain — market discipline would be enough to ensure stable coordination.

But firms which do not have direct market relationships with each other face a trust problem when they try to coordinate.

IBM-Maersk provide the trust. They are a large trusted firm that can broker a solution — get all parties around a table — and build the network.

This is a different sales and service model to the IBM of the 1960s. But not that different. With Hyperledger for supply chains, IBM is selling a single solution to multiple clients — just as they did with mainframes or do today with their Watson artificial intelligence machine.

It is only possible because IBM (and Maersk) has already built up deep client relations over past century or so. It is both trusted and has internal information and knowledge about client needs.

(A regulator has none of this information. Neither would a potential corporate raider attempting to vertically integrate through a merger and acquisition strategy.)

We expect to see competition between firms (IBM and and other full-stack technology/strategy/management consultants) to seek ongoing (that is, locked in) contracts for these sorts of services.

The innovative thing here is that they aren’t offering their services to individual firms. They are consulting to a group, or chain, or network of firms — a network that they may have themselves helped create. Economic coordination in the simplest sense of the term.

That’s why IBM is involved. But why is Maersk? The shipping company in this case is the firm with the most to gain from the adoption of the new technology and architecture — that is, which would benefit most from reducing the costs of the existing market architecture.

Vertical integration can be outsourced elsewhere

In the V-form network, the blockchain’s token establishes the consortium, and incentivizes cooperative behaviour.

The token also serves to move rents around the network. In this way, the blockchain provides a market mechanism to solve the sort of bargaining problems described by another Nobel laureate, Ronald Coase, that may occur as the network operates.

Outsourced vertical integration could be applied to many industries that are now integrated. Energy firms that currently integrate the exploration, production, generation, and retail of electricity might be better decomposed, with blockchains and tokens taking the place of head offices. The token economy, rather than energy regulators, could make decisions about the distribution of rents around the network.

We expect that a blockchain economy will have more, smaller firms linked together by protocols. One question — which we expect will preoccupy regulators for decades to come — is just how many protocols? It’s worth pointing out that these networks are inherently global, and any regulatory questions global as well.

Governments might be able to exploit the V-form network themselves. Instead of selling a vertically integrated state-owned asset to shareholders (and then controlling rents with price regulation) they could then privatise components directly on a blockchain network. Ports and airports might be privatised successfully in this way.

In that sense governments would provide the initial coordination now being provided by IBM and Maersk — a trusted third party to broker and establish a decentralised economic network.