Technology and business are inextricably linked. Entrepreneurs harness technological advances and, with skill and luck, turn them into profitable products. Technology, in turn, changes how firms operate. Electricity enabled the creation of larger, more efficient factories, since these no longer needed to depend on a central source of steam power; email has done away with most letters. But new technologies also affect business in a subtler, more profound way. They alter not just how companies do things but also what they do—and, critically, what they don’t do.
The Industrial Revolution ended the “putting-out system”, in which companies obtained raw materials but outsourced manufacturing to self-employed craftsmen who worked at home and were paid by output. Factories strengthened the tie between workers, now employed directly and paid by the hour, and workplace. The telegraph, telephone and, in the last century, containerised shipping and better information technology (it), have allowed multinational companies to subcontract ever more tasks to ever more places. China became the world’s factory; India became its back office. Nearly three years after the pandemic began, it is clear that technology is once again profoundly redrawing the boundaries of the firm.