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business growth

The things we do: Why work does not depend on demand

Roxanne Bauer's picture
Bureaucracy - MagritteWhen was the last time you finished a job in less time than was allocated to it?  Have you ever moved from a smaller to a larger home and discovered that your big, new home is somehow filled with stuff after a while? How about car parks or real estate developments that start out small, enlarge, and end up just as packed as before?

It’s human nature to fill the time and space available to us. This phenomenon, known as Parkinson’s Law, states that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” 

Other variations of the principle includeThe more money you earn the more money you spend,” or “The bigger the available space, the more junk it can hold.”

This principle comes from the opening line of a humorous essay by Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published in The Economist in 1955.  

The essay explains the results of a study he conducted of the British Civil Service. The British Civil Service grew between 1914-1928, with a noticeable rise in administrative positions and a concurrent decline in ‘fighting’ positions. In 1914 there were 2,000 Admiralty officials with this number growing to 3,569 in 1928, creating “a magnificent Navy on land.” The interesting part of this shift, however, is that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work.  The British Navy during that period had diminished by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. From 1922 onwards it was limited by the Washington Naval Agreement, signed among the major nations that had won World War I, which limited naval construction to prevent an arms race. Thus, the number of people employed in the bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire collapsed — an event that decreased the amount of work available.

New Ideas in Business Growth

Miriam Bruhn's picture

My colleague Bilal Zia and I organized a conference on New Ideas in Business Growth: Financial Literacy, Firm Dynamics and Entrepreneurial Environment that took place at the World Bank last Wednesday. The conference brought together researchers and policy makers in the area of private sector development to share new findings about the types of policy interventions that are effective at promoting business growth. We decided to focus the discussion on three topics that have recently received increased attention from both a research and a policy angle: 1) business and financial literacy training 2) the business environment and 3) corporate governance and firm dynamics. The selection of these three topics also raised a larger question in my mind—should the research community spend so much of its effort on microenterprises, when larger firms may have much higher growth potential? That’s a question I’ll return to at the end of the post.

In recent years, many governments, international institutions, and NGOs around the world have been providing business and financial literacy training for entrepreneurs. However, so far, we know relatively little about the impact of this training on business performance and growth. In an effort to contribute to filling this knowledge gap, Bilal and I conducted a randomized control trial in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where we collaborated with a microfinance institution and an NGO to provide business and financial literacy training to young entrepreneurs.