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Management article
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Reference no. 96401
Authors: William J Arthur
Published by: Harvard Business Publishing
Published in: "Harvard Business Review", 1996

Abstract

Our understanding of how markets and businesses operate is based on the assumption of diminishing returns: products or companies that get ahead in a market eventually run into limitations so that a predictable equilibrium of prices and market shares is reached. The theory was valid for the bulk-processing, smokestack economy of Alfred Marshall''s day. But in this century, Western economies have gone from processing resources to processing information, from the application of raw energy to the application of ideas. The mechanisms that determine economic behavior have also shifted--from diminishing returns to increasing returns. Increasing returns are the tendency for that which is ahead to get further ahead and for that which is losing advantage to lose further advantage. If a product gets ahead, increasing returns can magnify the advantage, and the product can go on to lock in the market.

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Abstract

Our understanding of how markets and businesses operate is based on the assumption of diminishing returns: products or companies that get ahead in a market eventually run into limitations so that a predictable equilibrium of prices and market shares is reached. The theory was valid for the bulk-processing, smokestack economy of Alfred Marshall''s day. But in this century, Western economies have gone from processing resources to processing information, from the application of raw energy to the application of ideas. The mechanisms that determine economic behavior have also shifted--from diminishing returns to increasing returns. Increasing returns are the tendency for that which is ahead to get further ahead and for that which is losing advantage to lose further advantage. If a product gets ahead, increasing returns can magnify the advantage, and the product can go on to lock in the market.

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