Moving Up the Value Chain
This is one of the most used and least defined phrases in discussions of business strategy and sometimes national policy also. It has been used to describe improving profitability, improving productivity, better marketing, innovation and a lot of other things. Moving up the value chain is always assumed to be a good thing. The “chain” itself is never described, nor is the process by which one is to move up it, or what will happen if everyone does this. The chain is apparently static, a kind of ladder on which one may climb from link to link, provided one has the right consultants and follows their advice.
This is not to say that value chains aren’t important. Global Value Chains (GVCs) are a big policy focus in industrial policy, and a subject of considerable analysis. But the terminology might need to be revised. Why a chain, anyway? As I have said elsewhere, the use of the word “chain” suggests something linear and also something fairly sturdy and difficult to break.
Such an image is not really helpful in trying to understand global production systems. In practice these often involve parallel sections, where there are multiple sources and destinations. Production location will often be determined by the need to be near supplies or near consumers, so duplicate plants will be needed. And the need to ensure continuous availability of inputs will often require supplies to be drawn from more than one source.
Earlier this year I had an interesting discussion with the Statistical Division of the United Nations. Apart from the huge range of activities they have in the established fields of data such as commodity trade, national accounts and so on, they are now taking an additional approach in order better to understand GVCs, selecting one sector and exploring it in depth, breaking it down by ownership and identifying business functions to see the impact of particular processing stages.
It’s great that this is being done at an international level. Firstly it complements the multisector work continuing in the OECD on so-called “trade in value added”. Secondly, by carrying it out at the UN Statistical Division, a body with huge experience in trade and industry data, the work can be contextualised more readily and can draw on co-operation from governments worldwide. Because of the reach and the impact of GVCs they are of strong policy interest, not just to individual governments in particular cases, but also to all concerned with the stability and future of the world economy.
Moving Up the Value Chain