Here are two facts we have known for a long time. One is that a firm acquiring another firm combines their assets, and that can give synergies if they have something that works better together than apart. That something can be any kind of asset, by the way, including knowledge or intellectual property. The other is that firms establish and change interfirm networks through forming and dissolving alliances with other firms, and they use alliances to gain synergies too. So far everything sounds conventional and straightforward.
But these two facts don’t tell the whole story. A firm acquiring another firm also combines their networks, and that can create synergies when the combined network is better than the original ones. In fact, it can change a network much more radically than just forming and dissolving alliances one by one. This third fact is the start of an article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Exequiel Hernandez and J. Myles Shaver, but the article does not end there. It also checks whether firms are deliberately choosing acquisition targets based on these network synergies.
The question is important. It speaks to how smart firms are in maneuvering and modifying interfirm networks, which is useful to know, especially because people are not particularly smart in modifying interpersonal networks. But firms are not people, and acquisitions are not normal firm actions – they are analyzed carefully, and networks could be one of the factors taken into account. They could even be more important for acquisitions than some of the assets that researchers have long obsessed over. After all, alliances are observable in advance, like physical assets are, but they are unique and therefore more strategic. The other unique and strategic assets in play are often people with knowledge, but they are known to sometimes leave a firm after it has been acquired, so it is pretty risky to acquire to get people. Alliances usually stay.
Network synergies are especially potent if they make the combined firm a better broker of knowledge because they connect to firms that are not themselves connected and do not have other shared connections (that’s called gaining structural holes). Brokers of knowledge can help create novelty and can reap more of its benefits. Synergies are also potent if they make the combined firm more central in the overall network, giving it higher status. Pretty much any combination of firm networks will improve brokerage and status, however, so it is not enough to see that this happens after an acquisition. What we need to know in order to look for deliberate choice of network synergy is whether the increase from the firm network that got acquired was better than the increase would have been for other firms that could have been acquired. Strategy is about choices, so a choice has to be compared with what was not chosen.
This is where Hernandez and Shaver make a fully convincing case for network synergies as an important factor in acquisitions. They studied biotech, where networks are very important, and so are assets like people and intellectual capital. Their analysis is impressive and leaves no doubt that the opportunity to combine networks and gain network synergies was an important factor in the choice of acquisition targets. That means we now have a new way of looking at acquisitions, and we are better able to tell what firms may get acquired, and what they were acquired for.