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Free Your Talent and the Rest Will Follow

Imagine two great cities. Both are blessed with world-class universities, high-tech companies, and a concentration of highly educated professionals. Which will grow faster? Which will become the envy and aspiration for industrial hubs all around the world?

Such was the reality for two emerging regions in the 1970s: California’s Silicon Valley and the high-tech hub of Massachusetts Route 128. Each region benefited from established cities (San Francisco and Boston), strong nearby universities (University of California-Berkeley/Stanford and Harvard/MIT), and large pools of talented people.

We’ve all heard about Silicon Valley, but not so much Route 128. Despite their similarities, and despite the Bostonian hub having three times more jobs than Silicon Valley in the 1970s, Silicon Valley eventually overtook Route 128 in number of start-ups, number of jobs, salaries per capita, and invention rates.

The distinguishing factor for Silicon Valley was an economic environment of openness and mobility. For more than a century, dating back to 1872, California has banned post-employment restrictions. The California Business and Professions Code voids every contract that restrains someone from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business. This means that unlike most other states, California’s policy favors open competition and the right to move from job to job without constraint. California courts have repeatedly explained that this ban is about freeing up talent, allowing skilled people to move among ventures for the overall gain of California’s economy.

The data confirm this intuition: Silicon Valley is legendary for the success of employees leaving stable jobs to work out of their garages, starting new ventures that make them millionaires overnight. Stories are abundant of entire teams leaving a large corporation to start a competitive firm. Despite these risks, California employers don’t run away. On the contrary, they seek out the Valley as a prime location to do business. Despite not having the ability to require non-compete clauses from their employees, California companies compete lucratively on a global scale. These businesses think of the talent wars as a repeat game and find other ways to retain the talent they need most.

In fact, the competitive talent policy is also supported by a market spirit of openness and collaboration. Even when restrictions are legally possible—for example, in trade secret disputes—Silicon Valley firms frequently choose to look the other way. Sociologist Annalee Saxenian, who studied the industrial cultures of both Silicon Valley and Route 128 in Massachusetts, found that while Boston’s Route 128 developed a culture of secrecy, hierarchy, and a conservative attitude that feared exchanges and viewed every new company as a threat, Silicon Valley developed an opposing ethos of fluidity and networked collaborations. These exchanges of the Valley gave it an edge over the autarkic environment that developed on the East Coast. In Massachusetts, firms are more likely to be vertically integrated—or to have internalized most production functions—and employee movement among firms occurs less frequently. 

New research considering these different attitudes and policy approaches toward the talent wars supports California’s modus operandi.

A recent study by the Federal Reserve and the National Bureau of Economic Research examined job mobility in the nation’s top 20 metropolitan areas and found that high-tech communities throughout California—not only Silicon Valley—have greater job mobility than equivalent communities in other states. Network mapping of connections between inventors also reveals that Silicon Valley has rapidly developed denser inventor networks than other high-tech hubs have.

Researching over two million inventors and almost three million patents over three decades, a 2007 Harvard Business School study by Lee Fleming and Keon Frenken observes a dramatic aggregation of the Silicon Valley regional networks at the beginning of the 1990s. Comparing Boston to Northern California, the study finds that Silicon Valley mushroomed into a giant inventor network and a dense superstructure of connectivity, as small isolated networks came together. By the new century, almost half of all inventors in the area were part of the super-network. By contrast, the transition in Boston occurred much later and much less dramatically.

Michigan provides a natural experiment for understanding the consequences of constraining talent mobility. Until the mid-1980s, Michigan, like California, had banned non-competes. In 1985, as part of an overarching antitrust reform, Michigan began allowing non-competes, like most other states. Several new studies led by MIT Sloan professor Matt Marx look at the effects of this change on the Michigan talent pool. The studies find that not only did mobility drop, but that also once non-competes became prevalent, the region experienced a continuous brain drain: Its star inventors became more likely to move elsewhere, mainly to California. In other words, California gained twice: once from its intra-regional mobility supported by a strong policy that favors such flows, and once from its comparative advantage over regions that suppress mobility.

A virtuous cycle can be put into motion geographically where talent mobility supports professional networks, which in turn enhance regional innovation. Firms can learn to love these environments of high risk and even higher gain. Rather than thinking of every employee who leaves the company as a threat and an enemy, smart companies are beginning to think of their former employees as assets, just as universities wish for the success of their alumni. Companies like Microsoft and Capital One have established networks of alumni. They showcase their former employees’ achievements and practicing rehiring of their best talent, hoping that at least some of those who leave will soon realize that the grass is not always greener elsewhere.

Most importantly, motivation and performance are triggered by commitment and positive incentives to stay, rather than threats and legal restrictions against leaving. In behavioral research I’ve conducted with my co-author On Amir, we find that restrictions over mobility can suppress performance and cause people to feel less committed to the task. Cognitive controls over skill, knowledge, and ideas are worse than controls over other forms of intellectual property because they prevent people from using their creative capacities, they don’t just prevent firms from using inventions that are already out there. So instead of requiring non-competes or threatening litigation over intellectual property, California companies use rewards systems, creating the kind of corporate cultures where employees want to work and do well. Again, a double victory.

Unsurprisingly, when Forbes recently looked at the most inventive cities in the country for 2013 using OECD data, the two top cities were in California: bio-tech haven San Diego, and the legendary home of Silicon Valley, San Francisco. Boston, still vibrant and highly innovative despite its most restrictive attitudes, came in third. Competition is the lifeblood of any economy, and fierce competition over people is the essence of the knowledge economy.

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