To provide goods and services, regardless of whether they operate in the for-profit or not-for-profit sector, organizations require inputs in the form of resources called factors of production. Four traditional factors of production are common to all productive activity: natural resources, labor (human resources), capital, and entrepreneurship. Many experts now include knowledge as a fifth factor, acknowledging its key role in business success. By using the factors of production efficiently, a company can produce more goods and services with the same resources.
Commodities that are useful inputs in their natural state are known as natural resources. They include farmland, forests, mineral and oil deposits, and water. Sometimes natural resources are simply called land, although, as you can see, the term means more than just land. Companies use natural resources in different ways. International Paper Company uses wood pulp to make paper, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company may use water, oil, or coal to produce electricity. Today urban sprawl, pollution, and limited resources have raised questions about resource use. Conservationists, environmentalists, and government bodies are proposing laws to require land-use planning and resource conservation.
Labor, or human resources, refers to the economic contributions of people working with their minds and muscles. This input includes the talents of everyone—from a restaurant cook to a nuclear physicist—who performs the many tasks of manufacturing and selling goods and services.
The tools, machinery, equipment, and buildings used to produce goods and services and get them to the consumer are known as capital. Sometimes the term capital is also used to mean the money that buys machinery, factories, and other production and distribution facilities. However, because money itself produces nothing, it is not one of the basic inputs. Instead, it is a means of acquiring the inputs. Therefore, in this context, capital does not include money.
Entrepreneurs are the people who combine the inputs of natural resources, labor, and capital to produce goods or services with the intention of making a profit or accomplishing a not-for-profit goal. These people make the decisions that set the course for their businesses; they create products and production processes or develop services. Because they are not guaranteed a profit in return for their time and effort, they must be risk-takers. Of course, if their companies succeed, the rewards may be great.
Today, many individuals want to start their own businesses. They are attracted by the opportunity to be their own boss and reap the financial rewards of a successful firm. Many start their first business from their dorm rooms, such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, or while living at home, so their cost is almost zero. Entrepreneurs include people such as Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, who was named the richest person in the world in 2017, as well as Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.1Kerry A. Dolan, “Forbes 2017 Billionaires List: Meet the Richest People on the Planet,” Forbes, March 20, 2017. Many thousands of individuals have started companies that, while remaining small, make a major contribution to the U.S. economy.
A number of outstanding managers and noted academics are beginning to emphasize a fifth factor of production—knowledge. Knowledge refers to the combined talents and skills of the workforce and has become a primary driver of economic growth. Today’s competitive environment places a premium on knowledge and learning over physical resources. Recent statistics suggest that the number of U.S. knowledge workers has doubled over the last 30 years, with an estimated 2 million knowledge job openings annually. Despite the fact that many “routine” jobs have been replaced by automation over the last decade or outsourced to other countries, technology has actually created more jobs that require knowledge and cognitive skills.2Caroline Beaton, “Why Knowledge Workers Are Bad at Making Decisions,” Forbes, January 23, 2017; Josh Zumbrun, “The Rise of Knowledge Workers Is Accelerating Despite the Threat of Automation,” The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2016.