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Modularity and Innovation in Complex Systems

  • Sendil K. Ethiraj


    (University of Michigan Business School, 701 Tappan Street, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109)

  • Daniel Levinthal


    (The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104)

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    The problem of designing, coordinating, and managing complex systems has been central to the management and organization literature. Recent writings have tended to offer modularity as at least a partial solution to this design problem. However, little attention has been paid to the problem of identifying what constitutes an appropriate modularization of a complex system. We develop a formal simulation model that allows us to carefully examine the dynamics of innovation and performance in complex systems. The model points to the trade-off between the destabilizing effects of overly refined modularization and the modest levels of search and a premature fixation on inferior designs that can result from excessive levels of integration. The analysis highlights an asymmetry in this trade-off, with excessively refined modules leading to cycling behavior and a lack of performance improvement. We discuss the implications of these arguments for product and organization design.

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    Article provided by INFORMS in its journal Management Science.

    Volume (Year): 50 (2004)
    Issue (Month): 2 (February)
    Pages: 159-173

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    Handle: RePEc:inm:ormnsc:v:50:y:2004:i:2:p:159-173
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    1. Luigi Marengo & Giovanni Dosi & Paolo Legrenzi & Corrado Pasquali, 1999. "The structure of problem-solving knowledge and the structure of organisations," LEM Papers Series 1999/09, Laboratory of Economics and Management (LEM), Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa, Italy.
    2. John Paul Macduffie, 1995. "Human Resource Bundles and Manufacturing Performance: Organizational Logic and Flexible Production Systems in the World Auto Industry," ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 48(2), pages 197-221, January.
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    4. Jan W. Rivkin & Nicolaj Siggelkow, 2003. "Balancing Search and Stability: Interdependencies Among Elements of Organizational Design," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 49(3), pages 290-311, March.
    5. Langlois, Richard N., 2002. "Modularity in technology and organization," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 49(1), pages 19-37, September.
    6. Schaefer, Scott, 1999. "Product design partitions with complementary components," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 38(3), pages 311-330, March.
    7. Radner, Roy, 1993. "The Organization of Decentralized Information Processing," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 61(5), pages 1109-46, September.
    8. Christoph H. Loch & Christian Terwiesch & Stefan Thomke, 2001. "Parallel and Sequential Testing of Design Alternatives," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 47(5), pages 663-678, May.
    9. Ichniowski, Casey & Shaw, Kathryn & Prennushi, Giovanna, 1997. "The Effects of Human Resource Management Practices on Productivity: A Study of Steel Finishing Lines," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 87(3), pages 291-313, June.
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