IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

The Disaggregation of Corporations: Selective Intervention, High-Powered Incentives, and Molecular Units


  • Todd R. Zenger

    (John M. Olin School of Business, Washington University, Campus Box 1133, St. Louis, Missouri 63130)

  • William S. Hesterly

    (David Eccles School of Business, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112)


A vast array of organizational innovations and changes are transforming US corporations. Large firms have dramatically downsized, refocused, and vertically disaggregated. They increasingly obtain goods and services, pursue complex development efforts, and exploit horizontal synergies without the aid of formal hierarchy. Large firms are also internally disaggregating into smaller, more autonomous units that are treated much like external subcontractors. The authors argue that these organizational innovations share an important underlying commonalty: economic activity is converging toward exchange involving either internal (within-firm) or external (between-firm) networks of small, autonomous production or service units. Small units and small firms have become the basic building block, the molecular units, of these new forms. Further, exchange among the small, autonomous units is commonly a mix of both market-like and hierarchical features. The authors develop a theoretical explanation for these trends. They argue that disaggregation is motivated by the powerful performance incentives that accompany small size. They further argue that disaggregation is facilitated by recent innovations in information technology, organizational design, and performance measurement that permit the selective intervention of market elements in hierarchy and hierarchical elements in markets.The enhanced ability to intervene selectively necessitates a rethinking of traditional assumptions about the discreteness of governance choices. Innovations in organization, measurement, and technology shift decisions about optimal governance from simple market versus hierarchy choices to choices of an optimal mix of hierarchical and market elements. Consequently, managers and scholars must increasingly view organizations as complex webs of governance arrangements rather than as entities with definable boundaries.

Suggested Citation

  • Todd R. Zenger & William S. Hesterly, 1997. "The Disaggregation of Corporations: Selective Intervention, High-Powered Incentives, and Molecular Units," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 8(3), pages 209-222, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:inm:ororsc:v:8:y:1997:i:3:p:209-222
    DOI: 10.1287/orsc.8.3.209

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:inm:ororsc:v:8:y:1997:i:3:p:209-222. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Matthew Walls). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    We have no references for this item. You can help adding them by using this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.