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Modularity and Innovation in Complex Systems


  • Sendil K. Ethiraj
  • Daniel Levinthal


The problem of designing, coordinating, and managing complex systems has been central to the management and organizations 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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  • Sendil K. Ethiraj & Daniel Levinthal, 2003. "Modularity and Innovation in Complex Systems," LEM Papers Series 2003/15, Laboratory of Economics and Management (LEM), Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa, Italy.
  • Handle: RePEc:ssa:lemwps:2003/15

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Langlois, Richard N., 2002. "Modularity in technology and organization," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 49(1), pages 19-37, September.
    2. 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.
    3. Marengo, Luigi, et al, 2000. "The Structure of Problem-Solving Knowledge and the Structure of Organizations," Industrial and Corporate Change, Oxford University Press, vol. 9(4), pages 757-788, December.
    4. 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.
    5. Herbert A. Simon, 1996. "The Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd Edition," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262691914, July.
    6. Fleming, Lee & Sorenson, Olav, 2001. "Technology as a complex adaptive system: evidence from patent data," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 30(7), pages 1019-1039, August.
    7. Schaefer, Scott, 1999. "Product design partitions with complementary components," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 38(3), pages 311-330, March.
    8. Radner, Roy, 1993. "The Organization of Decentralized Information Processing," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 61(5), pages 1109-1146, September.
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