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Beyond product architecture: Division of labour and competence accumulation in complex product development


  • Markus C. Becker

    () (Strategic Organization Design Unit, University of Southern Denmark)

  • Francesco Zirpoli

    () (Department of Management, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia)


This paper considers the trade-off between leveraging external sources of innovation by outsourcing design and engineering activities and the ability to develop internal product development competences. The trade-off arises because the division of labor within and across firms' boundaries has a crucial role in shaping competence development processes, especially because the division of labor also influences opportunities for learning by doing. In new product development projects, learning by doing appears to be both a key determinant of competence development and a difficult-to-substitute form of learning. While the division of development tasks is often considered as guided by product architecture, we show that by decoupling the decisions concerning the product architecture and the allocation of development tasks, firms can realize the benefits of outsourcing such tasks while developing new internal competences. Drawing on a longitudinal case study in the automotive industry, we also identify a new organizational lever for shaping competence development paths and for designing firm boundaries. This lever consists in alternating different task allocation schemes over time for different types of development projects. We show why this is a novel solution, what its underlying logic is, and how it enables alleviating the trade-off between the benefits of leveraging external sources of innovation and the opportunities for competence development provided by in-house design and engineering. We discuss implications for theories of organizational boundary design and innovation management.

Suggested Citation

  • Markus C. Becker & Francesco Zirpoli, 2011. "Beyond product architecture: Division of labour and competence accumulation in complex product development," Working Papers 3, Department of Management, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia.
  • Handle: RePEc:vnm:wpdman:3

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. David J. Teece, 2008. "Firm organization, industrial structure, and technological innovation," World Scientific Book Chapters,in: The Transfer And Licensing Of Know-How And Intellectual Property Understanding the Multinational Enterprise in the Modern World, chapter 11, pages 265-296 World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd..
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    More about this item


    innovation management; organizational boundaries; outsourcing; product architecture; modularity; new product development; template process; automotive industry; Fiat;

    JEL classification:

    • L22 - Industrial Organization - - Firm Objectives, Organization, and Behavior - - - Firm Organization and Market Structure
    • L62 - Industrial Organization - - Industry Studies: Manufacturing - - - Automobiles; Other Transportation Equipment; Related Parts and Equipment
    • M10 - Business Administration and Business Economics; Marketing; Accounting; Personnel Economics - - Business Administration - - - General
    • O32 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights - - - Management of Technological Innovation and R&D

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