Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2008

Exploring the Duality between Product and Organizational Architectures: A Test of the Mirroring Hypothesis

by Alan D. MacCormack, John Rusnak and Carliss Y. Baldwin

Abstract

A variety of academic studies argue that a relationship exists between the structure of an organization and the design of the products that this organization produces. Specifically, products tend to "mirror" the architectures of the organizations in which they are developed. This dynamic occurs because the organization's governance structures, problem solving routines, and communication patterns constrain the space in which it searches for new solutions. Such a relationship is important, given that product architecture has been shown to be an important predictor of product performance, product variety, process flexibility, and even the path of industry evolution. We explore this relationship in the software industry. Our research takes advantage of a natural experiment, in that we observe products that fulfill the same function being developed by very different organizational forms. At one extreme are commercial software firms, in which the organizational participants are tightly coupled, with respect to their goals, structure, and behavior. At the other are open source software communities, in which the participants are much more loosely coupled by comparison. The mirroring hypothesis predicts that these different organizational forms will produce products with distinctly different architectures. Specifically, loosely coupled organizations will develop more modular designs than tightly coupled organizations. We test this hypothesis using a sample of matched-pair products. We find strong evidence to support the mirroring hypothesis. In all of the pairs we examine, the product developed by the loosely coupled organization is significantly more modular than the product from the tightly coupled organization. We measure modularity by capturing the level of coupling between a product's components. The magnitude of the differences is substantial-up to a factor of eight-in terms of the potential for a design change in one component to propagate to others. Our results have significant managerial implications in highlighting the impact of organizational design decisions on the technical structure of the artifacts that these organizations subsequently develop.

Keywords: Open Source Distribution; Product Design; Organizational Design; Organizational Structure; Performance Effectiveness; Information Technology Industry;

Citation:

MacCormack, Alan D., John Rusnak, and Carliss Y. Baldwin. "Exploring the Duality between Product and Organizational Architectures: A Test of the Mirroring Hypothesis." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 08-039, March 2008. (Revised October 2008, January 2011.)