Causes of Failure in Network Organizations

Causes of Failure in
Network Organizations
Raymond E. Miles Charles C. Snow
t is widely recognized that we are in the midst of an organizational revolution. Throughout the 1980s, organizations
around the world responded to an increasingly competitive
global business environment by moving away from centrally
coordinated, multi-level hierarchies and toward a variety of
more flexible structures that closely resembled networks rather than traditional pyramids. These networks—clusters of firms or specialist units
coordinated by market mechanisms instead of chains of commands—are
viewed by both their members and management scholars as better suited
than other forms to many of today’s demanding environments.’
However, despite the current success of network organizations, the most
likely forecast is that their effectiveness will decline rather than improve
over time. In fact, there is already evidence of deterioration in some
network organizations—failures caused not by the inappropriateness of
the network form but because of managerial mistakes in designing or operating it.
Indeed, the evolution of the network form of organization appears to be
following a familiar pattern. Historically, new organizational forms arise to
correct the principal deficiencies of the form(s) currently in use. As environmental changes accumulate, existing organizational forms become less
and less capable of meeting the demands placed on them. Managers begin
to experiment with new approaches and eventually arrive at a more effective
way of arranging and coordinating resources. The managers who pioneer
the new organizational form understand its logic and are well aware of its
particular strengths and weaknesses. However, as the use of the new form
increases, so too does the potential for its misuse. When design and operating flaws multiply, the form loses its vitality and begins to fail.
The Evolution of the Network Form
Over the course of American business history, four broad forms of organization have emerged. First, the functional organization appeared in the
late nineteenth century and flourished in the early part of the twentieth.
This new organizational form allowed many firms to achieve the necessary
size and efficiency lo provide products and services to a growing domestic
market. An early vertically integrated functional organization was designed
by Andrew Carnegie who applied ideas about functional specialization from
the railroads to steel production. By controlling both raw materials supplies
and distribution, he was able to keep his mills running efficiently on a
tightly planned schedule. A current example of the functional organization
is Wal-Mart, Inc.. one of the nation’s largest retailers. Across the country,
Wal-Mart focuses on a well-defined and socio-economically homogeneous
target market as it locates its stores in small towns and suburbs of mediumsized cities. For these highly similar markets, Wal-Mart makes maximum
use of on-line computerized sales data from over 1,200 stores to feed what
is recognized as one of the most efficient inventory and distribution systems
in the country. Like its functional predecessors, Wal-Mart performs a limited set of functions extremely well, using the specialized talents of planners, logistics specialists, and store personnel. However, while Wal-Mart is
tightly integrated from its warehouses through its store shelves, the company does not attempt to actually produce the goods it sells. Nevertheless,
because of its buying power, Wal-Mart can centrally coordinate an army
of suppliers eager to respond to its forecasts and schedules.
Next, the divisionalized organization appeared shortly after the end of
World War I and spread rapidly in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Among
the earliest divisionalized structures was that designed by Alfred Sloan
at General Motors, where specific automobile brands and models were
aimed at distinct markets differentiated primarily by price. Product divisions (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Cadillac, etc.) operated as nearly autonomous
companies, producing and marketing products to their respective targeted
customers while corporate management served as an investment banker for
growth and redirection. A modem divisionalized firm is Rubbermaid,
whose ten operating divisions account for over 200 new products a year.
Each division has its own target market and its own R&D team focused
exclusively on that market, allowing maximum responsiveness in a diversified product arena.-
The third organizational form was the matrix, which evolved in the 1960s
and the 1970s, and combined elements of both the functional and divisional
forms. An early matrix structure was created at TRW, which sought to
make both efficient use of specialized engineers and scientists while adapting to a wide range of new product and project demands. Technical and
professional personnel moved back and forth from functional departments
Causes of Failure in Network Organizations 55
to product or project teams, and from one team to another, as their skills
were needed. Many modem matrix organizations are even more complex,
such as the one used by Matsushita, which combines global product divisions with geographically based marketing groups.
Movement toward the network form became apparent in the 1980s, when
intemational competition and rapid technological change forced massive
restructuring across U.S. industries and companies. Established firms
downsized to their core competence, de-layering management hierarchies
and outsourcing a wide range of activities. New firms eschewed growth
through vertical integration and instead sought alliances with independent
suppliers and/or distributors.
Within this genera! trend toward disaggregation and looser coupling,
managers experimented with various organizational arrangements. Instead
of using plans, schedules, and transfer prices to coordinate intemal units,
they tumed to contracts and other exchange agreements to link together
extemal components into various types of network structures.’ As illustrated in Figure !, some networks brought suppliers, producers, and distributors together in long-term stable relationships. Other networks were much
more dynamic, with components along the value chain coupled contractually for perhaps a single project or product and then decoupled to be part
of a new value chain for the next business venture. Finally, inside some
large firms, intemal networks appeared as managers sought to achieve
market benefits by having divisions buy and sell outside the firm as well
as within.”
Network organizations are different from previous organizations in
several respects. First, over the past several decades, firms using older
structures preferred to hold in-house (or under exclusive contract) all the
assets required to produce a given product or service. In contrast, many
networks use the collective assets of several firms located at various points
along the value chain.’ Second, networks rely more on market mechanisms
than administrative processes to manage resource flows. However, these
mechanisms are not the simple “arm’s length” relationships usually associated with independently owned economic entities. Rather, the various components of the network recognize their interdependence and are willing to
share information, cooperate with each other, and customize their product
or service—all to maintain their position within the network. Third, while
networks of subcontractors have been commonplace in the constmction
industry, many recently designed networks expect a more proactive role
among participants—voluntary behavior that improves the final product or
service rather than simply fulfills a contractual obligation. Finally, in an
increasing number of industries, including computers, semiconductors,
autos, farm implements, and motorcycles, networks are evolving that possess characteristics similar in part to the Japanese keiretsu—an organizational collective based on cooperation and mutual shareholding among a
group of manufacturers, suppliers, and trading and finance companies.”
Figure 1. Common Network Types
f SuDplief I
Causes of Failure in Network Organizations 57
Although the network organization exhibits characteristics that are different from previous forms, the stable, dynamic, and internal networks
shown in Figure 1 nevertheless incorporate elements of the prior organizational forms as their main building blocks. For example, a functionally
organized firm may realize that it needs to outsource the manufacture of
certain components, or ally with specific distributors, in order to focus its
attention only on those operating activities for which it is best equipped.
The result of such changes is a stable network organization: a core firm
linked forward and backward to a limited number of carefully selected
partners. Upstream stable networks linking suppliers to a core firm are
common in the automobile industry. Downstream networks often link computer hardware manufacturers and value-added retailers. ,
Alternatively, a large multinational matrix organization made up of various design, manufacturing, and distribution units, may decide to replace
centrally determined transfer prices with genuine buying and selling relationships among these units. The result is an internal network.’
Lastly, in some industries, rapid technological and market changes may
encourage a divisionalized firm to disassemble into a multi-player dynamic
network of designers, suppliers, producers, and distributors instead of
holding all of these assets internally. This is what has occurred over the
past twenty years in most publishing firms.
In sum, the network organization in its several variations has sought to
incorporate the specialized efficiency of the functional organization, the
autonomous operating effectiveness of the divisional form, and the assettransferring capabilities of the matrix organization—all with considerable
success. However, the network form itself has inherent limitations and is
vulnerable to misapplication and misuse. To understand the real and potential weaknesses of the network, we need to examine the problems that have
plagued (and continue to befall) its predecessor forms.
Causes of Failure in Earlier Organizational Forms
As noted above, a similar evolutionary pattern can be seen in each of the
earlier organizational forms. Widespread initial success occurred as the
new form provided an innovative arrangement of a firm’s resources and a
new operating logic responsive to the emerging environment. However, a
growing list of failures eventually followed. Some of the causes of failure
were obvious—for example, the new form was increasingly, perhaps faddishly, applied in settings for which it was never intended or suited.
The more intriguing failures are those that arise from two types of subtle
managerial “mistakes”: individually logical extensions of the form which in
the aggregate push the form beyond the limits of its capability; and modifications of the form which, while reasonable on the surface, nevertheless
violate the form’s operating logic. To fully understand these causes of
failure, it is necessary to first restate the logic of the functional, divisional,
and matrix forms and then examine major types of preventable failures
against that logic. (See Table 1.)
The Functional Form—The functional form of organization can be
thought of as a special-purpose machine designed to produce a limited line
of goods or services in large volume and at low cost. The logic of the functional form is centrally coordinated specialization. Departments, each
staffed with specialized experts in numbers established by a central budget,
repeatedly make their contribution to the firm’s overall effort in accordance
with a common schedule. To be successful, the functional form’s specialized skills and equipment must be fully and predictably operated. Firms in
the late nineteenth and early twentieth century frequently integrated forward, creating new wholesaling and retailing channels to assure that their
output could be efficiently distributed and sold. Similarly, these firms often
integrated backward to assure themselves the steady flow of materials and
components essential to efficient operation. Today’s functional paragons,
such as Wal-Mart, are masters at obtaining these kinds of efficiencies, but
typically they are not as vertically integrated.
Although vertical integration assures functionally structured firms input
and output predictability, it does not come without costs. The further backward and forward a firm integrates, the greater the costs of coordination
and the larger the number of specialized assets demanding full utilization.
Ultimately, it becomes difficult to determine whether any particular asset
along the value chain is making a positive contribution to overall profitability. In fact, the recent trend toward disaggregation (e.g., buying rather than
making components, outsourcing sales or distribution) reflects the recognition by many firms that coordination costs and asset underutilization are
offsetting the benefits of predictability and hierarchical control.
An example that illustrates these tradeoffs involves the turnaround efforts
made at Harley-Davidson in the early 1980s. The motorcycle manufacturer
discovered that much of its production inflexibility, along with excessive
costs, was caused by attempting to produce virtually all of its own parts
and components. A move to a just-in-time inventory system allowed
Harley-David son to outsource many parts and supplies, reducing its total
cycle time and bringing new products to the market quicker while lowering
overall costs. What is interesting about organizational ”failures” such as
that at Harley-Davidson is that managers need not do anything wrong—at
Hariey, the company’s functional structure encouraged intemal production
of parts and components to assure control. Rather, such systems often fail
because managers do too many things right!”
Alternatively, the functional organization form will also fail if it is
modified inappropriately. The functional organization’s logic of centrally
controlled, specialized assets does not easily adapt to product or service
Causes of Failure in Network Organizations 59
Table 1. Causes of Failure in Traditional Organizational Forms
Efficient production
of standardized
goods and services
Vertical integration
beyond capacity to
keep specialized
assets fully loaded
and/or to evaluate
Product or service
diversification that
overloads central
Related diversifioation by product
or region
Diversifioation (or
acquisitions) outside
area of technioal
and evaiuative
Corporate interventions to foroe
coordination or
obtain efficiencies
across divisions
Shared assets between standardized
products and prototype contracts
(e.g.. many aerospace firms)
Shared assets between worldwide
product divisions
and country-based
marketing divisions
(e.g., some global
Expanding number
of temporary contracts beyond
ability of allocation
Search for global
synergy limits
local adaptability
Modifications that
distort the dual
focus (i.e., favor
one type of market
or product over
diversity. A functionally structured manufacturing firm can efficiently produce a limited array of products if demand for the various products can be
forecast and productions runs strictly scheduled. However, if the number of
products offered becomes too large, or if demand variations interfere with
efficient scheduling, the functional form begins to prove inflexible and
costly to operate.
For example, after World War II, the Chrysler Corporation rapidly
expanded its product line in an attempt to match General Motors’ strategy
of a “product for every pocketbook.” However, while its models proliferated
(actually exceeding the number of GM models at one point), Chrysler did
not adopt the divisional structure then used by its competitors. Chrysler’s
mostly functional structure ultimately suffered from losses in efficiency
and from added coordination costs as the company attempted to accommodate increasing product variability and complexity. Here, managers
modified key aspects of Chrysler’s functional structure for apparently logical reasons, tnoves that probably were initially successful. However, an
eventual array of over seventy different models demanded not just continued structural modification but total restructure—the adoption of a new
(the divisional) form.
The Divisional Form—The divisional form of organization can be thought
of as a collection of similar special-purpose machines, each independently
operated to serve a particular market and all evaluated centrally on the basis
of economic performance for possible expansion, contraction, or redirection. The operating logic of the divisional form is thus the coupling of divisional autonomy with centrally controlled performance evaluation and
resource allocation. The divisional form achieves both flexibility and
economies of scope by its ability to rapidly focus clusters of assets on new
or expanding markets. It develops a unique competence for evaluating divisional performance in a given set of related markets and for investing
pooled returns to promote growth in existing divisions and to create or
acquire new divisions. The divisional form also may develop mechanisms
for transferring new technology and managerial knowbow across divisions
as well as to newly created or acquired operations. Overall, the divisional
form’s ability to reallocate management knowhow and emerging technology, along with resources generated from existing operations, gives it an
advantage in responding to new opportunities and in the cost of startup.
Markets for differentiated goods and services grew rapidly in the 1920s
and again after World War II. As described above, the early divisionalized
organization at General Motors focused different automobile models on
distinct markets, differentiated primarily by price. Similarly, Du Pont identified different types of markets in which its several divisions could use
their technical and managerial knowhow in applied chemistry, and Sears
Roebuck challenged managers across the country to independently operate
“hometown stores with nationwide buying power.”
Although divisionalized firms are adept at moving incrementally into
related areas, they are also vulnerable to overextension. Most divisionalized
firms have had the experience of moving into markets that initially appeared
to be appropriate but ultimately turned out to fall outside their area of
expertise. Entry into unrelated markets weakens the divisionalized firm’s
ability to appraise performance and make investment decisions. As the firm
moves further away from its unique informational base, its decisions
become no more efficient, perhaps even less so, than those the market might
make. For example. General Mills, a highly successful divisionalized firm,
at least twice extended itself into areas that proved to be beyond its zone of
technical and investment expertise, first into electrical appliances and later
into toys and fashion goods. In both cases, the firm recognized its own
shortcomings and either divested the divisions or moved back from direct
Causes of Failure in Network Organizations
Divisionalized firms are also vulnerable to modifications that begin with
good reason but subsequently undermine the fonn’s operating logic. For
example, the creation of cross-division committees to share technology, or
the creation of a corporate staff group to help coordinate process improvements, may genuinely prove valuable. However, excessive coordination
requirements across divisions eventually constrain the divisions’ flexibility
to meet the demands of their respective markets. Similarly, corporate staff
enforcement of interdivisional planning gradually undermines corporate
management’s ability to accurately assess the individual effectiveness of
each division. Both types of modifications, though successful wben carefully applied, may expand until they violate the logic of divisional independence and corporate appraisal. Just such extensive coordination requirements constrained, in fact destroyed, the operating autonomy of the separate automobile divisions of General Motors. Initially, in a period of weak
competition, the firm enjoyed cross-divisional scale economies without
major losses from decreased flexibility and responsiveness. However, under
growing competition, GM’s complex, interdivisional planning process
delayed new product development, and its intrusive coordination
mechanisms contributed to unit costs above those of its competition. Most
recently, in order to produce a “truly new” car (Saturn), GM had to circumvent its own convoluted structure by creating an entirely new division.
Clearly, in a divisionalized firm, broad operating freedom creates the
opportunity for divisions to suboptimize—to take actions that improve their
own profitability at the expense of possible overall corporate gains. However, such possibilities are simply part of the normal costs of using the divisional form, offset in the longer run by the benefits gained from well-made
local decisions. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer firms today appear to be
willing to leave the logic of the divisional form intact. Indeed, many firms
that refer to themselves as divisionalized in fact have extensive corporate
staff coordination and minimal divisional autonomy. Such operations actually produce all the costs and rigidity of the functional form while adding
the cost of divisional duplication of resources. Again, individually sound
decisions may add up to overall operating inefficiencies and ineffectiveness.
The Matrix Form—The matrix organizational form can be thought of as a
complex machine simultaneously generating two or more outputs for a set
of both stable and changing markets. The operating logic of the stable portion of the matrix form is similar to that of the functional form, centrally
coordinated specialization. Not surprisingly, the portion responding to
unique or changeable markets emphasizes local operating autonomy as is
the case in the divisional form. To these dual aspects of its operating logic,
the matrix form adds the requirement for balance among the components .
lo produce mutually beneficial allocations of resources.
For example, in one type of matrix, an aerospace firm may fulfill a
number of long-term contracts to produce a line of standard products in the
functionally structured, stable portion of the organization. Simultaneously,
the firm may group a series of project teams around contracts for customized products or prototypes. In this type of matrix, the key contribution
of the form is its ability to supply the members of the various project teams
through temporary assignment of personnel from the stable departments of
the firm. Then, when a project is completed, personnel return to their home
departments to work on standard product needs and perhaps await reassignment to another project team. The matrix form gives a firm the capacity to
expand and contract and to constantly address new market opportunities
while holding key human assets.
In another matrix application, a multi-product, multinational firm may
combine worldwide product divisions with national or regionally based
marketing groups. Again, the key in a global matrix is to gain the benefits
of local operating flexibility while employing resources “owned” by the
product divisions.
As with the functional and divisional forms, the matrix form can be overloaded by simply extending a firm’s operations beyond the capability of its
structure. For example, in the aerospace matrix, each additional project
places new demands on the resource-allocation capacity of the firm. Ultimately, resources are held but are not kept fully employed, and the firm
achieves something akin to negative synergy—each new logical addition
brings with it coordination costs which exceed its benefits.
Equally troublesome are failures of the matrix form resulting from modifications that violate its operating logic. Recall that the purpose of the
matrix form is to let two different types of market forces help shape the
operation of the firm. However, many firms are unwilling or unable to maintain balance between or among their market foci and functional components. For example, if worldwide product divisions have no means of
influencing the marketing priorities of national or regional marketing
groups, operating efficiency may be totally subordinated to local responsiveness. Alternatively, if managers of functional departments have full say
over assignments to project teams, the needs of the stable portion of the
organization will dominate those of tbe flexible side, making it difficult for
project team managers to meet customer needs for both technical sophistication and timeliness.
In sum, there is considerable historical evidence to suggest that an organizational form performs optimally only within certain limits. When a particular form’s operating logic is violated, even by apparently reasonable
extensions or modifications of the form, failure may result.
Potential Causes of Failure in Network Organizations
Like its predecessor forms, the network organization can fail because of
alterations made by well-intentioned managers. The network form has an
operating logic associated with each of its variations, and violations of this
Causes of Failure in Network Organizations 63
logic are likely to limit the form’s effectiveness and, in the extreme, cause
it to fail.
The Stable Network—The stable network has its roots in the structure
and operating logic of the functional organization. It is designed to serve a
mostly predictable market by linking together independently owned specialized assets along a given product or service value chain. However, instead
of a single vertically integrated firm, the stable network substitutes a set of
component firms, each tied closely to a core firm by contractual arrangements, but each maintaining its competitive fitness by serving firms outside
the network.
Given its logic, the most common threat to the effectiveness of the stable
network is an extension that demands the complete utilization of the supplier’s
or distributor’s assets for the benefit of the core firm. If the several suppliers
and distributors in the stable network focus their assets solely on the needs
of a single core firm, the benefits of broader participation in the marketplace
are lost. Unless suppliers sell to other firms, the price and quality of their
output is not subject to market test. Similarly, unless multiple outlets are
used, the value actually added by distributors must be set by judgment
rather than by market-driven margins. The process of asset overspecialization and overdedication by network partners is frequently incremental and
can therefore go unnoticed. Continued, step-by-step customization of a
supplier’s processes, either voluntarily or at the core firm’s insistence, can
ultimately result in the inability of the supplier to compete in other markets
and an obligation on the part of the core firm to use all of the supplier’s
output. (See Table 2.)
Another reason for network members to participate in the market outside
their relationship with the core firm is to force these components to maintain their technological expertise and flexibility. Suppliers come into contact
with innovations in product or service designs and develop their adaptive
skills by serving various clients. Overspecialization and limited learning
can easily occur if both the core tirm and its components are not alert. In
fact, for maximum effectiveness, both the core firm and its stable partners
must explicitly consider the limits of allowable dedication—forcing themselves to set restrictions on the proportion of component assets that can be
An enormously effective stable network has been put together by Nike,
the athletic shoe and apparel giant. Founded in 1964, as a U.S. dealer for
a Japanese shoe firm, Nike began developing its own product line in 1972
and has built a $3 billion business on a clear strategy of working closely
with, but not dominating, a wide range of suppliers in Korea, Taiwan,
Thailand, and the Peoples Republic of China. Nike wants its suppliers to
service other designers so that they can enhance their technical competence
and so that they will be available when needed but not dependent on Nike’s
ability to forecast and schedule their services. A major factor in Nike’s
Table 2. Causes of Failure in Network Organizations
Type of
iVIodif ication
A large core firm
creates marketbased linkages to
a limited set of upstream and/or downstream partners
Mature industries
requiring large
capital investments.
Varied ownership
limits risk and encourages full loading
of all assets.
Overutilization of
a given supplier
or distributor
leading to unhealthy
dependence on
core firm
High expectations
for cooperation can
limit the creativity of
Commonly owned
business elements
allocate resources
along the value
chain using market
Mature industries
requiring large
capital investments.
Market-priced exchanges allow performance appraisal
of internal units.
Extending asset
ownership beyond
the capacity of the
internal market and
performance appraisal mechanisms
Corporate executives
use “commands”
instead of influence
or incentives to
intervene in local
business elements
along the value
chain form temporary alliances from
among a large
pool of potential
Low tech industries
with short product
design cycles and
evolving high tech
industries (e.g.
electronics, biotech, etc.)
Expertise may become too narrow
and role in value
chain is assumed
by another firm
Excessive mechanisms fo prevent
partners’ opportunism or exclusive
relationships with a
limited number of
upstream or downstream partners
continuing market leadership is its ability to introduce new models quickly
to meet (or create) market trends. Perhaps most importantly, Nike has maintained its technical competence and leads the industry in R&D investment.’°
Nike personnel work directly with suppliers to build and maintain their
capability, verifying product quality in-process as well as after the fact. To
assure their own expertise in manufacturing (and to prevent costly design
mistakes), Nike has continued a small domestic manufacturing operation
focused on leading-edge designs.
The stable network can also be damaged by unthoughtful or even inadvertent modifications. In the search for assurance that suppliers can meet
quality standards and delivery dates, some core firms attempt to specify the
Causes of Failure in Network Organizations 65
processes that the network member must use. Deep involvement in a supplier’s or distributor’s processes can occur through innocent zeal on the part
of the core firm’s staff and may be enthusiastically endorsed by the component’s staff. Within limits, close cooperation to assure effective linkage is
valuable. However, the core firm can ultimately find itself “managing” the
assets of its partners and accepting responsibility for their output.
Moreover, when the operating independence of the network member is
severely constrained, any creativity that might flow from its managers or
staff is curtailed—and the core firm is not getting the full benefit of the
component’s assets. In effect, the core firm is converting the network into a
vertically integrated functional organization.
The Internal Network—The logic of the intemal network requires the
creation of a market inside a firm. Here organizational units buy and sell
goods and services among themselves at prices established in the open market. Obviously, if intemal transactions are to refiect market prices, the various components must have regular opportunity to verify the price and
quality of their wares by buying and selling outside the firm. The purpose
of the intemal network, like its predecessor, the matrix form, is to gain
competitive advantage through shared utilization of scarce assets and the
continuing development and exchange of managerial and technological
knowhow. But, also like the matrix, the intemal network can be damaged
by extensions that overload its intemal market mechanisms and by modifications that unbalance the relationships between buyers and sellers.
For example, the giant multinational firm ABB Asea Brown Bovari has
grown quickly to over $25 billion in revenues and nearly a quarter of a million employees through a concerted program of mergers and acquisitions
which has given it unmatched local and global synergy in the electrical systems and equipment market. To this point, the firm has increased
shareholder value by thoughtfully specifying the market domain of each of
its components and creating the intemal mechanisms by which they can
exchange goods and services in mutually beneficial ways under overall
market discipline. However, it would be easy for such a firm to be seduced
by its current success into an attempt to move further and further afield. At
the moment, the CEO and key managers of ABB have a well-articulated
concept of how the firm’s global intemal market operates.” However, each
new business line, and each new geographic area addressed, must be carefully interconnected throughout the global grid, a task whose difficulty
increases not arithmetically but geometrically.
Intemal networks thus can fail from overextension, but they can fail perhaps even faster because of misguided modification. The most common
managerial misstep in intemal networks is corporate intervention in
re.source fiows or in the determination of transaction prices. Not every
interaction in the intemal network can and should flow from locally determined supply and demand decisions. Corporate managers may well see a
benefit in having intemal units buy from a newly built or acquired component, even though its actual prices are above those of competitors in the
marketplace. Such prices may be needed to sort out the operation and develop
full efficiency. However, the manner in which corporate management handles
such “forced” transactions is a cmcial factor in the continuing health of the
network. Ideally, corporate executives will manage the intemal economy
rather than simply dictate the transfer price and process. This can be
accomplished by providing a “subsidy” to the startup component to allow it
to sell at market prices while still showing a profit, or by providing buyers
with incentives that keep their profits at rates which would occur if they
were free to buy from lower priced competitors. Obviously, such subsidies
or incentives should be time bound and carefully monitored to prevent
abuses. Although this process is demanding, it serves to protect the logic
of market-based intemal transactions rather than reverting to centrally determined transfers. Unfortunately, as indicated, instead of influencing the
intemal market and preserving the ability to evaluate components on actual
performance, many corporate managers “command” component behaviors
and risk destroying agreement on the criteria for performance evaluation.
Despite potential problems, the shift from complex, centrally planned
hierarchies to intemal market structures is a growing movement, and IBM’s
recent announcements provide one more large, highly visible example.
IBM’s plan is to tum each of its major units into self-managed businesses,
free to buy and sell goods and services with one another and ultimately
with outside buyers and sellers as well. A 1991 conference reported experiments in building intemal networks in organizations ranging from services
(Blue Cross-Blue Shield), to materials (Alcoa), to low (Clark Equipment)
and high tech (Control Data) manufacturers. Not surprisingly, these applications tend to demonstrate both the benefits and the types of resistance
anticipated here. However, it is too early to tell whether these and other
intemal network structures will avoid major managerial mistakes.’-
The Dynamic Network—The operating logic of the dynamic network is
linked to that of the divisional form of organization. Recall that the
divisionalized organization emphasized adaptability by focusing independently operated divisions on distinct but related markets. The combination
of central evaluation and local operating autonomy is reflected in the
dynamic network where independent firms are linked together for the onetime (or short-term) production of a particular good or service. For the
dynamic network to achieve its full potential, there must be numerous firms
(or units of firms) operating at each of the points along the value chain.
Causes of Failure in Network Organizations 67
ready to be pulled together for a given run and then disassembled to become
part of another temporary alignment.
The availability of numerous potential partners eager to apply their skills
and assets to the upstream or downstream needs of a given firm is not only
the key to success of the dynamic network, it is also a possible source of
trouble. For example, if a particular firm in the value chain overspecializes—refines but also over time restricts its expertise—it runs the
risk of becoming a “hollow” corporation, a firm without a clearly defined,
essential contribution to make to its product or service value chain.” Firms
need to occupy a wide enough segment of the value chain to be able to test
and protect the value of their contribution. A designer needs to retain its
ability to build prototypes, a producer may need to experiment with new
process technologies, and so on. Firms with a contribution base that is
either too narrow or weakly defined are easily overrun by their upstream
and/or downstream neighbors. Indeed, examples of firms (and industries)
pushed into decline and ultimate failure by excessive outsourcing abound.
From radios to television sets to video recorders, outsourcing decisions by
U.S. corporations allowed foreign suppliers to acquire the technical competence to design and sell their own products, eventually capturing the bulk
of U.S. domestic markets.”*
Conversely, fimis with a clear competence-based position on the value
chain, a base maintained by continuing investment in technology and skill
development, can afford to interact confidently with upstream and downstream partners. Nevertheless, there is a constant temptation for firms to go
beyond the development of their own competence as the means of insuring
their viability. They may seek to add protection through an excessive concem for secrecy, heavy emphasis on legalism in contractual relations, a
search for preferential relationships with particular partners, and so on. In
fact, potentially dysfunctional network behaviors are currently multiplying
across the personal and business computer industry as firms, including
industry giants IBM and Apple, build an almost undecipherable maze of
interconnected agreements and alliances to protect market share, enter new
arenas, search for technical innovations, and promote the adoption of technical and/or system standards. Each of these efforts is designed to give the
newly formed partners a competitive advantage over those players not
included (who are instead building their own web of alliances).’^ Such protective modifications can constrain the primary strength of the dynamic
network—its ability to efficiently allocate member firms, uncoupling and
recoupling them with minimum cost and minimum loss of operating time.
In sum, the dynamic network places demands on its component firms to
continually reappraise their technical competence and the scope of their
activities, not only to maintain their own well-being but that of the broader
network as well. No one component can know everything that is happening
or everything that is needed in the broader network. However, each component can preserve its own competence and refrain from behaviors which are
a threat to network performance.’^
Avoiding Failure: Developing the Competence for Self-Renewal
In the preceding sections, we have outlined how organizational forms may
lose their vitality over time as managers make what appear to be logical
extensions or modifications. However, rather than improving perfonnance,
these actions may gradually obscure and subvert the operating logic of the
form. Few organizations appear to have the capacity for self-renewal—the
ability to adapt without losing effectiveness. What is needed is the competence to not only make adjustments to environmental shifts, but to do so
either: within the constraints of the operating logic of the existing organizational form; or by adopting a new form to fit a new market strategy. Obviously, the ability of an organization to self-renew is easier to describe than
achieve. However, such competence may be enhanced as a firm increasingly
adopts characteristics of one of the three network types (stable, intemal, or
The possibility that firms adopting network structures will improve their
self-renewal competence flows from two unique characteristics of the network form: the essential relationships among components are external (and
thus highly visible to all parties) and these relationships are voluntary (and
thus must reflect explicit commitments).
Dynamics of External Relationships—Even when a network’s components are commonly owned, the essential structure of the organization is
extemal—an exoskeleton of clearly specified, objectively stmctured contracts and buy-and-sell agreements that guide interactions rather than
intemal schedules, procedures, and routines. Conversely, in purely intemal
communication and reporting channels, every interaction is colored by the
hidden threat of hierarchical politics, the likelihood that power and influence rather than performance are guiding behavior. In older organizational
fomis, for example, cost data and/or performance measures may be manipulated by simply changing accounting conventions—such as the way in
which overhead expenses are accumulated and assigned. With extemal linkages, attempts at personal gain may be made, but the behavior will be
much more transparent.
Of course, the fact that network linkages are extemal does not guarantee
that they will always be efficacious to each of the parties, but it does push
the parties toward performance-based equity. A number of years ago, we
predicted that network organizations would create “full-disclosure information systems” to assure that all decisions were made objectively and fairly.’^
Such practices are now quite common. As the CEO of Excel Industries, a
major supplier of Ford, states: “They know every cost we incur.”‘*
Causes of Failure in Network Organizations 69
In sum, visible, extemal linkages among network components have perceptual as well as substantive benefits. A faulty extemal coupling must be
dealt with, while purely intemal mechanisms can be eroding or even broken
for some time before the damage demands the affected parties’ attention.
Dynamics of Voluntary Relationships—Extemal, visible relationships,
as suggested, tend to be explicit. They specify the performance that is
expected from each partner and how that performance will be measured
and compensated. Explicitness, however, does not require complex, legalistic, or highly formal contracts. A contract can be as simple as a due date
and a price based on disclosed costs. In the construction industry, “partnering” sessions are held among network members at the beginning of major
projects to clarify responsibilities and relationships and to agree on methods
of resolving disputes. Similarly, General Electric’s Workout Program is
designed to bring GE’s managers, customers, and vendors together to create
effective working relationships.’^
Most importantly, the fact that network relationships are explicit does
not mean that they are dictated by one party or another. In fact, underlying
all of the positive characteristics of network structures is the dynamic of
voluntarism. If voluntarism is not present—if partners are not free to withdraw from relationships they believe are unfairly stmctured—then the value
of openness and explicitness is compromised. Of course, such compromises
can and do occur, as noted earlier. For example, in stable networks, components may become overly dependent on one another, and in intemal networks corporate interventions may force components into relationships that
are neither fair nor appropriately subsidized.
Nevertheless, U.S. firms are gaining experience at creating and maintaining fair and voluntary relationships. For example, Harley-Davidson
claims it is no longer “waging war” with its suppliers. Harley’s managers
reportedly “threw the lawyers out” and produced a simple contract that
clarified goals for suppliers and outlined how disputes could be resolved.^”
In sum, the unique, positive characteristics of the network organization
discussed here can assist managers in making adaptations by enabling them
to test their proposed modifications and extensions against the operating
logic of the form. Because changes are visible and clear to all parties in the
network, there are likely to be multiple players tracing the impact of any
change. Moreover, the key characteristic of the network form, voluntarism,
is in itself a litmus test of logic violation—any change that reduces voluntarism is a potential threat to the overall efficiency of the network.
Research over the past decade has increasingly confirmed what managers
and organizational theorists have long understood—organizations, particularly large, complex firms, have a difficult time responding to changes in
their competitive environment. Instead of adapting incrementally as market
and/or technological changes occur, managers tend to wait until environmental demands accumulate to crisis proportions before attempting a
response, and then they often fail. When managers do behave incrementally, they frequently make patchwork alterations to the existing organization as each new market or technological shift occurs but without considering the ultimate systemic impact. Such adjustments gradually move the
organization away from its core structural logic, creating an idiosyncratic
system highly dependent on a few key individuals or units to function.
These organizations are not only unstable and costly to operate, they often
are so convoluted that it is difficult even to determine where major change
might begin—to get to the center of a complex organizational knot.
Our premise here has been that organizational forms, particularly the
network form, need not be so prone to failure. If managers understand the
logic of the form their organization employs, and if tbey keep that logic
visible to themselves and others associated with the organization, the
benefits of proposed changes can be weighed against the strains they
impose on the total system. In fact, we believe that it is possible to anticipate how and why each organizational form is likely to fail. Moreover, if
managers understand the operating logic of altemative forms, they can
explore the possibility that environmental changes have pushed their organization outside the boundaries of one form and into those of another.
Finally, we have tried to illustrate how the network form should help
make the manager’s task of successful adaptation easier. By its very nature,
the network organization is always in the process of renewal—its important
elements are in a constant state of adjustment to market, technological, and
other forces in the environment. This continual process of adaptation,
coupled with the fact that network components are typically smaller and
more focused than those of integrated firms, should help managers deepen
their understanding of the form’s operating logic and develop their renewal
Whether the network form of organization is less prone to internally generated failures than its predecessors is ultimately determinable only over
time. Nevertheless, its evolution provides managers the opportunity to
explore and test tbeir understanding of organizations from a new vantage
point, and the continued study of networks should contribute to a better
understanding of the causes of success and failure in all organizational
Causes of Failure in Network Organizations 71
1. During the early and middle 1980s, articles began to appear {a) forecasting network
forms of organization [e.g.. Raymond Miles and Charles Snow. “Fit, Failure and the
Hall of Fame.” California Management Rex’iew (Spring I984)|; (b) describing the form’s
key characteristics [e.g., Han.s Thorelli, “Networks: Between Markets and Hierarchies,”
Strategic Management Journal (January/February 1986): and Raymond Miles and
Charles Snow, “Network Organizations: New Concepts for New Forms,” California
Management Re\’ievi- (Spring 1986)]; and (c) debating the costs and benefits of network
structures (e.g., “Tbe Hollow Corporation,” Business Week, March 3. 1986|. A tew
years ago. a rasb of books and articles appeared exploring and generally endorsing
various types of network structures, including strategic alliances, value-added partnersbips, global market matrices, and soon [e.g., Peter Drucker, The New Realities (New
York, NY: Harper & Row. 1989): Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason (Boston, MA:
Harvard Business Scbool Press. 1990): Robert Reich, The Work of Nations (New York,
NY: Knopf, 1991); Russell Johnson and Paul Lawrence, “Beyond Vertical Integration—
The Rise of tbe Value Added Partnership,” Harvard Business Review (1988)]. Most
recently, a cover story in Business Week [“Learning From Japan,” January 27, 1992, pp.
52-60] details numerous examples of U.S. firms creating and benefiting from network
2. For a brief description of botb Rubbermaid and Wal-Mart, see tbe Special Report,
Business Month (December 1988), pp. 38 and 42.
3. For an early discussion of how large firms bave disaggregated their operations and
spread them across multiple, smaller elements along tbe value chain, see Michael J.
Piore and Cbarles E. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide (New York, NY: Basic
Books, 1984). See also Johnson and Lawrence, op.cit.
4. A more detailed de.scription of these tbree types of networks, and tbe forces shaping
tbem, is provided in Cbarles C. Snow. Raymond E. Miles, and Henry J. Coleman, Jr.,
“Managing 21st Century Network Organizations,” Organizational Dynamics (Winter
1992), pp. 5-20.
5. Cooperative, entrepreneurial behavior of tbis sort is being increasingly encouraged botb
inside and across firms. See James Brian Quinn and Penny C. Paquette, “Technology in
Services: Creating Organizational Revolutions,” Sloan Management Re\iew\ 31 (Winter
1990): 67-78.
6. Tbere are two main types of keiretsu. Many stable networks in the U.S. resemble “supply” keiretsu, wbicb are groups of companies integrated along a value chain dominated
by a major manufacturer. To date there are no American counteqiarts to “bank-centered” keiretsu, wbicb are industrial combines of 20-45 core companies centered around
a bank. For discussions of keiretsu-\ike networks in tbe U.S., see Cbarles H. Ferguson,
“Computers and tbe Coming of the U.S. Keiretsu,” Harvard Business Re\-iew (July/
August 1990), pp. 55-70: and “Leaming From Japan,” Business Week, op. cit. See also
“Japan: All in tbe Family.” Newsweek, June 10, 1991, pp. 37-40.
7. IBM announced a major restructuring along these lines late in 1991. See “Out of One
Big Blue, Many Little Ones,” Business Week, December 9, 1991, p. 33. For a complete
description, see David Kirkpatrick, “Breaking Up IBM.” Fortune, July 27. 1992, pp.
8. Thomas Gelb, “Overhauling Corporate Engine Drives Winning Strategy,” The Journal
of Business Strategy {f^ovcmhtT/r>ccem\xT 1989), pp. 91-105.
9. See General Mills. Annual Report, 1985.
10. See Nike, Annual Report, 1991.
11. See William Taylor, “Tbe Logic of Global Business: An Interview witb ABB’s Percy
” Havard Business Review {Maich/Apn\ 1991),pp. 91-105.
12. See, Jason Magidson and Andrew Polcha, “Creating Market Economies Witbin Organizations: A Conference on Intemal ‘Markets’,” Planning Review, 20 (January/February
1992): 37-40.
13. Business Week used the term “hollow corporation” pejoratively in its March 3, 1986
cover story, op. cit. However, recognizing that tbougbtful outsourcing does not cause
an organization to lose its critical expertise, Quinn, Doorley, and Paquette discuss how
firms are “leaming to love the hollow corporation.” See James Brian Quinn, Thomas L.
Doorley, and Penny C. Paquette, “Technology in Services: Rethinking Strategic Focus,”
Sloan Management Review, 31 (Winter 1990), p. 83.
14. These and other examples are discussed in companion articles in the February 1992
issue of The Academy of Management Executive [Ricbard A. Bettis, Stepben P. Bradley,
and Gary Hamel, “Outsourcing and Industrial Decline,” pp. 7-22; and James A. Welch
and P. Ranganath Nayak, “Strategic Sourcing: A Progressive Approacb to tbe Make-orBuy Decision,” pp. 23-31 ]. However, while botb pieces bemoan the negative impact of
faulty outsourcing decisions on U.S. competitiveness, each recognizes that outsourcing,
if properly bandied, can be an important management tool, and Welch and Nayak propose models to assist with strategic outsourcing decisions.
15. See James Daly and Micbael Sullivan-Trainor, “Swing Your Partner, Do-Si-Dough,”
Computerworld, December 23, 1991/January 2, 1992, pp. 21-25.
16. In contrast to tbe widely publicized and potentially damaging alliances emerging among
major computer firms, many small Silicon Valley firms have built profitable dynamic
network reiationsbips. In these networks, many firms do nothing but design custom
computer cbips wbile others specialize in manufacturing tbese designs. In some
instances, designers have even shared some of tbeir expertise with large concems in
retum for access to manufacturing competence. Sucb networks emerge and are maintained by trust and by tbe recognition of unique competencies and mutual dependencies.
See Jobn Case, “Intimate Relations,” INC. (August 1990), pp. 64-72.
17. Miles and Snow (1986), op. cit., p. 65.
18. “Leaming From iap&n,” Business Week, op. cit., p. 59. Similar reiationsbips based on
full cost and profit infonnation sharing among Silicon Valley chip designers and manufacturers are described in Jobn Case, op. cit.
19. Snow, Miles, and Coleman, op. cit.
20. “Leaming From Japan,” op. cit., p. 59.

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