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

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

Overview — Products are often said to "mirror" the architectures of the organization from which they come. Is there really a link between a product's architecture and the characteristics of the organization behind it? The coauthors of this working paper chose to analyze software products because of a unique opportunity to examine two different organizational modes for development, comparing open-source with proprietary "closed-source" software. The results have important implications for development organizations given the recent trend toward "open" approaches to innovation and the increased use of partnering in research and development projects. Key concepts include:

  • A product's architecture tends to mirror the structure of the organization within which it is developed.
  • New organizational arrangements can have a distinct impact on the nature of the resulting design, and hence may affect product performance in unintended ways.
  • There are substantial differences in relative levels of modularity between software systems of similar size and function.

Author Abstract

A variety of academic work asserts that a relationship exists between the structure of a development organization and the architecture of the products that this organization produces. Specifically, products are often said to "mirror" the architectures of the organizations from which they come. Such a link, if confirmed empirically, would be important, given that product architecture has been shown to be an important predictor of, among other things: product performance; product variety; process flexibility; and future industry evolution. We explore this relationship in the software industry by use of a technique called Design Structure Matrices (DSMs), which allows us to visualize the architectures of different software products and to calculate metrics to compare their levels of modularity. We use DSMs to analyze a number of matched-pair products--products that fulfill the same function but that have been developed via contrasting modes of organization; specifically, closed-source (or proprietary) versus open-source (or distributed) development. Our results reveal significant differences in modularity, consistent with a view that distributed teams tend to develop more modular products. We conclude by highlighting some implications of this result and assessing how future work in this field should proceed, based upon these first steps in measuring "design."

Paper Information