From Manufacturing to Design: An Essay on the Work of Kim B. Clark

by Sylvain Lenfle & Carliss Y. Baldwin

Overview — The interdisciplinary research of economist Kim Clark, former dean of Harvard Business School and now President of Brigham Young University-Idaho, occupies a unique place in management scholarship for three reasons. First, he tended to focus on little known and under-appreciated management groups such as manufacturing managers, product development managers, and product and process architects. Thus, he directly positioned himself outside the "traditional" management disciplines of strategy, finance, marketing, and organizational behavior. Second, he swam against the academic tide by recognizing the power of comparative and longitudinal field studies. Third, he sought frameworks beyond his own field in design theory, the engineering sciences, and finance. This paper reviews his research contributions over almost thirty years. Key concepts include:

  • Throughout his career, Clark has brought fresh insights to old questions and opened up new territories of research.
  • He helped to replace Frederick Taylor's scientific management principles with the dynamic concepts of continual learning and learning organizations.
  • Clark showed how product development could be actively managed for greater efficiency and effectiveness.
  • He developed a theory of the embedding of knowledge in organizations, which he used to explain why established firms often fail in the face of "seemingly minor innovations."
  • He showed how changes in the modular structure of products and processes could bring about fundamental change in the structure of industries.
  • Finally, in Clark's later works, he built bridges from design theory to user innovation, transaction- and knowledge-based theories of the firm, and strategy.

Author Abstract

Kim Clark occupies a unique place in management scholarship. As a member of the Technology and Operations Management unit of Harvard Business School, he participated in several major research initiatives during the 1980s and early 1990s, before becoming Dean of the School in 1995. And even as Dean, he continued to pursue research until 2005, when he left Harvard to become President of Brigham Young University-Idaho. In this paper, we describe Clark's research and discuss his contributions to management and economics. We look at three distinct bodies of work. In the first, Clark (in conjunction with Robert Hayes and Steven Wheelwright) argued that the abandonment by U.S. managers of manufacturing as a strategic function exposed U.S. companies to Japanese competition. In the second research stream, conducted with Wheelwright, Bruce Chew, Takahiro Fujimoto, Kent Bowen and Marco Iansiti, Clark made the case that product development could be managed in new ways that would lead to significant competitive advantage for firms. Finally, in work conducted with Abernathy, Rebecca Henderson and Carliss Baldwin, Clark placed product and process designs at the center of his explanation of how innovation determines the structure and evolution of industries.

Paper Information