Relational Contracts and Organizational Capabilities

by R. Gibbons & R. Henderson

Overview — If capabilities are indeed a source of sustained competitive advantage, why don't they diffuse more rapidly? Capabilities diffuse slowly even when managers acknowledge that they are behind and are spending heavily to catch up, and where there appears to be industrywide agreement about best practice. This paper by R. Gibbons and R. Henderson suggests that the often slow diffusion of competitively significant capabilities is because many key managerial practices rely on relational contracts: an economist's term for collaboration sustained by the shadow of the future, as opposed to formal contracts enforced by courts. Building these relational contracts requires moving beyond task knowledge to the development of "relational knowledge." Relational knowledge may be substantially more difficult to develop than task knowledge both because there is much more of it and because its acquisition is complicated by incentive problems. Overall, while it is well established that organizations are replete with relational contracts, these informal understandings may be one of the reasons that competitively important practices are sometimes surprisingly slow to diffuse. Key concepts include:

  • Many organizational capabilities rest on managerial practices that in turn rely on relational contracts, informal agreements sustained by the shadow of the future.
  • Many relational contracts are hard to build and to refine, and that this is often why managers "can't get the organization to get it done."
  • Building and refining relational contracts requires solving two distinct problems: the problem of credibility and the problem of clarity. Each of these problems can be quite difficult in isolation, and in combination they may create a substantial barrier to imitation.

Author Abstract

A large literature identifies unique organizational capabilities as a potent source of competitive advantage, yet our knowledge of why capabilities fail to diffuse more rapidly-particularly in situations in which competitors apparently have strong incentives to adopt them and a well developed understanding of how they work-remains incomplete. In this paper we suggest that competitively significant capabilities often rest on managerial practices that in turn rely on relational contracts (i.e., informal agreements sustained by the shadow of the future). We argue that one of the reasons these practices may be difficult to copy is that effective relational contracts must solve the twin problems of credibility and clarity, and that while credibility might in principle be instantly acquired, clarity may take time to develop and may interact with credibility in complex ways, so that relational contracts may often be difficult to build.

Paper Information