Designing for Complexity: Using Divisions and Hierarchy to Manage Complex Tasks
Organization Science, Vol. 24, No. 2, March–April 2013, pp. 339–355
38 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2012 Last revised: 9 Oct 2014
Date Written: January 17, 2012
This paper studies the impact of task complexity and decomposability on the degree of organizational divisionalization and hierarchy within firms. Drawing upon the team theory and modularity literature, it argues that the degree of divisionalization is not only predicated on the extent of interdependence (complexity) amongst tasks, but also on the extent to which those interdependent relationships are decomposable. As such, the feasibility and benefits of modularization in organizational design may be overstated when the underlying tasks are not decomposable. In addition, the paper argues that organizational hierarchy serves to mitigate the tension between complexity and decomposability by facilitating a higher degree of divisionalization. These arguments are tested using data about the business activities and organization structures of U.S. equipment manufacturers in 1993-2003. Results show that divisionalization increases with task complexity, suggesting that complex task systems encourage more division of managerial responsibilities. However, divisionalization decreases as task systems become less decomposable. Meanwhile, organizational hierarchy increases with task complexity, and it increases as task systems become less decomposable. These findings highlight the constraints firms face in designing modular organization structures and the role of hierarchy in coordinating complex task systems that are not fully decomposable.
Keywords: division, hierarchy, organization structure, complexity, decomposability, modularity
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