Being Efficiently Fickle: A Dynamic Theory of Organizational Choice

47 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2002

See all articles by Jackson A. Nickerson

Jackson A. Nickerson

Washington University in St. Louis - John M. Olin Business School

Todd Zenger

University of Utah


A central proposition in organization theory is that discrete organizational forms are matched to environmental conditions, market strategies, or exchange conditions. This paper develops a contrary theoretical proposition. We argue that efficiency may dictate modulating between discrete governance modes (i.e., structural modulation) in response to a stable set of exchange conditions. If governance choices are discrete as much of organization theory argues, then the consequent steady-state functionality delivered by these organizational forms is itself discrete. However, if the desired functionality lies in between the steady-state functionality delivered by two discrete choices, then efficiency gains may be available by modulating between modes. We develop an analytical model of structural modulation and examine factors that influence when modulation is efficiency enhancing as well as the optimal rate of modulation. We conclude that, under certain conditions, structural modulation is efficiency enhancing. Further, contrary to theories that highlight the potentially destructive consequences of inertia on organizational survival, we identify important efficiency yielding benefits of inertia.

Keywords: organizational economics, organizational design, dynamics, organizational change, theory of the firm

JEL Classification: L22, L23, L14

Suggested Citation

Nickerson, Jackson A. and Zenger, Todd R., Being Efficiently Fickle: A Dynamic Theory of Organizational Choice. Available at SSRN: or

Jackson A. Nickerson (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - John M. Olin Business School ( email )

One Brookings Drive
Campus Box 1133
St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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314-935-6366 (Phone)
314-935-6359 (Fax)

Todd R. Zenger

University of Utah ( email )

David Eccles School of Business
1655 East Campus Center Drive
Salt Lake City, UT 84112
United States
801 585-3981 (Phone)
801 581-7939 (Fax)

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