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Interfirm Modularity and Its Implications for Product Development


  • Nancy Staudenmayer,

  • Mary Tripsas,

  • Christopher L. Tucci

  • *We wish to gratefully acknowledge the support and feedback we received on this article from the editor of JPIM, Abbie Griffin, two anonymous JPIM referees, Lynda Applegate, Michael Cusumano, Michael Hitt, Alan MacCormack, Spencer Palocz, and Lori Rosenkopf. We also wish to thank the Hartman Center at The Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and the Division of Research at the Harvard Business School for funding this research.

Address correspondence to: Christopher Tucci, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL-CdM-CSI, Odyssea 1.04, Station 5, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland. Tel.:+41.21.693.0023. Email:


Industries characterized by interfirm modularity, in which the component products of different firms work together to create a system, are becoming increasingly widespread. In such industries, the existence of a common architecture enables consumers to mix and match the products of different firms. Industries ranging from stereos, cameras, and bicycles to computers, printing, and wireless services are now characterized by interfirm modularity. While the increasing presence of this context has been documented, the implications for the product development process remain underdeveloped. For the present study, in-depth field-based case studies of seven firms experiencing an environment of interfirm modularity were conducted in order to deepen understanding of this important phenomenon. What unique challenges did this context pose and why? What solutions did firms experiment with, and which seemed to work?

Based on an inductive process of data analysis from these case studies, three primary categories of challenges raised by this environment were identified. First, firms were frustrated at their lack of control over the definition of their own products. The set of features and functions in products were constrained to a great extent by an architecture that the firm did not control. Second, while an environment of interfirm modularity should in theory eliminate interdependencies among firms since interfaces between products are defined ex-ante, the present study found, ironically, that interdependencies were ubiquitous. Interdependencies continually emerged throughout the product development process, despite efforts to limit them. Third, firms found that the quantity and variegated nature of external relationships made their management exceedingly difficult. The sheer complexity was daunting, given both the size of the external network as well as the number of ties per external collaborator. Partners with whom control over the architecture was shared often had divergent interests—or at least not fully convergent interests.

The solutions to these challenges were creative and in many cases counter to established wisdom. For instance, research has suggested many ways for a firm to influence architectural standards. While the firms in the present sample followed some of this advice, they also focused on a more neglected aspect of architecture—the compliance and testing standards that accompany modules and interfaces. By concentrating their efforts in a different area, even smaller firms in this sample were able to have some influence. Instead of focusing on the elimination of interdependencies, it was found that firms benefited from concentrating on the management of interdependencies as they emerged. Finally, while layers of management and “bureaucracy” are often viewed as unproductive, these firms found that adding structure, through positions such as Relationship Manager, was highly beneficial in handling the coordination and control of a wide range of external relationships.