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Harv Bus Rev. 1999 Mar-Apr;77(2):133-41, 188.

Unbundling the corporation.

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  • 1McKinsey & Company, Palo Alto, CA, USA.


No matter how monolithic they may seem, most companies are really engaged in three kinds of businesses. One business attracts customers. Another develops products. The third oversees operations. Although organizationally intertwined, these businesses have conflicting characteristics. It takes a big investment to find and develop a relationship with a customer, so profitability hinges on achieving economies of scope. But speed, not scope, drives the economics of product innovation. And the high fixed costs of capital-intensive infrastructure businesses require economies of scale. Scope, speed, and scale can't be optimized simultaneously, so trade-offs have to be made when the three businesses are bundled into one corporation. Historically, they have been bundled because the interaction costs--the friction--incurred by separating them were too high. But we are on the verge of a worldwide reduction in interaction costs, the authors contend, as electronic networks drive down the costs of communicating and of exchanging data. Activities that companies have always believed were central to their businesses will suddenly be offered by new, specialized competitors that won't have to make trade-offs. Ultimately, the authors predict, traditional businesses will unbundle and then rebundle into large infrastructure and customer-relationship businesses and small, nimble product innovation companies. And executives in many industries will be forced to ask the most basic question about their companies: What business are we really in? Their answer will determine their fate in an increasingly frictionless economy.

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