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Organization in American MNCs: the perspective of the European regional headquarters.

Daniel Sullivan, Assistant Professor of International Business, A.B. Freeman School of Business, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, U.S.A.

In the MNC, perceiving opportunities for integration requires a multicountry view of company, competitive, and political conditions. As such, home office managers typically champion multinational integration and a mechanistic organization (Doz 1986). Conversely, proximity to local conditions prompts subsidiary managers to advocate national responsiveness and an organic design (Bartlett/Ghoshal 1989). So predictable are these predispositions that Doz and Prahalad (1984, p. 57) conclude "needs for responsiveness typically enter the MNC via subsidiary managers, whereas needs for integration are more acutely perceived by headquarters executives." Predictable too is the division of research of organization in the MNC. One group sets headquarters as the point of reference (Heenan/Perlmutter 1979, Bartlett 1981, Bartlett/Ghosal 1989, Daniels et al. 1984, Doz 1986, Edstrom/Galbraith 1977, Egelhoff 1989, Roth/Morrison 1990) while another sets subsidiary characteristics as the principal research variables (Goehle 1980, Cray 1984, Garnier 1982, Hulbert/Brandt 1980).

Child (1972) suggests something may be amiss. He cautioned that the definition of the sample in terms of its organizational status can lead to different findings. Systematic error arises, Hambrick (1981) added, because of the differing perceptions of senior executives and subordinates. Taking heed of these warnings, we study organization in American MNCs from the perspective of managers of the European regional headquarters (RHQ). The view from the RHQ is theoretically ideal because its mission is to manage the tension between headquarters' call for global efficiency and local subsidiaries' push for national effectiveness (Heenan/Perlmutter 1979). Executing this mandate requires the regional executive maintain a matrix of sensitivities, alert to the imperative of pooling resources, gaining synergies, promoting standardization, and managing product cycles while simultaneously safeguarding the benefits of subsidiaries' responsiveness to local employees, competitors, markets, and governments (Daniels 1987).

Research Themes

Three themes guide this research. The first marks the relationship between the co-called "science" and "art" of business that delineates the firm's formal structure versus its informal substructure (Pascale 1977).(1) Traditionally, study of organization in the MNC has emphasized the technical elements of an MNC's organization under the presumption that managers objectively prescribe the "idealized rationality" of the desired structure by impartially allocating roles, rules, and responsibilities among managers, units, and divisions (Stopford/Wells 1972; Egelhoff 1989). Recent work has highlighted the social elements of organization, emphasizing the influence of the "dialectical rationality" that is enacted by the informal substructure and that sanctions patterns of decision making that do not singly respect the standards of efficiency (Benson 1977, Ranson et al. 1980, Greenwood/Hinings 1988, Prahalad 1983). Cases studies that address this issue report that organization in the MNCs is a self-sustaining merger of formal and informal processes configured to meditate political and economic imperatives (Bower 1970, Bartlett 1981, Prahalad/Doz 1987, Bartlett/Ghosal 1989). However, scant research has empirically analyzed the interdependence of the prescribed framework and substructure perspectives, especially with respect to organization in the MNC. Therefore, we take the position that integrated study of the formal structure and informal substructure explains how managers develop the modes of interpretation, rules of action, and provinces of meaning that enact an organization (Ranson et al. 1980).

The second theme is that the coordination and control tasks of Doz's (1986) generic global strategies reveal characteristics of the organization of an MNC. Hymer's (1976) exposition of the theory of multinational enterprise suggest that the administrative requirements of the multinational integration, national responsiveness, and multifocal strategies overlap on a variety of dimensions. However, as Doz (1986) induces and Roth and Morrison (1990) corroborate, the unique imperatives of global standardization, local adaptation, and multinational incrementalism create organizational tasks that vary fundamentally.

The third theme is that environmental uncertainty and internal interdependence enrich interpretation of organization in an MNC. The dynamism of political, social, economic, and institutional conditions facing an MNC supports extending Thompson's (1967, p. 159) declaration that uncertainty "appears as the fundamental problem for complex organizations and coping with uncertainty as the essence of the administrative process." Internalization theory notes that the MNC invariably devises a system of interdependent producers, distributors, and consumers. Making this system perform efficiently requires structures and processes to "achieve unity of effort among the various subsystems in the accomplishment of the organization's task" (Lawrence/Lorsch 1967, p. 4). In spite of the inevitability of internalization, Caves (1982) note the variability to which a MNC internalizes market transactions.

Research propositions

Table 1 lists the propositions of this study, with the independent variables -- strategy type, uncertainty, and interdependence running vertically -- and the dependent variables -- centralization, formalization, culture, and management transfer -- running horizontally. In addition, under each proposition is the TABULAR DATA OMITTED predicted direction of the relationship. A contingency view prevails since it forces the issue of strategic, structural, and process coherence.

Research measures

As did Duncan (1972), we measure uncertainty in terms of socio-political, competitive, and technological dynamism. Also, we define interdependence as did Thompson (1967) and measure it with question from Arpan et al. (1986) that asked about linkages among discrete value activities.

Following Doz's (1986) conceptualization, we classified a firm's strategy as multinational integration, national responsiveness, or multifocal. As shown with their domestic analogs -- Porter's generic strategies -- this typology can identify "different" global strategies (Roth/Morrison 1990). Similarly, various literatures suggest that the technical design of an organization centers on processes of centralization and formalization -- how the firm formally sets roles, relationships, and responsibilities (March/Simon 1958, Stopford/Wells 1972) while the social design is the province of company culture and management transfer -- dimensions that explain the nature, pattern, and mode of decision making (Astley/Van de Ven 1983, Bartlett/Ghosal 1989).

Operationalizing these strategic and organizational variables relied on surveying empirical precedents that were then corroborated through two techniques. The researcher spent six months as a strategic planner with the European RHQ of the 3M corporation. During this time, discussions were conducted with headquarters, regional, and subsidiary personnel of 3M. This data was supplemented with interviews of senior executives of the European RHQs of five other U.S. MNCs. Besides its tendency toward measurement error, it is impossible to determine the reliability of a single item measure (Nunnally 1978, p. 67). Conversely, multi-item scales permit designing controls that reduce the possibly that inflated or deflated measurement error causes a Type I or II error in hypothesis testing. Therefore, multi-item scales operationalized the dependent and independent variables.


Western Europe was the research setting largely because of the extensive integration program of the European Community. Moreover, the general equilibrium among big business, big government, and big labor in Europe offsets the random variation found in other regional markets (Daniels 1986). We only studied U.S. MNCs due to the political and cultural confounds present in non-American firms (Franko 1976, Ouchi 1981). The questionnaire sample was U.S. manufacturing firms with at least one billion U.S. dollars in sales and which had set-up a RHQ with line responsibilities within Western Europe. Firms that had established a regional staff unit, such as a sales office or legal and tax department, were excluded.

Data collection

Data was collected during my stint with 3M Europe as well as interviews conducted with and questionnaires completed by senior executives of the European RHQs of several other U.S. MNCs. The questionnaire was pretested by two executives and modified accordingly. Introductory phone calls, two mail-outs, and follow-up phones calls yielded 26 questionnaires for a response rate of 60 percent. Non-respondents explained that company policy or personal philosophy discouraged participation. Follow-up interviews were conducted with senior managers at five of the responding firms in 1990.

Sample characteristics

Comparison of the respondents and non-respondents and their associated firms found no significant differences in professional characteristics as well as distribution of sales, product-market scope, or the size of the RHQ. 14 respondents were Directors of Strategic Planning, 7 were the Managing Directors of the RHQ, and 5 were senior vice presidents. The respondents averaged 20 years of experience in their respective industry. Their firms were large in size, marked by medium to high capital intensities, characterized by both low and high technological and marketing concentrations, and utilized both continuous processing and batch production methods.

Data analysis

The "item-total analysis for constructing homogenous measures" procedure tested the reliability of each measurement scale (Nunnally 1978). This procedure reduced each scale by at least one but no more than three measures. The alpha coefficients ranged from a low of 0.55 for management transfer to a high of 0.72 for formalization while for the independent variables, they ranged from 0.49 for national responsiveness to 0.88 for uncertainty. Pearson Product Moment correlations tested the research propositions while stepwise regression clarified connections. Controls for multi-collinearity were used if needed.


As hypothesized, Table 2 shows the respondents connected centralization with the "system-wide optimization" logic of multinational integration (Doz 1986, p. 15). Decentralization predictably prevailed in nationally responsive MNCs. This finding has some limits: managers in responsive firms, in original and follow-up interviews, explained that they moderated subsidiaries' autonomy in terms of a subjective division of strategic versus operational decisions. Brooke and Remmers (1970, p. 67) reported a similar situation, finding that while home office managers often professed the virtues of delegation, in practice "an ideology of decentralization masks a reality of centralization." Against expectation, centralization and the multifocal strategy were strongly related. The data suggests that managers implementing a multifocal strategy used methods of authority that, to borrow Hulbert and Brandt's (1980) terms, were "personal" rather than "systemic." Centralizing decision-making was not significantly related to uncertainty, an expected finding given that uncertainty is a "universally poor predictor" of centralization (Miller/Droge 1986, p. 553).

Expectedly, managers saw formalization as useful to direct multinational integration yet not significant in implementing national responsiveness. Formalization did not link with the multifocal strategy, a result fitting Ouchi's (1981) finding that a loosening-up of rules is associated with "personal" forms of centralization. Interviews found the link between formalization and uncertainty largely resulted from senior executives' concern that if unchecked, data from subsidiaries would either take the form of a tidal wave or a trickle. Egelhoff (1989) also found that formalizing planning procedures improved information processing.


Throughout the interviews, respondents explained that a strong company culture unified executives' views and actions across levels, functions, areas, and products. However, there was a weak statistical connection between culture and both multinational integration and national responsiveness while culture and multifocal strategy had the strongest association in the study. Similarly, culture and interdependence were strongly related, a predictable outcome given Van den Ven and Walker's (1984) report that defusing conflict between interdependent units depended on a consensus that had been built on mutual experiences, complementary interests, and collective norms. The significance of culture with uncertainty, the interviews corroborated, is largely explained by the notion that uncertainty is more the outcome of invention than discovery (Smircich/Stubbart 1984).

The links between management transfer with multinational integration and national responsiveness followed from the practice of staffing so that, as one regional executive explained, "the right people make the right decisions." Administering multinational integration pushed senior managers to post "integrators" (Lawrence/Lorsch 1967) in so-called "strategic pivots" in order to connect headquarters, the RHQ, and subsidiaries. Conversely, the respondents suggested that expatriates assigned to differentiated subsidiaries, rather than performing as formal technocratic integrators, performed more as informal "linking pins" (Likert 1967). The connection between interdependence and management transfer is highly significant, an outcome that follows Edstrom and Galbraith's (1977, p. 14) report that ensuring the efficiency of the internal market compels staffing the 'right' people in "critical boundary spanning positions."


The comments, views, and judgements or regional managers neither contradict nor conform to prevailing notions of organization in the MNC. Rather, they argue for refining our understanding by interpreting the connections, confounds, and correlates among strategic and organizational variables within the MNC. Principles of the organizational and international business literatures steer discussion toward the processes of centralization, formalization, and enculturation.

Processes of centralization rationalized decision-making so that executives, especially those facing rivals emphasizing unit cost reductions, could directly command their far-flung organization. Several managers noted that the integration of Europe, in particular, compelled designing synoptic planning and control systems to gain regional scale effects. The linkage of relative efficiency and regional competitiveness focused implementation on insuring the predictability of subsidiaries' activities. Stopford and Wells (1972) reported that managers designing a centralized organization relied on technical methods and deemphasized behavioral modes. However, virtually all interviewees noted the difficulty of defusing local managers' reluctance to subordinate company agendas to national interests. Some executives explained that the home office or RHQ occasionally would try the "velvet-enshrouded steel-first" approach. Subsidiary managers' routine reaction of opportunism or intransigence provoked enacting a humanistic hierarchy. Thus, consistent with the prediction of organizations tried to influence the dialectic rationality of the informal substructure in the belief that a corporate culture that is "symbolically appropriate" with company and national values "frees individuals from having to make deliberate choices from among the host of possibilities" (Thompson 1967, p. 102). Managers in the centralized MNC developing this "decision-making culture" tended to act on the substructure by posting technocratic "integrator" who could directly mesh geocentric programs with regional and local conditions.

Many managers noted that top-down direction often contradicted local environmental pressures and strategic conditions, to say nothing about taxing their bounded rationality (March/Simon 1958). Coordinating the efforts of differentiated subsidiaries pressed top managers to create standards and ensure predictability through processes of formalization. The MNC using these processes tended to rely on formal planning and control systems that unified the modes of interpretation among headquarters, regional, and local managers (Ranson et al. 1980, Daniels 1986). However, differing conditions and mentalities across markets, regional and local managers explained, threatened the idealized consistency of formalization. Preempting this risk pressed headquarters and regional managers to try to shape a "comprehensive decision making culture" across function, products, and markets. The inability to prescribe this outlook directly pushed regional executives to supplement processes of formalization with those of enculturation. Enculturating managers, as Edstrom and Galbraith (1977, p. 251) also found, meant "the functional behaviors and rules for determining them (decisions) were learned and internalized by individuals, thereby obviating the need for procedures, hierarchial communications and surveillances." Effecting this attitude spurred managers to influence the substructure by designing a planning framework that typically mandated collaboration between, say, American, British, German, French, and Italian managers. Such a design, whether executed through an ad hoc Euro-team or standing European Management Committee, formally decentralized decision making yet created informal social sets that facilitated the construction of shared meanings (Smircich/Stubbart 1984), improved the flexibility of decision making (Bower 1970), prompted negotiations over belief structures (Benson 1977), supported concensual validation of reality (Ouchi 1981), and encouraged administrative consistency (Bartlett/Ghosal 1989).

Processes of centralization or formalization, while preferable to many regional and home office managers, were not always possible. Environmental dislocations, such as an activist host government, strategic contingencies, such as unique product standards, or performance pressures, such as the need to lower overhead by dismantling nonessential supervisory structures, pushed some firms to emphasize processing of enculturation to define an organization. Trying to create universal meaning, order, and relevance in the face of several local managers collecting, processing, and communicating a diversity of information pushed regional executives to manage decision making by managing the dialectic rationality of the substructure (Cray 1984). More fundamentally, executives explained that shaping the way decision are made helped to legitimate preferred behaviors as well as bring about integrative mechanisms of social control (Jaeger 1983, Greenwood/Hinings 1988). On several occasions, executives explained that developing common reference points among superiors, colleagues, and subordinates assisted planning and control far more that an artfully designed structure, beliefs supportive of Bartlett's (1981, p. 140) report that managers need not regard the task of organization "as one of finding and installing the right structure, but one of building an appropriate management process."

Social construction of an organization is particularly risky in the MNC. The language, distance, time, and cultural gaps endemic to international business give local managers considerable discretion to behave in their self-, product-, or geographic-interests. Constraining such opportunism, as Cray (1984) found, required supplementing social controls of corporate culture precisely because conflict between corporate and national cultures reduced the former's influence. Resolving this quandary meant symbolically and operationally reinforcing the MNC's constituted context of meaning by staffing formal integrators as well as informal linking pins in "critical boundary spanning positions" (Edstrom/Galbraith 1977). Technocratic integrators' maintenance of headquarters' preferred operating standards along with linking pins' preservation of local flexibility bolstered consensus and constrained opportunism.


This study did not aspire to develop a typology of environment-strategy-organization gestalts. It sought to abstract from the administrative configurations of American MNCs, as seen from the perspective of their European RHQ, the patterning of formal and informal processes of organization. Such abstraction begins to answer calls to develop a "measure of synthesis" within the debate over whether organizations are technically constrained or socially constructed systems (Astley/Van de Ven 1983, Greenwood/Hinings 1988).

As noted earlier, research of organization in the MNC often looks at the surface architecture of structure or the social dynamic of the substructure. While some studies have evaluated the nexus of these views, their case methodology has limited the generalizability of their reports. The findings of this research, however, confirm their fundamental proposition: explaining organization in the MNC requires integrating the views of an organization as a prescribed formal system with that stressing its informal behavioral dynamic.

Joint consideration of regional executives' views of technical and behavioral measures of organization discriminated the properties, correlates, and interrelationships of what has been labeled "structural context" (Bower 1970), "the zen of management" (Pascale 1977), "the appropriate management process" (Bartlett 1981), "strategic context" (Burgelman/Sayles 1983), "comprehensive decision making culture" (Prahalad 1983), and "organizational context" (Prahalad/Doz 1987). In doing so, the respondents advise interpreting organization in the MNC by understanding how executives interrelate technical and behavioral dimension of organization to create coherence among the processes of centralization, formalization, and enculturation.

More practically, Figure 2 expresses a conceptual principle used by a variety of disciplines, including social research, Freudian psychology, theoretical mathematics, and optical physics. Regarding the latter, for example, Burnham et al. (1963) note that configuring the primary colors red, blue, and yellow as the vertices of an equilateral triangle permits one to describe any hue in the chromatic scale as a point within the triangle. So, we believe, it is with organization in the MNC: setting the processes of centralization, formalization, and enculturation serve as the vertices in an equilateral triangle permits one to describe the character and dynamic of any MNC's organization. Thus, these findings suggest that conceptualizing organization in an MNC as a blend of the formal and informal structures and then researching organization in an MNC as a interactive design of the processes of centralization, formalization, and enculturation is necessary to understanding organization in the MNC.

Managerial implications

The lack of explicit performance data prevent identifying the superior configuration of the processes of centralization, formalization, and enculturation. Contingency theory, however, suggest this question distorts discussion. Rather, at issue is the inference of possible design principles from the interviews findings and empirical results. Bartlett and Ghoshal's (1989) exposition of the necessity of a "matrix mentality" to deal with the functional, area, and product matters of international business confirm the peril of overemphasizing a single dimension. Similarly, these results advise managers to avoid reducing organization design to a two variable set of simultaneous equations in the belief that the resulting dialectic will function as effective checks and balances. Instead, the premise of an equilateral triangle underscores the necessity of striking the right balance, or as Pascale (1977) might propose, achieving a "zen" harmony among the processes of centralization, formalization, and enculturation.


1 Some may note that formal measures of a firm's structure -- i.e. the configuration of the hierarchy, scope of spans of control, and protocols of information management -- are vital to explaining a MNC's organization. However, this research emphasized the character of organizational process rather than the content of the organizational hierarchy. The practices of leading MNCs advocate this approach, with the CEO of Becton Dickinson noting "Forget structure invented by the guys at the top" (Dumaine, 1991, p. 36) while the business development manager of General Electric explained "we should have focused more on how things got done that what things got done" (Stewart, 1991, 44).


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Title Annotation:multinational corporations
Author:Sullivan, Daniel
Publication:Management International Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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