Breaking the vicious circle of subsidiary isolation: a meta-synthesis of subsidiary initiative-taking

  • Maike Simon
  • Susanne Royer
Keywords: subsidiary isolation; subsidiary initiative; meta-synthesis; subsidiary entrepreneurship; process model


Purpose of the paper: We aim at contributing to the current controversial discussion on the vicious circle of subsidiary isolation. Therefore, we (1) strive for a better understanding of the different stages of initiative undertaking and (2) investigate how subsidiaries can make use of this process to attract HQ attention and break out of isolation.

Methodology: Building on Schmid et al.'s (2014) process model of subsidiary initiative development, we adopt a meta-synthesis as our research strategy and combine and interpret the findings from a set of systematically chosen case studies.

Results: Our findings suggest that the impact of subsidiary characteristics varies considerably over time during the process. For the case of isolated subsidiaries, we adapt Schmid et al.'s  (2014) process model and show how an isolated subsidiary can attract HQ attention due to subsidiary initiative taking at the subsidiary level.

Research limitations: The included case studies have not been conducted to answer our research questions and our search strategy may have excluded further relevant studies.

Practical implications: While managers of less-embedded subsidiaries should be aware of possible HQ resistance and show persistence over time, HQ managers should use HQ monitoring and reporting to detect silent, but motivated subsidiaries. Further, HQ managers are challenged to balance their (positive) attention towards subsidiaries.

Originality of the paper: The paper is original in its use of a meta-synthesis that enables a more holistic and finer-grained understanding of subsidiary initiative processes and draws the attention to aspects that are underrepresented in the current body of subsidiary initiative research.


ACHCAOUCAOU F., MIRAVITLLES P., LEÓN-DARDER F. (2014), “Knowledge sharing and subsidiary R&D mandate development: A matter of dual embeddedness”, International Business Review, vol. 23, n. 1, pp. 76-90.

ACQUIER A., CARBONE V., MOATTI V. (2018), ““Teaching the Sushi Chef”: Hybridization Work and CSR Integration in a Japanese Multinational Company”, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 148, n. 3, pp. 625-645.

ALMEIDA P., PHENE A. (2004), “Subsidiaries and knowledge creation: the influence of the MNC and host country on innovation”, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 25, n. 89, pp. 847-864.

AMBOS T.C., ANDERSSON U., BIRKINSHAW J. (2010), “What are the consequences of initiative-taking in multinational subsidiaries?”, Journal of International Business Studies, vol. 41, n. 7, pp. 1099-1118.

AMBOS T.C., BIRKINSHAW J. (2010), “Headquarters’ Attention and Its Effect on Subsidiary Performance”, Management International Review, vol. 50, n. 4, pp. 449-469.

ANDERSSON U., FORSGREN M., HOLM U. (2002), “The strategic impact of external networks: subsidiary performance and competence development in the multinational corporation”, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 23, n. 11, pp. 979-996.

ANDERSSON U., FORSGREN M., HOLM U. (2007), “Balancing subsidiary influence in the federative MNC: a business network view”, Journal of International Business Studies, vol. 38, n. 5, pp. 802-818.

BARTLETT C.A., GHOSHAL S. (1989), Managing across borders, The transnational solution, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Mass.

BIRKINSHAW J. (1997), “Entrepreneurship in multinational corporations: The characteristics of subsidiary initiatives”, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 18, n. 3, pp. 207-229.

BIRKINSHAW J., FRY N. (1998), “Subsidiary initiatives to develop new markets”, Sloan Management Review, vol. 39, n. 3, pp. 51-61.

BIRKINSHAW J., HOOD N., JONSSON S. (1998), “Building firm-specific advantages in multinational corporations: the role of subsidiary initiative”, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 19, n. 3, pp. 221-242.

BIRKINSHAW J., RIDDERSTRÅLE J. (1999), “Fighting the corporate immune system: a process study of subsidiary initiatives in multinational corporations”, International Business Review, vol. 8, n. 2, pp. 149-180.

BOOJIHAWON D.K., DIMITRATOS P., YOUNG S. (2007), “Characteristics and influences of multinational subsidiary entrepreneurial culture: The case of the advertising sector”, International Business Review, vol. 16, n. 5, pp. 549-572.

BOUQUET C., BIRKINSHAW J. (2008a), “Managing Power in the Multinational Corporation: How Low-Power Actors Gain Influence”, Journal of Management, vol. 34, n. 3, pp. 477-508.

BOUQUET C., BIRKINSHAW J. (2008b), “Weight Versus Voice: How Foreign Subsidiaries Gain Attention From Corporate Headquarters”, Academy of Management Journal, vol. 51, n. 3, pp. 577-601.

BOUQUET C., BIRKINSHAW J., BARSOUX J.L. (2016), “Fighting the “headquarters knows best” syndrome”, MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 57, n. 2, pp. 59-66.

CIABUSCHI F., DELLESTRAND H., MARTÍN O.M. (2011), “Internal Embeddedness, Headquarters Involvement, and Innovation Importance in Multinational Enterprises”, Journal of Management Studies, vol. 48, n. 7, pp. 1612-1639.

CONROY K.M., COLLINGS D.G. (2016), “The legitimacy of subsidiary issue selling: Balancing positive & negative attention from corporate headquarters”, Journal of World Business, vol. 51, n. 4, pp. 612-627.

DÖRRENBÄCHER C., GAMMELGAARD J. (2016), “Subsidiary initiative taking in multinational corporations: the relationship between power and issue selling”, Organization Studies, vol. 37, n. 9, pp. 1249-1270.

DÖRRENBÄCHER C., GEPPERT M. (2009), “A micro-political perspective on subsidiary initiative-taking: Evidence from German-owned subsidiaries in France”, European Management Journal, vol. 27, n. 2, pp. 100-112.

DÖRRENBÄCHER C., GEPPERT M. (2010), “Subsidiary staffing and initiative-taking in multinational corporations: A socio-political perspective”, Personnel Review, vol. 39, n. 5, pp. 600-621.

DUTTON J.E., ASHFORD S.J. (1993), “Selling issues to top management”, Academy of Management Review, vol. 18, n. 3, pp. 397-428.

EISENHARDT K.M., GRAEBNER M.E. (2007), “Theory Building From Cases: Opportunities And Challenges”, Academy of Management Journal, vol. 50, n. 1, pp. 25-32.

FINFGELD-CONNETT D. (2010), “Generalizability and transferability of meta-synthesis research findings”, Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol. 66, n. 2, pp. 246-254.

FINFGELD-CONNETT D. (2018), A Guide to Qualitative Meta-synthesis, 1st ed., Taylor and Francis, Milton.

GORGIJEVSKI A., HOLMSTRÖM LIND C., LAGERSTRÖM,K. (2019), “Does proactivity matter? the importance of initiative selling tactics for headquarters acceptance of subsidiary initiatives”, Journal of International Management, vol. 25, n. 4, p. 100673.

GUPTA A.K., GOVINDARAJAN V. (1991), “Knowledge flows and the structure of control within multinational corporations”, Academy of Management Review, vol. 16, n. 4, pp. 768-792.

HAMPRECHT J., SCHWARZKOPF J. (2014), “Subsidiary initiatives in the institutional environment”, Management International Review, vol. 54, n. 5, pp. 757-778.

HOON C. (2013), “Meta-synthesis of qualitative case studies”, Organizational Research Methods, vol. 16, n. 4, pp. 522-556.

LEICK B., GRETZINGER S. (2018), “Brokerage and governance for business networks: a metasynthesis-based discussion”, Journal of Management and Governance, vol. 22, n. 4, pp. 773-804.

MICHAILOVA S., MUSTAFFA Z. (2012), “Subsidiary knowledge flows in multinational corporations:, Research accomplishments, gaps, and opportunities”, Journal of World Business, vol. 47, n. 3, pp. 383-396.

MONTEIRO L.F., ARVIDSSON N., BIRKINSHAW J. (2008), “Knowledge Flows Within Multinational Corporations: Explaining Subsidiary Isolation and Its Performance Implications”, Organization Science, vol. 19, n. 1, pp. 90-107.

NADAYAMA N. (2019), “Isolated foreign subsidiary's initiative in knowledge transfer within the MNE”, Journal of International Management, vol. 25, n. 2, p. 100652.

PETTIGREW A.M. (1992), “The character and significance of strategy process research”, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 13, S2, pp. 5-16.

SAKA-HELMHOUT A. (2009), “Agency-based view of learning within the multinational corporation”, Management Learning, vol. 40, n. 3, pp. 259-274.

SCHMID S., DZEDEK L.R., LEHRER M. (2014), “From Rocking the Boat to Wagging the Dog: A Literature Review of Subsidiary Initiative Research and Integrative Framework”, Journal of International Management, vol. 20, n. 2, pp. 201-218.

SCHWEIZER R., LAGERSTRÖM K. (2019), ““Wag the Dog” initiatives and the corporate immune system”, Multinational Business Review, vol. 28, n. 1, pp. 109-127.

STRUTZENBERGER A., AMBOS T.C. (2014), “Unravelling the Subsidiary Initiative Process: A Multilevel Approach”, International Journal of Management Reviews, vol. 16, n. 3, pp. 314-339.

TIPPMANN E., SCOTT P.S., MANGEMATIN V. (2012), “Problem solving in MNCs: How local and global solutions are (and are not) created”, Journal of International Business Studies, vol. 43, n. 8, pp. 746-771.

UL HAQ H. (2017), “Trapped in a vicious circle: can low-weight subsidiaries get headquarters’ attention?”, Critical perspectives on international business, vol. 13, n. 2, pp. 166-179.

UL HAQ H., DROGENDIJK R., HOLM D.B. (2017), “Attention in words, not in deeds: Effects of attention dissonance on headquarters-subsidiary communication in multinational corporations”, Journal of World Business, vol. 52, n. 1, pp. 111-123.

YAMIN M., ANDERSSON U. (2011), “Subsidiary importance in the MNC: What role does internal embeddedness play?”, International Business Review, vol. 20, n. 2, pp. 151-162.

YIN R.K. (2014), Case study research, Design and methods, 5. edition, Sage, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington, DC.

YOUNG S., DIMITRATOS P., DANA L.P. (2003), “International Entrepreneurship Research: What Scope for International Business Theories?”, Journal of International Entrepreneurship, vol. 1, n. 1, pp. 31-42.

ZIETSMA C., LAWRENCE T.B. (2010), “Institutional Work in the Transformation of an Organizational Field: The Interplay of Boundary Work and Practice Work”, Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 55, n. 2, pp. 189-221.