Trust or Hierarchy? Changing Relationships Between Large and Small Firms in France

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An influential position in the contemporary study of industrial reorganisation discusses the construction of inter-firm trust as a way to adjust the organisation of firms to the flexibility required by the market. The conventional picture of the relation between large firms in France and small firms who supply them, suggests that it is very hard for them to construct such trust-based networks. Instead, it is one of atomised sub-contracting: the large firm gives very detailed specifications for the job that needs to be done, and the subcontractor executes. In recent years, however, several accounts have suggested that this arms-length relationship between larger firms and suppliers is changing.

The argument of this paper is that, while the relationships between suppliers and large firms are indeed undergoing tremendous changes, the category of trust does not appear to capture the nature of these changes very well. The combined use of their market power and the political resources that large firms have at their disposal, allow them to remain the stronger partner in what always was an asymmetric power relationship. The argument is supported by detailed discussions of just-in-time delivery, quality issues and the role of the large firms in organising small firm finance.

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