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Managing to collaborate: The theory and practice of collaborative advantage

Book cover

by Chris Huxham and Siv Vangen, Routledge, 2005


In today’s highly complex and rapidly changing world, collaboration among organisations to achieve common purposes has become increasingly important for survival and success. Despite the potential benefits of achieving “collaborative advantage”, attempts at collaboration often result in frustration, slow progress and “collaborative inertia”. Successful collaboration demands active management. The book provides a framework for understanding collaboration and making it work in practice.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in July 2007)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Collaborative advantage vs Collaborative inertia

This book is concerned with situations in which people have to work collaboratively with those in other organisations. In today’s highly complex and rapidly changing world, as the authors tell us, collaboration among organisations to achieve common purposes has become increasingly important for survival and success. Recent years have seen a huge growth in inter-organisational working throughout the world. Collaboration between organisations touches almost every aspect of business and social life and can address such wide-ranging issues as economic development, health, the environment, risk sharing, supply chain efficiency and human resource management.

Chris Huxham and Siv Vangen, respectively Professor of Management and Senior Lecturer at Strathclyde Graduate School of Business, have carried out extensive action research on different types of collaborative venture in both the private and public sectors. Their aim is to capture the essence of collaboration, to provide a framework for understanding the nature of collaboration, and to show how the framework can be applied in practice to make partnership working more successful.

Collaboration between companies can bring big business benefits and partnerships between public organisations or non-profit organisations can address social issues that might otherwise be ignored. The authors call this achieving “collaborative advantage”. On the other hand, trying to make collaboration work in practice can be a frustrating and painful experience, with many collaborations making slow progress or even failing – the authors dub this “collaborative inertia”. They seek to understand why collaborative inertia is so often the result of attempts to achieve collaborative advantage and how collaboration can be better managed to increase the chances of harnessing its potential for advantage.

Collaborations may be concerned, at one extreme, with advancing a shared vision or, at the other, with the delivery of a short-term project. While each collaboration is unique, there are a number of common purposes for seeking collaborative advantage, including access to resources, shared risk, increased efficiency, coordination and “seamlessness” (for example, in service provision), shared learning, and even the moral imperative of acting together to tackle pressing social issues – such as poverty, economic development or crime – which cannot be tackled by any one organisation alone.

The authors acknowledge that a lot has been written about the challenges of collaboration. One of the strengths of their own book is that it sheds new light on much “common wisdom” about what it takes to manage collaboration successfully. To do this, they consider a number of perspectives on collaboration including: the management of aims, sharing power, building trust, managing ambiguity and complexity, coping with continuous change, and the role of leadership.

The authors’ overwhelming conclusion is that seeking collaborative advantage is a seriously resource-consuming activity so is only to be considered when the stakes are really worth pursuing. Their message is: Don’t do it, unless you have to.

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Managing aims

Common wisdom suggests that it is necessary to be clear about the aims of joint working and that agreed sets of aims are a starting point for collaboration. The authors’ research into “common practice” in collaborative ventures, however, suggests that the variety of organisational and individual agendas present in collaborative situations in reality makes reaching agreement difficult. Organisations may have different reasons for being involved and their representatives may seek to achieve different outputs from their involvement, sometimes leading to conflicts of interest. For some organisations, the joint purpose may be central to achieving organisational purposes; other organisations may be less interested or only involved reluctantly as a result of external pressures. Tensions inevitably arise.

Individuals may also join the collaboration with different expectations, aspirations and understandings of what is to be achieved jointly. Some of the various aims involved will be implicit rather than explicitly acknowledged or deliberately hidden. The authors present a framework that helps in understanding the motivations of those involved in a collaboration. This identifies the aims of the collaboration, of the organisations and of the individuals involved, and whether these are explicit, assumed or hidden.

The framework suggests that in practice it is difficult to satisfy fully the common wisdom. The dilemma is that, while clarity of purpose can provide much needed direction, open discussion may reveal irreconcilable differences. Difficulties in negotiation may also arise out of the need to communicate across different professional or national languages and cultures. And participants’ concerns about their accountability to their own organisations may make it difficult for them to compromise. Often, the only practical way forward is to get started on some action without fully agreeing the aims, or to find a way to state the aims so that none of the participants can disagree.

The authors suggest that the process of negotiating purposes (in a meeting) can be conceptualised as a series of “episodes”. During an episode, members are typically engaged in dealing with a tension within the group arising from an incompatibility amongst individual, organisational and group aim positions. This may sometimes be resolved by apparent agreement or an episode may end because the group moves on to a different tension. The episodes derive from short-term behaviour in the group but may indicate longer-term problems that need attention. The authors identify some typical episodes that arise when negotiating aims:

  • “Cohesive group episodes” – members agree on collective action in which they know their organisations have no interest.
  • “Disinterested organisation episodes” – one organisation is at odds with the group.
  • “Outlying individual episodes” – an individual representative tries to promote an activity of the collaborative for their own personal reasons.
  • “Spying organisation episodes” – an organisation joins a collaboration to exploit it for its own ends rather than support the main purpose.
  • “Threatened organisation episodes” – a representative sees a proposal as a threat to their organisation’s territory.
  • “Powerful organisation and pragmatic group episodes” – one organisation is sufficiently powerful to shift the agenda of the group and pragmatism leads the members to accept it.
  • “Sceptical group or individual episodes” – a general lack of commitment to the collaboration by those in the group (typically if it is set up by senior management of the organisations involved or mandated from outside).

The authors suggest that the aims framework can be used in combination with the episodes framework to devise processes, such as workshops, for exploring and negotiating partners’ aims with the intention of clarifying them and tying them down.

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Sharing power

Common wisdom suggests that power lies with those who have control of the financial resources and that those who don’t have financial control are automatically deprived of power. However, say the authors, this perception is at odds with reality because most parties do at least have the power of exit. The threat of one side pulling out may always be in the background. Nonetheless, the common practice is that people act as if their perceptions were real, and often display defensiveness or aggression.

The authors identify different “points of power” that can influence how collaborations are negotiated and implemented, some of which may be at a “micro” level and not very obvious to those involved. These may include, for example:

  • Naming the collaboration – this may influence what it does.
  • Choosing who to invite to join the collaboration – those who choose the process of whom to involve are particularly powerful.
  • Making the arrangements for meetings, including choosing the facilitator (this is perhaps more subtly powerful than being in the chair), determining the location (especially if it is on the premises of one of the participants), and choosing the timing.

Points of power are not static; power continually shifts in a collaboration. In the start-up phase, those who draw up contracts or write bids for funding may be powerful. Early on, those given the task of administering the collaboration may be very powerful in determining ways of working. It may only be at later stages, that the actual members become active and have the chance to exert power. Network managers are in powerful positions between meetings because they may be the only people formally employed by the network. Facilitators or consultants may also be in powerful positions for short periods of time.

The authors conclude that, although issues of financial control are significant, all participants have power at one time or another. Understanding and exploring points of power enables assessment of where and when others are unwittingly or consciously exerting power, and where and when others may see them as doing so. It also helps in deciding when to exert power deliberately. This, say the authors, may involve a willingness to accept that manipulative behaviour is appropriate, although common wisdom would say this is against the spirit of collaborative working.

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Building trust incrementally

The common wisdom is that trust is a precondition for successful collaboration. But that is probably an ideal situation. The common practice, as the authors have found, seems to be that suspicion, rather than trust, is the starting point. Participants may not be able to choose their partners who may be imposed on them (e.g. by government). Or, it may be necessary to form a partnership with someone you don’t like to prevent a competitor entering the market.

Two factors are important in starting a trusting relationship: (1) the formation of expectations about the future of the collaboration, based on reputation or past behaviour or on more formal contracts and agreements; and (2) partners need to trust each other enough to allow them to take a risk to initiate the collaboration. If both of these factors are possible, trust can be gradually built by starting with some (initially) modest but realistic aims that are likely to be successfully realised. This reinforces trusting attitudes between the parties and provides a basis for more ambitious collaboration (the authors describe it as a trust-building “loop” or “cycle”).

As with managing aims, the authors therefore recommend an incremental, “small wins” approach. It is sometimes better to commence with some small but tangible action and allow trust to develop slowly.

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Managing ambiguity and complexity

There is often a lack of clarity about who partners are and sometimes ambiguity about whether people are involved as individuals or on behalf of their organisations. This is compounded by the complexity of collaboration arrangements, especially where organisations have multiple alliances (as in the electronic industry). Multiple alliances will pull the organisation in different directions, especially if (where business firms are concerned) some of the partners are competing with each other.

In the public sector, “partnership fatigue” is a problem with individuals regularly attending meetings of perhaps five or six partnerships. (One organisation cited is involved in 56 partnerships!)

There are other problems. Some participants try to link agendas across the initiatives but these links relate only to the particular combinations they are involved in and do not precisely correspond to the involvements of other members. It is also hard to judge when an individual is putting forward the view of their employing organisation or bringing an agenda from another partnership.

As the authors point out, it is difficult for managers to agree on aims, build mutual understanding and manage trust and power relationships with partners if they do not know unambiguously who their partners are. It is also difficult to manage collaborative working in complex systems in which different elements must affect each other but where there is little clarity about the nature of the interrelationships.

The authors show how diagramming techniques can help in mapping the structure of partnerships and clarifying the links between the different parties. This can’t completely remove the ambiguity and uncertainty, but it can be a generally enlightening exercise. Learning how to identify, live with and progress despite ambiguity and complexity is a key challenge and the careful nurturing of relationships is an essential aspect.

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Collaborative dynamics and continuous change

Ambiguity and complexity in collaborative ventures are difficult enough to handle but ongoing change makes it even more problematical. For example, the restructuring of member organisations (caused by mergers and acquisitions, start-ups, closures, etc) in turn implies restructuring of the collaborations in which they participate.

Other dynamics may be at play. Policy changes in individual organisations or the collaboration itself can affect the purpose of the collaboration and may shift the relevance of the partnership to its members. New members may join or existing members may leave. Individual managers involved in the collaboration may change job. And, if the initial purpose of the collaboration is achieved, new collaborative agendas may be developed and may imply different membership requirements. A collaboration may end up as quite different in purpose and membership from the original partnership.

The trust-building loop is very vulnerable to these dynamics. Changes in the structure of an organisation or the job change of a key individual can seriously undermine efforts at building mutual understanding and trust. The nurturing process must therefore be continuous and permanent.

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Leadership of collaborative ventures is not always in the hands of members. Traditional hierarchies do not exist in collaborative settings. Leadership here is not only enacted by people; it is more about the mechanisms that lead to the outcomes of a collaboration – what “makes things happen”. This “contextual leadership” concerns in particular the formation and implementation of the collaboration’s policy and activity agenda. Structures and processes (such as communication) are just as important as the individual participants (the representatives of the member organisations).

The authors propose that structures, processes and participants are the “media” through which collaborative leadership is enacted – all three are largely uncontrolled by members of the collaboration. They may be imposed from outside (by government, for example) or emerge out of previous action rather than being explicitly designed by members. External stakeholders such as customers or local public figures may have a strong influence on the territory of a partnership. Support staff, though not strictly members, may also sometimes give a strong lead.

This perspective suggests the ease with which collaborations can move in and out of the control of their members. For managers of collaborations, the implication is that they must concern themselves with designing structures and processes that are effective for their purpose and with monitoring their performance and evolution.

Despite the contextual leadership provided by structures and processes, participants do engage in leadership activities but they are often hindered by difficulties so the outcomes are not as they intended. For example, although participants may engage in activities that are within the spirit of collaboration such as involving and empowering members, the same people may also at the same time do things that seem much less collaborative, such as manipulating agendas and playing politics – the authors call this “collaborative thuggery”. Is there, they ask, a dilemma between the “ideology” or spirit of collaboration and the pragmatism needed to get things done? Not necessarily. In fact, they suggest that those who lead collaborations more successfully seem to operate from both perspectives and continually switch between them, often carrying out both types of leadership in the same act.

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Realising collaborative advantage

Managers (in both the private and public sectors) who are considering entering a collaborative venture, or who are currently involved in one, will certainly find the practical insights offered by the book helpful and even reassuring. While the perspectives described by the authors do not provide precise recipes for managerial action, they do offer a dual basis for thoughtful action. First, they legitimise the “pain” and address the isolation people often feel when trapped in collaborative inertia. Many managers are empowered and gain more self-confidence simply by understanding that the problems they are experiencing are inevitable. Legitimising a certain amount of manipulative and political activity can also be helpful.

Secondly, the perspectives give a sense of the issues that have to be managed. They alert managers to the challenges of collaboration that will need active attention and nurturing if collaborative inertia is to be avoided.

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Tips for collaboration

The authors offer some tips for collaborating (these are intended to provoke thought). For example:

  • Budget for much more time for collaborative activities than you would for other projects.
  • Begin by setting small, achievable tasks.
  • Pay attention to how you communicate (use of jargon, etc) and seek clarification if you don’t understand what the other side is saying.
  • Give those who manage the alliance enough autonomy so they can react to situations quickly.
  • Understand sources of power and how power plays can affect negotiations.
  • Making things happen may involve both acting facilitatively and directively towards others.
  • Assume you cannot be wholly in control.

The book cites one manager involved in an alliance who said: “The project has worked out but, oh boy, it has caused pain.” Managing to collaborate is required reading for any collaboration participant who wants to minimise the aggravation.

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