We write this paper from a specific institutional space—ICAN—a key
research centre of the University of Technology, Sydney, that focuses
on Innovative Collaborations, Alliances and Networks—hence ICAN
Research, for short. Over the past six years we have built a portfolio of
research into innovative organizational collaborations, networks and
alliances, details of which may be found at www.ican.uts.edu.au.
The definition of collaboration that we work with is taken from the influential work of Barbara Gray. « Interorganizational collaboration [may be
defined as a] process through which parties who see different aspects
of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for
solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible »
(Gray, 1989: 5). Synthesis between two or more organizations occurs
when interorganizational collaborations are effective. While not all
interorganizational collaborations are syntheses the best usually are—
something new and different is created from the combination of the two
parts. Thus, the term “interorganizational synthesis” describes effective interorganizational collaboration because it: 1/implies inter-relations between two or more organizations; and 2/emphasises that what
is critical is the degree of synthesis that is achieved between the different organizations. While synthesis is critical, it is surprising that
much of the theorising and research into interorganizational collaboration has tended to gloss over the importance of it in such relations.
Huxham (1996) defines such collaboration as a process through which
organizations exchange information, change activities, share their
resources and enhance capacity for mutual benefit and a common purpose by sharing risks, rewards and responsibilities.
While there are many definitions of interorganizational collaboration,
there is a distinct lack of emphasis on the importance that synthesis
plays, both as a process and an outcome, in any collaborative relation.
By process we refer to strategic practice involved in achieving synthesis in the relationship while by outcome we refer to the observable
manifestations of those processes—both intentional and unintentional.
For example, establishing open, transparent and shared media of
communication that pool information and knowledge will result in a
high level of interorganizational and organizational level learning. In
this sense when different parties join together, synthesis between
many aspects of their relations is critical. Thus in this paper we present
what we call “the building blocks of interorganizational synthesis”.
These building blocks are the most critical aspects to interorganizational synthesis and are based upon the last five years of in-depth
research we have conducted into interorganizational collaboration
(see Pitsis, Clegg, Rura-Polley and Marosszeky, 2001; Clegg, Pitsis,
Rura-Polley, and Marosszeky, 2002; Pitsis, Clegg, Marosszeky and
Rura-Polley, 2003) across a number of projects in the construction,
meetings, and events industries.
OPERATIONALISING INTERORGANIZATIONAL SYNTHESIS
Over the past fifteen years, interorganizational collaboration has
become a dominant theme for organizational researchers, theorists
and practitioners. The complexity, risk and uncertainty that characterize the environment in which contemporary organizations exist require
a major change in the way organizations do strategy—specifically,
through interorganizational collaboration (Westley and Vredenburg,
1991; Clegg et al, 2002). Interorganizational collaboration (IOC) goes
by many names such as strategic alliances, joint ventures, networks
and partnerships. In this paper we restrict ourselves to one form of
interorganizational collaboration—that of project based alliancing
where two or more organizations come together to form a separate but
temporary entity to complete a specified project, which we refer to as
an “alliance” (Clegg et al 2002).
It is only relatively recently that academics have attempted to theorise
about the ontological and epistemological basis of IOC; see, for
instance, the two special issues on collaboration that appeared in the
Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 1991 (vol. 27, nos. 1 and 2).
This was the first systematic attempt to collate, review and discuss
contemporary theorising in IOC, yet despite the innovativeness of the
articles published in that special issue, the theoretical development of
the nature of relationships in IOCs has remained quite static (see also
Parkhe, 1993). We seek to advance the discussion through this article.
CULTURE AND INTERORGANIZATIONAL COLLABORATION
At the outset, we should emphasise that we do not argue that synthesis necessarily requires harmony, as many functionalists and integrationists might argue. Rather, a whole can be made up of fragmented
parts. We can see this most clearly through the concept of culture.
Often, a strong, integrationist and harmonious culture is presumed to
be a sine qua non of effective relational synthesis, where both synthesis and culture are regarded as nouns that describe a state of existence. Following Chan (2003), we can suggest that both culture and
synthesis should be thought of as verbs rather than nouns, as a way
of accounting for what has been done in and around an organization,
as a way of making sense of what has been experienced. Thought of
in this way, a synthetic culture is far harder to engineer than one might
presume. Loosely negotiated, tacit ways of making sense are embedded in specific situations in the organization rather than an all-enveloping structure that somehow contains all who are members.
Moreover, empirical coherence need not be a feature of membership
as empirical case studies of “divided mangers” have shown (Knights
and Murray 1994). Every person regulates his or her own position within the cultural spaces created for and around them. Because culture is
overwhelmingly situational, culture usually will be quite fragmentary,
forming around certain emergent issues and then dissolving. Often,
managers will take different sides on these issues and thus be as
divided between themselves on some issues as they are united on others. What is important is the extent to which these divisions and unity
can be constituted within a negotiated cultural order.
These views are known as the fragmentation perspective and share little with integrationist theorists who argue for the benefits of a strong
culture. According to the fragmentation view, few cultures are either
clearly consistent or clearly contested. The picture is more likely to be
one that represents contradictory and confusing cultures battling for
the soul of the organization as well as those of its employees. Individuals in interorganizational relations are more likely to exist in a state of
competing cultural interpellations—where they are constantly under
competing pressures to identify themselves and their organization with
rival conceptions of what is an appropriate cultural identity. In such a
situation, « consensus is transient and issue-specific, producing short-lived affinities among individuals that are quickly replaced by a different pattern of affinities, as a different issue draws the attention of cultural members » (Martin and Frost 1996: 609, citing the work of Kreiner and Schultz  on emergent culture in R&D networks as an
example). Culture does not make us free, only but confused. Culture
is not about a clear, sharp image of corporate and individual identity
but deals in the ambiguity of everyday existence in a world of complex
and often only partially shared meaning. Culture, in the organizational
theory sense, is an artefact of the methods used to investigate it and
the assumptions that make such an investigation possible. Realistically, if you can’t define culture clearly, and the people whose culture it is
supposed to be don’t know what it is, then it can hardly be the cure for
Fragmentation studies report a world in which ambiguity provides a
protective shroud from the meaninglessness of everyday organizational life. Meyerson (1991) discovered in her study of researched social
workers that « ambiguity pervaded an occupation whose practitioners
had to operate in a world where the objectives of social work were
unclear, the means to these goals were not specified, and sometimes
it wasn’t even clear when an intervention had been successful or even
what success in this context might have meant » (Martin and Frost
1996: 609). Cynics might say, well, social work: that this is not this surprising, given that the example is social work, an area that is usually
under-resourced, in which people have to deal with the many complex
problems of often severely dysfunctional clients. However, there are
other studies of other cultural contexts, which that are certainly not
resource poor, and that have a premium on clarity and detail, but ones
in which fragmentary cultures were normal. In one example, the case
of the air-traffic controllers Weick (1991) discusses, normal fragmentation produced tragic effects. The air traffic controllers were working at
Tenerife airport one foggy night as two jumbo jets manoeuvred in their
air space. Pilots, controllers, and cockpit crews struggled to share
meaning but failed. The barriers of status and task assignment, not to
mention the more general problems of languages spoken, created an
organization culture that was mired in fatal ambiguity. The two jets collided, and hundreds of lives were lost not only in the atmospheric but
also the cultural fog.
What we take to be crucial from this example is the following: IOCs
must design a project-culture that enables differences to be articulated
and recognized as well as processed appropriately into action. Briefly
put, IOCs will usually be arenas characterised by multiple and conflicting modes of professional rationality, policed by complex systems of
surveillance, subject to potential litigation and arbitration, because they
are usually contractually framed, and in accomplishing any project,
several parties to the contract have to interpret the contractual documents. It is rare that they would do so from anything other than different positions of interest, hence the need for surveillance, arbitration
and litigation intended to achieve “goodness of fit” between design
conception and project execution (architecturally, the governance
model tends to be large-scale Taylorism in the assumption of its conception/execution dynamics). The contemporary shift is to a coherence
model being agreed governmentally between the parties to the design
Governmentality poses an alternative to policing, litigation and arbitration, especially in situations of multiple actors and interests, through
the design of a more collective and coherent practical consciousness
within which to make sense. Literally, it seeks to make conflicting
modes of rationality redundant by delivering economies in authoritative
surveillance through building a collaborative commitment and transparency into the moral fibre of a project. It seeks to constitute each
self-interested actor, both individually and organizationally, in such a
way that they have something to gain from greater collaboration within the project. It does so by tying individual and organizational bonuses to performance on transparent indicators in such a way as to seek
to ensure that no trade-off between the different performance indicators takes place; for instance, getting speedy results through dangerous processes. Indeed, performance becomes translated into performativity—an awareness of always being on view, on stage, on show,
in not only what one does but also how one does it. Constituting performativity is the function of transparency, because the more transparent one can make the actual performance of different expert’s knowledge and actors the fewer opportunities can arise for them to exert
professional prerogative in power games around the detailed interpretation of contracts.
RATIONALITY AND INTERORGANIZATIONAL COLLABORATION
Synthesis is what happens between parties, the processes that connect them, the practices that divide them and the routines that lock
them together. Put simply, synthesis is more complex than contractual
theories or economic models suggest.
IOC is often viewed as a rational, linear process (Cummings and Worley, 1997) and tend to overlook the dynamic, complex and problematic details inherent within a relationship. Huxham and Vangen (2000),
who look at the complexity and dynamics of collaborative relationships
and the critical issues in designing collaboration, provide an exception,
in their review of literature relating to interorganizational dynamics.
However, what is evident in almost all papers on IOC is the lack of adequate consideration of ambiguity, uncertainty and non-linear complexity in the environment within which collaborations operate.
That most IOC papers neglect non-linearity and complexity is hardly
surprising. For early modern management theorists such as Fayol
(1949: 181), « the soundness and good working order of the body corporate depend on a certain number of conditions termed indiscriminately, principles, laws, rules ». Such principles relate to the unity of
direction and command centrally exercised by (top) management.
Management develops the vision that tells the organization where to
go, the strategic intent that gives organization its direction, and,
although the world has moved on a great deal since Monsieur Fayol’s
time, many managers still hold an essentially “master and commander”
view of the world.
Decision-making expresses this concept of rationality most precisely.
Decision-making is understood as management’s task par excellence—
the bureaucratic cogito (the thinking brain) whose decisions the corporate body should follow. Management makes decisions on strategic
directions; action plans to implement them, and forms of control to
evaluate their effect. Usually, the model of decision-making is
described as a perfectly well organized, rational, and logical process.
First, the problem is defined. Second, all the relevant information that
leads to an optimal solution is collected. Third, reviewing the data,
management (perhaps with the help of technocratic “experts”) develops several possible solutions. Fourth, evaluating the possible solutions carefully, management makes a decision regarding the optimal
solution. Fifth, this solution is implemented in a top-down approach
and evaluated constantly by management.
Such constant processes of rational decision making, supported by the
latest information technology equipment and an army of analysts and
consultants, are meant constantly and incrementally to refine and
improve interorganizational processes and products. The problem of
recalcitrant organs is solved by turning them into disciplined and reflexive extensions of the corporate body, able to exercise discretion, but in
corporately prescribed ways. Although still in powerful circulation in
today’s organizations, the model of managerial decision-making discussed above has been challenged by various contributions in management and organization theory. Almost half a century ago, James
March and Herbert Simon (1958) doubted whether decision makers
really look for optimal solutions. They suggested that they look for “satisficing” solutions. Because of the limited capacity of human information processing, no one could really consider all solutions and then
decide which one was the best one—not even a top manager. But top
managers, because of their wide experiences, have a raft of comparable cases to draw on for most decision situations, and on the basis of
that limited search are able to be rational within the bounds of their
own experiences. However, having more experience, these bounds
are less constraining than would be the case were lower-order members to do the deciding. In organizational life, a careful analysis of all
available information would be impossibly time-consuming, given that
time (and motivation for such use of time) is a scarce resource. It is for
this reason that satisfactory decisions will be made rather than optimal
ones. Simon and March saw people as having “bounded rationality”.
By this they meant to establish a distinction with the conception of economic rationalism that was inherent to the orthodox views of economics. The economic view of rationality assumed that the person
would make rational decisions based on perfect knowledge about the
nature of the phenomenon. This perfect knowledge would be contained in what economists call “price signals”, because all that you
would need to know about broadly similar goods in perfectly competitive markets is how much they cost. A rational person would always
buy the cheapest product, all other things being constant. This would
be the optimal decision. But in complex organizations, Simon and
March argued, decision makers work under constraints that make optimal decisions impossible. They have imperfect knowledge because
there is insufficient time to collect all the data they need, their information processing capacities are subject to cognitive limitations, they are
not sure what they need to know, and so on. The result is that rationality is “bounded” and decision makers cannot optimize but must “satisfice”—make the best decisions that they can—those that are most
satisfactory, based on the information available there and then.
Cohen, March, and Olsen (1972) pushed March and Simon’s critique
one step further, announcing that the decision-making process in organizations is organized according to the logic of what they call the
garbage can. As they argue provocatively, decisions are made when
solutions, problems, participants, and choices flow around and coincide at a certain point. Like garbage in a can, these adjacencies are
often purely random. Yesterday’s papers end up stuck to today’s dirty
diapers just as downsizing attaches itself to profit forecasts. William
Starbuck (1983), to mention a third critical spirit, turned this logic completely upside down and argued that organizations are not so much
problem solvers as action generators. Instead of analyzing and deciding rationally how to solve problems, organizations spend most of their
time generating problems to which they already have the solutions. It’s
much more economical that way. They know how to do what they will
do so all they have to do is work out why they will do it. Just think of
any consulting business—its solutions to whatever problems occur will
be what it offers. Products such as Total Quality Management, Business Process Reengineering, and so on are solutions to almost every
problem, and thus it is not so much the problem that drives the solution but the solution already at hand that is waiting to be applied to a
variety of different issues.
LANGUAGE AND INTERORGANIZATIONAL COLLABORATION
It is exactly this criticism that is nicely packaged and successfully
branded under the label of postmodernism. As Martin Parker (1992: 3)
argues, modernism is essentially the belief in rationality: « Modernism
is described as having elevated a faith in reason to a level at which it
becomes equated with progress. The world is seen as a system, one
that comes increasingly under human control as our knowledge of it
increases. The common terms for this kind of belief system are positivism, empiricism and science. All share a faith in the power of the
mind to understand nature; that which is “out there”. [… At the core of
versions of modernism] is a rationalism that is unchallengeable and a
faith that it is ultimately possible to communicate the results of enquiry
to other rational beings. In contrast, the postmodernist suggests that
this is a form of intellectual imperialism that ignores the fundamental
uncontrollability of meaning. The “out there” is constructed by our discursive conceptions of it and these conceptions are collectively sustained and continually renegotiated in the process of making sense ».
Put simply, modernism is the belief in progress through the rigorous
application of rationality to different arenas of life—regardless of
whether it is mathematics, organization of people, or decision-making
that shapes the future of collaboration. The belief in progress is the
essence of early management theory, even up to much theory today.
However, criticisms by Simon, March, Cohen, Olsen, and Weick prepared the ground for postmodernism with its central idea of substituting the concept of rationalities for that of a singular rationality.
What a group of French philosophers and writers, who have been
labelled as postmodernists, show is that commonly accepted concepts
of rationality are, in fact, just one possible concept, and that there are
many other forms of rationality lurking underneath the smooth surface
of textbook knowledge and scientific jargon. Different rationalities are
enacted in different languages games that constitute realities (Kornberger, Carter and Clegg, Forthcoming). For instance, Jean-François
Lyotard (1979) emphasized that we make sense of the world through
the use of narratives. In modern times, the dominant narrative was the
narrative of science. As we saw above, Taylor and the engineering
movement around 1900 was an expression of this belief. However, as
Lyotard argues, through this one dominant story we forget and actively repress other potential narratives. As each of these narratives is
constituted through different rationalities, we too easily find ourselves
in a unified, homogenous universe. The paradox is that trying to
achieve synthesis in terms of one strong narrative or culture we can
actually end up under-utilizing the separate strengths and narratives
that we wanted to bring together in the first place. Using the polyphony that constitutes organizations would mean capitalizing on the fact
that outsiders, newcomers, as well as other normally marginalized
voices, might be able to offer fresh solutions to old problems (Hamel,
1996). Cultures that embrace rather than repel such strangers and outsiders are a necessary feature of effective collaboration and alliances.
In a good organizational culture it is not the strength of uniformity of
views that is important but the diversity and innovativeness of such
views. There may be a solidaristic view that unity is strength but we
think “Vive la différence” a better and more revolutionary slogan.
Learning from these bodies of literature in contemporary management
theory shows the complexity at work in IOCs. However, complexity and
ambiguity might be a part of the solution rather than the problem. One
could argue that IOC is useless if there is no complexity. One-dimensional
tasks do not need multi-dimensional problem solving approaches.
Indeed, ambiguity can lead to some major innovations in problem solving
if a person perceives something in a number of possible ways and is not
certain how it should be perceived. Rarely do innovations come from certain, unambiguous environments (March, 1988; Christensen, 1997).
What is important in the design of the interorganizational collaboration
is that organizations are able to respond to, rather than control, environmental uncertainty (Clegg et al., 2002; Huxham and Vangen, 2000).
Uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity are the reasons why interorganizational collaborations exist in the first place. Thus, organizations
must learn to capitalize on them rather than trying to exclude them. But
only through interorganizational synthesis can organizations survive,
succeed and innovate in such complex and uncertain conditions.
Interorganizational synthesis is comprised of the essential building
blocks described above. Once these are put in place, or the effort is
made to put them in place, then the flow-ons can be quite significant in
intraorganizational terms as well. We do not believe that an interorganizational collaboration can really flourish on the basis of intraorganizational divisions, secrecy and hypocrisy.
Together these are the fundamental building blocks to designing
interorganizational collaboration and ensuring interorganizational synthesis in complex, uncertain and ambiguous conditions. Many of the
blocks are highly dependent upon each other, but all can be used as a
basis upon which management can frame the design of interorganizational synthesis. Irrespective of the forms of interorganizational collaboration, if they do not adequately account for each of these building
blocks they are, in our view, not synthetic relations and will in all likelihood fail. Designing interorganizational collaboration for success is
predicated on achieving synthesis. Anyone can establish an interorganizational relationship, but synthesis requires specialised management
skills and knowledge in each of the building blocks.
Future research might want to investigate what other critical building
blocks exist. For example, we have not directly spoken of issues of
planning, or strategy, because these are implied in the KRAs, KPIs,
vision and mission, and interorganizational cognition. However, there
might be attributes we have not identified in our research. Future
research might also want to examine the role of these building blocks
in the relationship. Additionally, there is also the perishability of interorganizational collaboration: what are the factors that lead to its decline
or dysfunction? Because, just as there are critical factors that enable
one to build such collaborations there are also those factors that tear
them apart—but this is another story, one that must await some other