The paper argues that many of the problems arising in the discussion
of alliances and collaboration do so because of one simple problem:
an assumption of a commonality of meaning. The assumption about a
commonality of meaning derives from the implicit cultural assumption
of the form and details of a collaboration and creates an outward
appearance of Durkheimian organic solidairty. The problem, of course,
is that any form of organic solidarity relies on both implicit and explicit
trust in the actions of the other and, if this trust is broken, leads to a
disolution or weakening of social solidarity (Durkheim, 1984). This
breakdown in social solidarity, in turn, may also lead to both structural,
cultural and ideological changes (Rappaport, 1968).
Much of the foundational theoretical literature in the field (i.e.,
Durkheim, 1984; Weber, 1947) has operated on the assumption that
analysis must be conducted on national structures (i.e., social structures, national culture, etc.), and this assumption has carried over into
more recent literature with problematic results (see Hofstede and
Peterson, 2000 on some of the current problems with this in relation to
the concept of culture). The primary purpose of this paper is to reconstruct implicit theoretical assumptions about the operation of primary
social relations and their cultural applications drawing on current research
and knowledge in anthropology and communications theory.
At its core, the concept of collaboration relies on two higher order concepts: social relationships and communications. In this paper, I argue
that in order to answer questions of how collaborations may happen
such as “What kind of collaboration and cooperation are needed and
in what circumstances?”, we must first ask what is happening in terms
of social relationships, communications strategies and symbol systems.
While the medium may be the message, as McLuhan argued, all
media include assumptions about the form(s) of social relations
involved between the communicating parties. These assumptions
about social relations contain culturally specific components built
around core forms that appear to be part of our evolutionary heritage
(Fiske, 1992). The answer to the question of “what kind of collaboration” is appropriate depends on the cultural assumptions of the parties
involved including external social structural pressures (e.g., legal
This paper draws from both anthropological and communications theories in order to construct a taxonomic model of social relationship/
communications strategies as a first step towards constructing a larger theory of alliances-collaboration. I start by examining exactly what
the concept of culture is inside anthropology. Anthropological understandings of culture have influenced the management discourse on
culture in several broad waves: the human relations movement, the
concept of national culture (e.g., Hofstede and Peterson, 2000), and
various concepts such as organizational culture (e.g., Trice and Beyer,
1993). The current wave of anthropological influence in management
theorising appears in notions of organizational culture (cf. Ashkanasy,
Wilderom and Peterson  for an overview) and, to a limited
degree, in the application of evolutionary psychology (e.g., Nicholson,
This is followed by an examination of the basic forms of social relationships put forward by Fiske (1991). Fiske, a cultural anthropologist, drawing from both the work of Malinowski and Polanyi as well as evolutionary psychology, argues that each basic form of social relationship is part
of our evolutionary heritage. Individual cultures define where specific
forms are to be employed at any given point in time. In effect, while there
is an assumption of a biological limitation in basic forms, cultures define
when any particular form is to be used, in what manner, and how they
may be modified: there is an interplay between nature and nurture. Each
of these forms has inherent assumptions about how a relationship is
constructed, how communications are managed within that relationship,
and who may be involved in specific types of relationships (i.e., collaboration, alliances). Often, these inherent assumptions are part of the particular meaning assumed by individuals with regard to a specific symbol
such as an alliance, collaboration or networking.
The role of symbols and symbol systems is crucial to the interface
between Fiske’s model and later management work. It is not only the
role that symbols may play within an organization and its culture (e.g.,
Alvesson and Berg, 1992), but also the role that symbols play as a
medium of negotiation of meaning between people with different
assumptions. Given the crucial role played by symbols in this negotiation, I draw on the work of Victor Turner (1967) to examine the operation of symbols in such a negotiation of meaning. Turner’s work has
been central to the study of symbolism in anthropology and ritual studies since the early 1970’s.
Because specific forms of relationships are culturally and sub-culturally defined as appropriate to specific situations, conflict can easily arise
surrounding which form is appropriate to this situation. Even if the
same basic form of relationship is assumed by both partners in a collaboration, the exact details of how that form will be enacted may well
differ. These two problematic areas, the specific form to choose and
the exact details of the chosen form, account for the importance of
many of the building blocks identified by Pitsis, Kornberger and Clegg
(2004) as crucial to the success of any collaboration.
CULTURE AND BRAIN MODULARITY
The concept of culture has been assigned many different general
meanings over the years, even though the core meaning has remained
fairly constant since Tylor (1871) defined it as « that complex whole
which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any
other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society ». The key words that illustrate the core meaning are “capabilities”
In order to reconfirm this core meaning as well as deal with the multiplicity of secondary meanings, Jordan (1994) argued that anthropologists use the term “culture” in two main forms. As I noted elsewhere:
« The first concerns the ability of humans to generate symbolic and
material “interfaces” (artifacts, organizations, belief systems, and the
like) between themselves and their environments. The second meaning refers to the specific, historically situated interface structures of a
particular group, a meaning often referred to as “the culture of [a specific group]. » (Tyrrell, 2000b: 86).
Each of these current meanings reaffirms the core meaning used by
Tylor even though they are cast in a more modern form of the language. Outside of linguistic usage, the only difference between Tylor’s
definition and those put forth by Jordan lies in the current practice of
distinguishing the general ability from its specific instances.
The idea of culture as an interface has led many anthropologists to
examine what stands on either side of the interface. In the case of the
“external”, “objective” world (as opposed to the social world) this has
led to the extensive use of natural science models (cf. Rappaport,
1979). In the case of the “human” side of the interface, most models
have come out of either psychology or biology. Since Laughlin’s work
on the neurological basis of consciousness (e.g., Laughlin and
D’Aquili, 1974) and Fodor’s (1983) work on brain modularity, one of the
more useful lines of thought has centered around the concept of an
evolved psychology (cf. Cosmides and Tooby, 1992). In its simplest
form, the argument is that thought depends on neurological structures
in the brain that have evolved as a result of natural selection over several million years. As Cosmides and Tooby put it (1997: 11), « Our modern skulls house Stone Age Minds ».
The idea of using models from evolutionary psychology to study business problems has been advanced by several authors (e.g., Nicholson, 1997; Tyrrell, 2000b; Tyrrell and Pitsis, 2002; Plowman and Gardner, 2003). However, with the exception of Plowman and Gardner
(2003) this has tended to concentrate on the better-known forms of
evolutionary psychology, i.e., those put forward by Cosmides and
Tooby (1992). There are, however, several other stands of evolutionary psychology that may be fruitfully applied; in particular the work of
Alan P. Fiske on relational models.
LINKING ELEMENTARY RELATIONSHIPS AND CULTURE
What does adopting Fiske’s model give us? First, it allows us to identify core relationships within cultural specificities. Second, it can alter
the way in which we view culture. Let us consider the first point: if we
return to the basic deifinitions of culture noted above: 1/culture is the
ability to construct symbolic interfaces between a group of humans and
their environment, and 2/specific interfaces are referred to as a “culture
of…”. When we measure and/or describe a particular culture, such as
a national culture, we are describing a “culture of…”. Inevitably, given
the first definition of culture, any particular description of a “culture
of…” will be limited in time and space based on the ongoing utility of
that particular symbolic interface in the day to day environment.
We need to unpack the term “symbolic interface” in reference to cultures. The historical introduction of human-machine interfaces and, in
particular, of computer user interfaces, has created a common understanding of symbolic interface as something where you click an icon
and an event happens. This understanding is far too mechanistic for a
proper understanding of how culture, as a symbolic interface, operates. For Turner (1967), symbols and, in particular ritual symbols, have
three components: condensation, unification and polarization.
The term “condensation” means that « [m]any things and actions are
represented in a single formation. » (Turner, 1967: 28). By way of
example, think of the symbol “Enron” or any corporate name. All components linked to that symbol (name) will be condensed within that
symbol and will be unpacked by individuals based on the knowledge
of and reactions to specific components. The particular selection of
which components will be unpacked depends on the individual based
on their personal experiences.
For Turner (1967: 28), “unification” or, more properly, the « unification
of disparate significata » refers to the property of a symbol to inteconnect « significata (…) by virtue of their common possession of analogous qualities or by association in fact or thought ». This property of
unification may be more easily understood as the ability of a symbol to
connect, at an emotional/reactional level a sign with a particular emotional reaction. Most advertising campaigns aim at associating particular events spaces with their brand names. Consider, by way of example, the association of alcohol consumption with social, party settings
in North America, or the association of a particular brand of beer in
Canada (Molson Canadian) with Canadian nationalism.
The third and final property is “polarization of meaning”. For Turner
(1967: 28), « [a]t one pole is found a cluster of significata that refer to
components of the moral and social order (…) to principles of social
order [… while a]t the other pole, the significata are usually natural and
physiological phenomena and processes. Let us call the first of these
the “ideological pole, ” and the second the “sensory pole.” (…) At the
sensory pole are concentrated those significata that may be expected
to arouse desires and feelings; at the ideological pole one finds an
arrangement of norms and values that guide and control persons as
members of social groups and categories ».
This property of polarization is crucial for an understanding of how culture, as a symbolic interface, acts to guide and channel interpretation
and social action.
Let us consider a particular example: networking. In much of North
America, networking is held to be the best way to find employment (cf.
Tyrrell, 2000a). Networking has also achieved the status of a symbol
in North American job search literature and can be found in all job
search programs in North America. The North American understanding of networking, and I am glossing over regional differences, is centered around a basic social relationship of Equality Matching—
reciprocity or” you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. Broadly
speaking, there are two social categorizations of people with whom to
network: people who must help you, based upon pre-existing social
relationships ( “strong ties”), and people who might help you ( “weak
ties”—see Granovetter, 1973).
The construction of unemployment as a ritual process betwen 1975
and the present in Canada formalized particular symbols including networking (cf Tyrrell, 2000a). Part of this process was the symbolic construction of an understanding of the power of weak ties in a job search,
along with the formalization of the emergent communitas (shared
experience and the mutual understanding that comes from it) amongst
job searchers (cf. Tyrrell, 2000a; Tyrell and Pitsis, 2002). In its simplest
form, unemployment was being constructed as a common occurence
beyond anyone’s control and, hence, something that may happen to
anyone. The shared possibility, and for many the reality, of unemployment created a shared experience, communitas, amongst diverse people. This shared possibility changed the emotional connotation of networking, the sensory pole of the symbol and, gradually, the ideological
pole of the symbol shifted as well to match the lived experience of individuals (cf Tyrrell, 2000a, Ch. 7-9).
In 2004, many Canadians know “how to network”, even though there
is actually a diversity of meaning associated with that symbol. The
same is not true of many newcomers to Canada who do not share the
same polarization of meaning as many Canadians. For example, in
China one would not ask for information and help from someone with
whom one does not have a particular established tie (frequently a kinship tie). Indeed, the very act of asking for help may shame the individual and the lineage thereby destroying the lineage ties that grant
access to resources. Furthermore, since many weak ties are established by socializing with others, the distinct cultural differences
between recent Chinese immigrants and their co-workers frequently
led to little if any social interaction and, hence, few weak ties were
established (cf. Tyrrell and Wang, 2001). For many of the recently
immigrated Chinese high tech workers laid off between 2000 and 2003
the core of the problem lay in the difference between how one accesses employment. In China, employment is accessed via an Authority
Ranking relationship (within a lineage) and, secondarily, via an age-grade Equality Matching relationship.
If something as “simple” and “obvious” as networking can be so easily
misunderstood what, then, can we say about something as “complex”
as an alliance?
COMMUNICATING THE RIGHT RELATIONSHIP
How can we communicate what we mean by alliance or collaboration?
Each of these terms is, in essence, a symbol that conveys multiple
meanings and implications. Interorganizational collaboration (IOC) has
been defined by Gray (1989: 5) 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 ». Huxham’s (1996) definition concentrates
on communications, exchange and risk sharing. These definitions are
useful but, ultimately, subject to problems since the processes involved
must, of necessity, change as the symbolic meaning of collaboration
In a paper on interorganizational synthesis, Pitsis, Kornberger and Clegg
(2004) identify ten core building blocks. The identification of these building
blocks was based on five years of empirical research (see Pitsis, Clegg,
Rura-Polley and Marosszeky, 2002; Clegg, Pitsis, Rura-Polley, and
Marosszeky, 2002). As presented, these building blocks are useful as
guideposts in constructing an interorganizational collaboration identifying,
as they do, crucial areas of concern and potential mis-communication.
For the purposes of this paper, however, it is necessary to look at them
somewhat differently—as indicators of key areas necessary to construct a shared “culture of...” or, at the minimum, a shared understanding of the symbolic meaning of a particular collaboration. These
building blocks may be grouped into three main themes: formal structures, knowledge (broadly construed) and material resources, ideology and emotion. Formal structures include systems of governance, key
resource areas and contracts. Knowledge and material resources
include all aspects of knowledge—expertise, knowledge management,
training, knowledge exchange, etc., along with all available technologies. Ideology and emotion include areas such as trust, commitment to
an enterprise, an alliance culture (see Pitsis, Clegg, Rura-Polley and
Marosszeky, 2002; Pitsis, Kornberger and Clegg (2004), leadership,
and vision and mission.
These three main themes were chosen because they parallel the core
components of symbols in a ritualized setting (Turner, 1967; 1969).
Knowledge and material resources are the observable base for a collaboration. In and of themselves, they are incapable of guarenteeing
a successfull colaboration (or ritual). They are necessary but insufficient conditions for further communication and collaboration. Indeed,
the assumption that two (or more) potential partners share a natural
fit, based solely on material resources and available knowledge systems, has led to numerous collaborations that fail miserable. One
need only consider the case of the telecommunications industry
where a reliance on a supposed natural fit of technologies has frequently led to expensive and, ultimately useless mergers, acquisitions
What of the formal structures involved in a collaboration? Clearly, they
are crucial to the success of the venture but, in and of themselves, they
are not sufficient to guarentee success. On might even note that, in an
objective sense, formal contracts and governance structures are not
strictly necessary but, rather, merely an outgrowth of risk containment
and bureaucratic sensibilities. After all, how many successful collaborations have been undertaken based solely on a handshake?
Key Resource Areas (KRAs) do, however, appear to be a necessary
condition for a successful collaboration. As Pitsis, Kornberger and
Clegg (2004: 60-61) note, « It cannot be overemphasised how critical
is the good design of KRAs. KRAs refer to the core aspects of a project upon which success will be measured. These can include the traditional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as budget and schedule. However, more recently, as projects have become more politicised
and open to public scrutiny, and there has been a shift towards more
sustainable practices, the KPIs might also include “community”, “ecology”, and “sustainability” ».
Part of the reason why the good design of KRAs is a necessary condition for the success of a collaboration is simple: KRAs define success or, more specifically, the agreed upon indicators that will be used
by all partners in the measurement of success. As such, KRAs are
both ideological and specific to a project—both part of the formal structure and, also, part of the ideological and emotional structure.
The third theme identified is the ideological and emotional theme. In
many ways, this is the most crucial stream involved in a collaboration,
at least for our purposes, since it centers on the collaboration as a
symbol. Let us consider the components of this theme: trust, commitment to an enterprise, an alliance culture, leadership, and vision and
mission. All of these components, with the possible exception of vision
and mission, centre around two basic questions: 1/what social relations are the base of this collaboration, and 2/how shall individuals act
within the collaboration?
Let us, for the moment, concentrate on the concept of alliance culture.
At its core, this concept refers to the specific, “culture of…”, an
alliance/collaboration. It is the (hopefully) shared symbolic interface of
the people involved in the collaboration operating within the environment encapsulating that collaboration. In speaking of alliance cultures,
Pitsis, Kornberger and Clegg (2004: 59-60) note that « [t]here are professional consultancies that facilitate culture design. There are also
certain initiatives organizations can use to build an alliance culture for
synthesis. This can include the set up of vision and mission statements, and the design of innovative key performance indicators or key
resource areas (KRAs), and enculturation programs like intensive
workshops where stakeholders and employees are trained on KRAs
and the interorganizational collaboration vision and mission. However,
(…) there is a risk of having too strong a culture. A designer culture can
take on cult-like properties where members blindly follow the vision
and mission without questioning problems or errors as they occur ».
The key point I wish to take out of this description surrounds the concept of designer culture—a symbolic interface created and instilled by
professional consultancies and other organizations. At best, such a
designer culture is a contingent culture (Tyrrell, 2000b) dependant
upon the continuation of the collaboration. It lacks the grounding in
everyday experienced reality and, as such, requires additional components in order to contain uncertainty, hence the danger of a designer
culture becoming cult-like 
The containment of uncertainty is a
There are other dangers inherent in the deliberate construction of an
alliance culture. In particular, unless the specific social relationships
are clearly expressed, accepted by all partners (the people involved as
well as the organizations), and then acted upon it will be impossible to
establish trust within the collaboration. Trust, as a concept, revolves
around the ability of one individual to predict the actions/reactions of
another individual. But, in order to predict actions, one must first have
a guideline to what those actions should be. These guidelines are the
sub-conscious expectations of a particular social relationship filtered
through a particular set of cultural filters and, if these guidelines are
breached, trust disappears.
Leadership is a special case of appropriate action. Recent discussions
of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) have noted that the ability to integrate
the disparate needs, wants and desires of stakeholders is crucial to the
success of a collaboration (Frost, Dutton, Worline, and Wilson, 2000).
For Mayer (1999), this is formalized as « the capacity to reason with
emotion in four areas: to perceive emotion, to integrate it in thought, to
understand it and to manage it ». Given the disparity between the scientific and popular conceptions of EQ, this is worth pulling apart.
The ability to perceive emotions is operationalized via the reading of
emotions on faces. Indeed, the ability to perceive emotions is
quintessentially biological; rooted in an evolved psychological mechanism (cf. Baron-Cohen, 1996). The ability to integrate emotions into
thought and to understand them requires the pre-existence of a taxonomy of emotional placement—one should feel happy when X happens
and sad when Y happens. These taxonomies of emotional placement
are biologically (pre-disposed neurological connections), culturally (an
appropriate emotional response) and individually constructed. Finally,
the ability to manage emotion implies the ability to deal with ones’ own
and others’ emotions in a manner such that the emotion becomes a
means towards a desirable end rather than an end in and of itself.
What, then, does this say about the concept of leadership? Clearly,
successful leadership in a collaborative effort requires an extensive
knowledge of emotional taxonomies, many of which are culturally
defined, together with the ability to maintain a goal orientation. However, the path(s) towards the achievement of a goal tend to be culturally limited. Consider, by way of example, the divergent paths exemplified in the works of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu.
Let us consider the final two components of the ideological and emotional theme: commitment to an enterprise and vision and mission.
The issue of commitment to an enterprise is noted by Pitsis, Kornberger and Clegg (2004: 59) in their discussion of technology and people. « Often what occurs in collaborations is the movement of staff from
one partner organization to another. (…) [T]his can often be detrimental because the key staff member will leave a parent organization for a
partner organization when she or he perceives the parent organization
is not providing a suitable working environment to match his or her
skills, abilities, needs and wants ».
The ability to commit to an enterprise requires individuals to move
between organizational environments: from a parent organization to a
partner organization, from project to project, etc. For individuals, the crucial ability is to adapt and commit to the organization at hand—where they
currently are, be it a project team, a joint venture or a partner company.
For parent organizations, however, this individual ability is somewhat
problematic in that it increases individual mobility and decreases the
reliance of an individual on a particular organization. Often, this problem is discussed in terms of “corporate loyalty” (see Beyer, Hannah
and Milton, 2000). It is crucial to understand, however, that loyalty
implies a social relationship where the rights and obligations of each
member of the relationship are defined and, in some way, are symmetrical. Current North American conceptions of loyalty derive from an
authority ranking relationship where loyalty was exchanged for security. This cultural equation, at least in North America, is no longer valid
for individuals as witnessed by the extensive use of downsizings, firings and outsourcing (see Tyrrell, 2000a: Ch. 6 and 7).
For Pitsis, Kornberger and Clegg (2004: 63), the vision and mission
are entwined. As they describe them, « [v]ision is the grand picture of
where the collaboration wants to end up at some point in the future.
The mission is an identifying statement of the collaborations stated
objectives and intentions of how it will get to where it wants to go ». This
is such a clear statement that one is tempted to just quote it and pass
on. This, however, would be a mistake.
Central to their definition of vision and mission is the concept of “the
collaboration”. Inherent within this concept is the idea of an “us-ness”:
we, those in collaboration, versus them, those who are not in collaboration. However, this sense of “us versus them” requires that there be
an “us” in the first place. It is useful to recast the concept of vision in
an older form: the visions of prophets. In his discussions on religion,
Max Weber (1963: C.1) argued that prophets are « individual bearer[s]
of charisma, who by one’s mission proclaims religious teaching or
divine commandment ».
Charisma, for Weber, is a social attribute held by an individual rather
than an inherent property of that individual. That charisma is a social
attribute is not surprising since religion is grounded in the structures of
society. For Durkheim (1915: 47), religion is « a unified system of
beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set
apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single
moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them ».
Durkheim’s (1915: 417) conclusion surrounding cultic practice are
notably on point: « [t]he cult is not simply a system of signs by which
the faith is outwardly translated; it is a collection of means by which this
is created and recreated periodically ». If we were to substitute collaboration or alliance for Church and cult, we would find that we had a
working description of a successful alliance (assuming that the practices were efficacious).
Both of the terms vision and mission have religious roots. What has
been lost in the translation is the sweaping grandeur and social
grounding in the modern, secular, profit-oriented concepts. Compare,
by way of example, the difference between President Kennedy’s May
25th, 1961 call to land a manned mission on the moon versus Nortel
Networks “What Do You Want The Internet To Be” campaign of 1999.
Visions, as any prophet knows, are grounded in human longing and
socio-cultural perceptions of reality.
This grounding of a vision is crucial. What is often forgotten in the hype surrounding collaborative visions is that they must be grounded in some deep
seated human need or, in other words, grounded in a basic social relationship which has been defined as culturally appropriate for the organization
to explore. And it is this grounding that can cause problems in a collaborative effort. It is not enough to say that “I have a vision of us controlling the
world of X”. In order to engage and motivate all of the stakeholders (both
people and organizations), the vision must adress all of their needs.