In this part of the article we outline what tradition is, means and does,
in order to then connect with its relevance to interorganizational collaboration. Tradition has been described as a type of truth, which is
constructed through the interpretation of the past into the future (Giddens, 1984, 2002; West Turner, 1997). This kind of rhetorical construction is similar to those discussed by Best (1987), regarding justifications for cherished positions.
Tradition differs from other types of truth in that its validity is anchored
in events rather than theories (Boyer, 1990). Since the events need not
be real events but rationalized myths (Sewell, 2001), and the original
events may be reinterpreted, redescribed and adapted over time in
engagement with reality (Friedrich, 1972; Dobel, 2001), as answers
are adapted to new problems, this anchoring essentially means that all
traditions are invented (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983; Thompson,
1990; Giddens, 2002).
So, for example, at the end of the eighteenth century when Irish Dissenting Protestants and Catholics were, in many places, in common
alliance, the centenary of the Battle of the Boyne was celebrated by
progressives as a victory of a non-sectarian, reforming King William
over an absolutist and incompetent King James. By the end of the
nineteenth century, the victory was appropriated by sectarian interests
claiming it as the victory of a Protestant king over a Catholic one
(Bryan, 2000). Unpalatable truths such as papal support for William
are edited out of this telling of history, as they would interfere with the
function of this tradition in the present.
Tradition is centrally about interpretation; arguments about whether
traditions are ultimately true or false are therefore spurious (West Turner, 1997). We can see traditions as methods of dealing with problems,
developed by communities over time (Dobel, 2001); they have meaning as an authoritative mode of complex theorising that is yet, as
Friedrich (1972: 18) noted, consensual in nature. It differs then from
scientific modes of theorising (Boyer, 1990), in that while some communities may claim universal truth for their traditions, they are not falsifiable. Instead tradition is based on a communally agreed interpretation and reinterpretation of both events and the social structures by
which people tend to live their lives. In this way, the continuity of traditions is argued as being dependant upon a cyclical interpretation of
There is an implication that community understandings of events (however historically distant) must somehow be internalised by members if
there is to be an individual recognition of types of authority (Friedrich,
1972; Weber, 1978). From a social psychological perspective Boyer
(1990) supports this, suggesting that traditional authority is in turn the
basis of the salience of structures which in their explication help to
define identities, power relations and other social contextual elements
(West Turner, 1997); in particular, it gives enduring meaning to institutions (Molotch, Freudenburg and Paulsen, 2000). Tradition has for this
reason been described as the reproductive mechanism of societies
(West Turner, 1997) and this mechanism is consistent with the cultural/cognitive underpinning of institutions (Scott, 2001).
For us, the connection with community understandings both partially
supports and problematises the notion of tradition as a reproductive
mechanism. In particular, considering traditions as structures rooted in
individuals reference groups (Kelley, 1952) —perhaps a more helpful
notion than community— highlights the cultural complexity at play
here. In thinking of traditions as structures we mean those normative
rules of social behaviour and signification of meaning that are the
medium and outcome of individuals actions and interactions (Giddens,
1984). In considering this it is important to note that Kelley draws the
distinction between reference and membership groups. A reference
group is a group that is psychologically significant for one’s behaviour
and attitudes (for empirical examples, see McCabe and Dutton, 1993;
Jones and Ryan, 1997; Tinson and Ensor, 2001). This may be,
amongst other things, a community, a religion, family or a football
team. A membership group is a group to which one belongs by some
objective external criterion, such as being an employee of a business.
Reference groups may be the same as membership groups but are not
necessarily so (Ryan and Ciavarella, 2002). So while some traditions
may be the reproductive mechanisms for some societies, we would
argue that it is also significant that most societies are in fact a patchwork quilt of communities all with their own particular traditions, some
of which may be in conflict with each other, or indeed with society as a
Tradition can therefore be argued to be a source of « referent power »
(French and Raven, 1959: 161) in social groups. Consequently, we
argue that tradition is intimately associated with interpretation, in two
ways. Firstly, there is the internalised aspect of referent authority (Carson, Carson, Roe, Birkenmeier and Phillips, 1999) —prejudgements
(McCarthy, 1994; Gadamer, 1998) and habits of understanding that
are difficult to explicate, for those within the tradition, without losing
their value. Attempts to fully explicate and critically examine this tacit
element may result in the destruction of its meaning: « unbridled lucidity can destroy our understanding of complex matters. Scrutinize
closely the particulars of a comprehensive entity and their meaning is
effaced, our conception of the entity is destroyed. » (Polanyi, 1966: 18).
Secondly, there are explicable elements that are open to description
(and therefore to redescription and challenge).
We consider that the role of tradition is perhaps as a way of knowing,
having an irreducible tacit element associated with its persistence and
explicable elements which admit adaptation. Given this basis of discussion about the nature of tradition and its meaning, we can begin to
outline what it does.
As we have already argued tradition is embodied in the agent as tacit,
inexplicable elements and as explicit elements. These are derived
from events that an individual may not have participated in, but which
have so influenced the social context with which she engages that they
lead to further internal interpretive events (a realisation) in relation to
the agent’s engagement with other social contexts. This resultant referent authority, the internalised truth of the past, becomes an intrinsic
aspect of the agent’s identity and is manifested in structures, which are
the medium and outcome of the agents’ interactions.
TRADITION , CULTURE AND IDENTITY IN —AND BETWEEN— ORGANIZATIONS
Tradition contrasts with the idea of organizational culture, which is
often cited as source of conflict or difficulty in interorganizational relationships (Harris, 2004; Smith and Zane, 2004; Gadman and Cooper,
2005). Common definitions of organizational culture often relate to
Schein’s view —for example his definition that organizational culture is
the « basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an
organization, that operate unconsciously and define in basic taken-for-granted fashion an organization’s view of itself and its environment]
(Schein, 1997: 6). Although broader artefactual conceptualizations
have also been proposed to challenge and extend this ideational view
(for example, Alvesson, 2002) in general cultural conceptualizations
do not acknowledge the challenge that tradition makes to the temporal
and conceptual boundaries of the organization. That is, the idea of tradition allows insight into matters that may be organizationally significant despite arising beyond the reified boundaries of the organization.
Traditions, for our discussion, arise external to the organization though
their sources may be in other organizations. This is, obviously, a significant consideration in collaboration, whether we are concerned with a
few partnering organizations or an extensive network.
As noted above traditions are an authoritative mode of complex theorising that are yet consensual in nature. They are therefore potentially simplifying of the interpretation of the social situation encountered. So traditions can be usefully considered as a specify type of structure or institution because of the focus upon the agent and the agent’s identity, the
association with a particular mode of reasoning, and the centrality of
interpretation based on referent groups beyond the reified boundaries of
organizations are especially important in the case of tradition.
For example in a divided society, such as the north of Ireland, individuals may bring to the workplace dangerous prejudices that derive from
traditions rooted in communities beyond the workplace. Such prejudices are unlikely ever to be overcome if they cannot be raised to the
level of discursive consciousness where their nature and extent can be
explored. Recent work by Hatch and Schultz (2002) and Fiol and
O’Connor (2002) has highlighted the problems arising from differing
and incomplete constructions of identity that do not fully consider the
voice of the other. In an organizational context, Alvesson and Wilmott
(2002) have argued that self identity is a fragile construction; in the collaborative context we can only expect this to be more tenuous.
The consideration of tradition allows for the exploration of the multiple
interpretations of organizations derived from different reference
groups, and makes us aware of their complex and mutable identities.
For example women’s perspectives on an organization may be very
different from that of male colleagues; ethnic minorities may have different perspectives on organizations compared to those of majority
community employees. Dialogue on potentially enriching interpretations of organization cannot be undertaken if only the common structures of the organization are considered. If conceptual space is not
granted to questions of difference then it is unlikely that diversity can
be properly explored. By arguing that organizational issues may arise
based on referent rather than membership sources we add a further
conceptual handle and useful language to help managers’ thinking
about organizing, and possibly, if carefully managed, allowing
— through interaction with other traditions (Gadamer’s  fusion of
horizons)— the possibility of change.
INTERORGANIZATIONAL COLLABORATION AND TRADITION
There is little extant specific research on tradition in collaboration,
although it can be argued to have relevance at many levels of interaction, from departments within organizations to entire societies (Molotch,
Freudenburg and Paulsen, 2000); in particular interacting organizations
(or individuals) may have conflicting traditions (Couzens-Hoy, 1994;
Poggio, 2002); evidence of differences at an explicit level may signify
intractable differences at a tacit level. Alternatively, apparent similarity
of structures at an explicit level may mask fundamental differences in
traditions arising from the divergence of agents’ internalised truths.
This is evident, for example, in Chikudate’s (1999) research on a
Japanese corporation developing partnerships with Western scientific
institutions; the selection of individuals with advanced English language skills and Western business training did not help negotiations,
but allowing senior scientists to interface directly was successful.
Chikudate (1999) ascribes this not to problems with scientific language
but to patterns of respect and communication amongst scientists; this
tradition of networking or network spanning amongst scientists is also
discussed by Staropoli (1998).
In a broader context, Lampel and Shamsie’s (2000) discussion of dominant logic affecting the design of joint ventures has parallels with the
role of authority in defining the structures of joint ventures with General Electric —they discuss dominant logic as « restricting interpretive
freedom » (Lampel and Shamsie, 2000: 602); there are parallels here
with the effects of dominant national social identities described by Salk
and Shenkar (2001). Similarly, a link between interorganizational collaboration and the development of institutions is highlighted by Phillips,
Lawrence and Hardy (2000) who refer to the role of unquestioned traditions (with other factors) in supporting institutional power and Sydow
and Staber (2002) link institutions, traditions and tacit knowledge in
explaining the uniqueness of certain networks.
This leads us back to the tacit-explicit elements of tradition as a kind
of knowing, and a concluding comment for this section from the work
of Reason (1999: 83): « effective inter-professional collaboration is significantly an epistemological as well as an interpersonal issue that concerns the capacity of the group to support individual members’ abilities
to suspend attachment to their own frames and begin to peer into the
frames of their colleagues. » Although, therefore, as alluded to at the
start of this brief section there is little extant research on tradition in collaboration, there are enough individual overlaps for us to argue for the
relevance of the earlier discussion.
In this research, data were gathered during consultancy activity in the
research situations, largely through participant observation, followed
by offline analysis (Eden and Huxham, 1996; Huxham and Vangen,
2000a; Hibbert, 2003) —as opposed to the rather more participatory
approaches (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2000) which are often applied to
this kind of intervention. Short-term observations have been applied
elsewhere to the study of limited-lifetime groups (Fitch, 2001), including inter-organizational project teams (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2000)
and organizations undergoing change (Cheng, 1998) —both of which
are relevant to the discussions that follow later. We find the term partial ethnography (Alvesson and Deetz, 2000) —in which a particular
narrow cultural situation is examined from within— a useful description
for this style of research.
The participant observations were supplemented with data from textual
sources associated with collaborating organizations The construction of
inferences from the data collated in this way was similar to the emergent
theory development process described by Eden and Huxham (1996),
and focussed through conceptual lenses (Chikudate, 1999; Huxham and
Vangen, 2000b). These lenses provided a focus on the role of tradition
as we began the review of the data looking for examples of:
implicit power relations, for example evidenced in unchallenged
instances of domination;
traces of the authority of tradition in the apparent ways in which participants construed events;
continuity of practices, reasoning or values from the past despite
conflicts or difficulties associated with (perceptions of) identity —
and differences amongst identities.
This kind of questioning of the data was a way of « knocking at the
text » (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2000: 98-99) rather than an excluding,
filtering process. This semi-mergent theorising from the data was then
supported through the development of conceptual maps using the
mapping software Decision Explorer. Having collated relevant data
items, clusters of related items were identified and a central interpretation concept identified, which provided a summary of the content of
the cluster. An example cluster, which contains data relevant to the
Spinout case presented in the findings, is presented Figure 1.
Figure 1 - Example Data Cluster, Spinout Case
Conceptual connections between the clusters are then developed, to
begin to develop patterns of relationships between them. This is perhaps most clearly explained by reference to another example.
Figure 2 illustrates three closely related clusters that inform the later
discussion of establishment behaviours in the second of the cases,
As more cluster connections are identified, broader patterns are established which facilitate a more holistic understanding of the situation to
be developed, as shown in Figure 3, which provides an overview of
part of such a pattern. It relates to the discussion of the Conference
case, which is presented later in the paper.
Through this process, the inferences that are developed can be seen
to be initially and loosely guided by theory, but have a emergent quality in relation to patterns that are derived from the data. The output
from the analyses are discussed below.
FINDINGS AND INFERENCES
In this part of the article each of the two collaborations is discussed in
turn. The first was a relatively discrete collaboration with a well-specified
project, whereas the second was a broader, developmental network;
however, both were concerned with supporting small and nascent
technology businesses. For reasons of confidentiality these situations are described as Spinout and Conference in this paper. These
cases are presented because they relate to the same area of practice whilst allowing us to explore differences relating to scale and
complexity that give some feeling for the role of tradition in organisations and collaborations that may be more generally relevant. Here
we are thinking particularly of the implications of the presence of traditions rather than the content of particular traditions or organisational contexts.
Figure 2 - Example Data Clusters, Conference Case
The Spinout situation was concerned with the collaboration between a
commercial consultancy, a regional development agency and a small
scientific service group within an academic institution, formed to investigate whether the service group could approach full commercial independence, and develop a business plan to support this. We particularly focus on elements in the data related to conflicts and differences
related to identity; reflecting differences between the commercial language and orientation of the development agency, and the strong academic tradition within the scientific group.
The academic tradition of the scientific group was manifested in a
number of ways, as shown in the example data cluster provided earlier as Figure 1, for example:
a strong desire to continue to publish in academic journals (particularly expressed by senior members of the group);
providing extensive free technical help on the telephone to third
party that was known to be their only significant competitor, for the
same range of very specialist services;
expressing a wish to not formally record customer contact details,
or to send marketing information to them, because they were also
friends within their research networks;
prominence given to publications and a library of academic references on the group’s website, rather than to the commercial services
that were provided.
Figure 3 - Emerging Pattern of Clusters, Conference Case
All of these features would not be problematic, it might be argued,
were it not for the fact that the group was dependant upon commercial
income for its existence, and was intended to become independent
and therefore fully exposed to business risks. From the perspective of
the development agency the group was unsustainable, and was not
protecting its intellectual property. For the agency, this was not just a
philanthropic interest —it was a government performance criteria for
the agency to help develop and grow new and emerging businesses.
From this we might draw two inferences: firstly, at an early stage the
perspective of what the scientific group was and should be differed in
relation to the views of the collaborating parties; secondly, the practices of the scientific group suggested an unchallenged continuity of
reasoning from the past.
It should be stressed that the scientific group did have an excellent
academic record and the team were at the time the leading specialists
in their particular niche; this reasoning and academic identity could be
connected to a substantial history in the field. As the project continued,
there was evidence of changed views as some members of the scientific group began to take a commercial perspective in line with the
development agency, whilst on the other hand some wished to re-integrate the group into its erstwhile academic parent. Some individuals
seemed to become increasingly isolated, as they remained committed
to what seemed to be insupportable positions. We see this polarisation
as being symptomatic of the authority and non-falsifiable nature of tradition (discussed earlier); if the situation is perceived to be incompatible with the agent’s tradition, it is either abandoned (for an alternative,
more useful tradition?) or the individual retreats into a kind of fundamentalism —as Giddens (2002: 41) has put it, « for someone following
a traditional practice, questions don’t have to be asked about alternatives. »
There were also patterns in the data that suggested implicit power
relations and unchallenged instances of ‘domination’ in the different
levels of influence seemingly exerted by the two representatives of the
development agency. The member most involved with the project (A)
contributed throughout, and was supportively both challenged and
challenging. Her colleague (B) however emerged unexpectedly at the
last meeting of the collaboration, criticized liberally, sought to impose
faster deadlines and specified more demanding targets —and was not
challenged by the other participants. Whilst the development agency
had a funding role (an obvious source of power), and this applied to A
as well as B, the previous funding of the group was signed off by B,
who was more senior than A.
There may also have been a gender issue; in the scientific group, all
of the junior (front-line, service providing) staff were female, and the
senior (advisory/consultant) staff were male —echoing the gender division in the development agency representation. However, we do not
wish to assert these options as explanations, but merely to raise them
as possibilities, in relation to the inferred power differences and different potential views about the reference groups connected to these differences.
The second case, Conference, involved twenty-four collaborating commercial organizations. These organizations were the sponsors of a
not-for-profit company, which administered a network in which the
sponsors participated. The network was intended to help emerging
technology companies —startups, in the main— to prepare for
engagement with commercial venture capitalists, most particularly at a
major investment conference. As with the Spinout situation (above),
some of the most interesting findings related to identity.
In particular the Chair of the network (and of the non-profit company
sponsored by the members) was assertive and (seemingly) self-consciously businesslike; at times he ridiculed academics (as did others
— he led a chorus of sniggering about a company with a university
management team). This was intriguing as the non-profit company had
been formed from, and was designed to support, to support a network
involving universities amongst its clients and was based in a university building. Most interestingly of all, the Chair himself was an accomplished former academic, and was always dressed less formally than
sponsor company representatives from large, influential firms. We suggest that this indicates a transitional situation in the chosen identity of
the Chair as academic tradition is rejected in order for him to position
himself within (join the sniggering chorus) of the business establishment —or perhaps (deliberately or otherwise) associate himself with
the traditions of a more powerful reference group 
This connects with Weber’s (1978:
246) comment that,....
The possibility of tradition linking identity and power in this situation was
also suggested by the role of names in the discussions at the meetings
of the collaboration and the final investment conference; where startups
had attracted interest from famous establishment individuals (either as
investors or potential leading members of their management teams),
the mention of these names seemed to be a justification of the strength
of the startup, and rational judgements were pushed to the background.
This was most strongly exemplified by a startup (K) that had gained the
interest of a particularly famous name that was part of the conference
buzz. The other 22 startups bidding for funds at the conference were
represented by a smartly-dressed manager, making a sober presentation that concentrated on financials. A founding member in a crumpled
t-shirt, making a fun presentation with no numbers at all, represented K.
This had no effect on the buzz around the startup, which seemed to be
on the way to becoming a name itself.
We also noted that differences in expectations of behaviour seemed to
delineate the identity of a privileged class. This was most apparent in
the criteria for inclusion at the conference. One startup was excluded
from consideration for the conference, because of the reported bad
behaviour of its manager at an earlier conference —a kind of
behaviour that didn’t sound very different from the exuberant drunkenness of some of the serious venture capitalists and sponsors observed
at the conference dinner at the close of this research. The division in
gender roles was equally stark: all the presenters, guest and dinner
speakers from all of the startups at the conference were male; the only
formal visible role undertaken (almost exclusively) by women was in
operating the registration desk and handing out conference packs.
We have only touched on parts of the data for the Conference situation, but these data are indicative of a range of other observations
describing the way interactions and events proceeded in this case. The
data seem to suggest the existence of a privileged establishment
group; this group seems to have been able to implicitly dominate other
parties with an interest in events; reserve certain behaviours to itself
and govern the futures of others through the use of (and participation
as) seemingly mythical names. These names in particular seemed to
be given authoritative significance in judgement processes. We recognise, in the implicit domination exercised in this way by this group
— which seems to be a rather loose and ill-defined network— the operation of a tradition.
To conclude the findings, we suggest that features observed in both of
these two cases conform with the lines of enquiry set out in the
methodology, and that traditions have been noted in apparent modes
of reasoning, identity issues, power relations and the operation of
authority in collaborative settings.
Huxham and Vangen (2005) describe three purposes of power: power
over focussed on gain for the individual or organization; power to,
focussed on mutual gain; power for, to allow others to gain. They also
characterise power in terms of three asymmetries: in the resources
controlled by each partner; in the value placed upon the relationships
by each partner; and in the structural positions of the partners. We
have discussed how tradition is manifested in issues of power and
identity in the situations described earlier in this paper, and has indicated its influence in patterns of reasoning from the past. The findings
also suggest the hidden presence of authority in the situations of domination that have been alluded to.
We would argue that the exercise of the power in an organization or
collaboration cannot properly be understood without reference to tradition. This may particularly be the case regarding the value placed on
relationships by each partner; which is fundamental to understanding
the purposes for power that individuals and organizations enact in collaboration. An inability to find organizational language to describe this
may leave it unaddressed and hence it may remain another irritant or
inertial force upon collaboration.
There is room for extension and challenge of these findings, however.
First, for collaborations involving organizations of very similar traditions, the power and identity issues might not arise (or may not arise
so markedly) — or alternatively be derived from different causes. Second, there needs to be some thought about whether it is the particular
agent (and/or their communities of practice [Lave and Wenger, 1991])
or the particular organization that belongs to the kinds of traditions
observed; the discussion set out earlier in the article leads us to expect
to encounter multiple, intertwined traditions (West-Turner, 1997,
Dobel, 2001; Giddens, 2002).
Nevertheless, we would argue that while it may be difficult to identify
particular traditions, the role of the tradition as —or in— processes is
clearly significant in relation to the engagement of the agents in the
interpretation of events and relationships. Specifically, it seems that
this interaction and engagement can be considered as operating in
relation to tradition in two interfacial modes, as illustrated earlier in Figure 1. Firstly, there is the moment of engagement in events, which can
be construed as interpretive events: « Someone who understands is
always already drawn into an event through which meaning asserts
itself » (Gadamer, 1998: 490); this means that there can be no complete freedom from the prejudices —the authority of our traditions—
within an individual’s process of understanding. Secondly, there is the
process of interaction; the encounter with others from differing perspectives in the enactment and creation of structures of collaboration,
which seems to present new and challenging problems to the participants. A reflexive engagement at the structural level can therefore
allow new understandings to be incorporated.
As the instances of views in transition described earlier (in the Spinout
situation, particularly) suggest, this adoption of new (elements of) tradition (s) is through taking up a new vocabulary that provides more useful descriptions (or redescriptions [Rorty, 1989]) of the situation. Understanding interorganizational collaboration therefore requires an appreciation that new sets of terms can help practitioners to engage reflectively within these challenging situations and to consider that they are
problematic in part, perhaps, because of their own traditions. There is
a need to be able to see and reflect upon the reference groups that are
important traditional resources for our assumptions and practices (Kelley, 1952; McCabe and Dutton, 1993; Jones and Ryan, 1997; Tinson
and Ensor, 2001) and the conceptualizations of our (individual or organizational) identity that are affected by the ways in which we relate to
these groups (Fiol and O’Connor, 2002; Hatch and Schultz, 2002).
As Hatch and Schultz (2002) have suggested, identity rests upon both
inward facing and outward facing moments of construction. We are in
agreement with this analysis, and our work here suggests also that
the internal dialogue of identity may be seen as interpenetrating
aspects of tradition (which we use to explain the continuity of our own
construction of the past into the future) and culture (which we use to
explain the connectivity between our own and community understandings) —as indicated in Figure 4.
Our findings also suggest that this inward-facing dialogue may support
or undermine collaborative, outward-facing dialogue. However, through
constructing a set of terms that are immediately recognisable in events
(perhaps identified in event talk), but having explanatory value in the
context of structural engagement —such as the conceptual handles
described by Huxham and Vangen (2004)— there is a possibility of connection, of the fusion of horizons, amongst practitioners employing these
vocabularies and hence the possibility of change. We do not argue that
this redescription is of itself an overcoming of the problems associated
with collaboration in general, and the role of tradition in particular; but
perhaps it is a way of beginning to develop better questions.
In fact, we do not foresee or wish for any final overcoming of all tradition for others or for ourselves. As Caputo (2004: 35) has remarked:
« Where would I be without my tradition? (…) I would not know what
questions I would ask, or what texts I would read, in what language I
would think, or in what community I could move about. »
Note. We would like to thank Chris Huxham, Nic Beech and Peter McInnes (all at the
University of Strathclyde) for their comments on earlier version of this work, and the editors and anonymous reviewers of M@n@gement for their helpful comments on the current paper. Paul Hibbert would also like to acknowledge the support of the ESRC/EPSRC
Advanced Institute of Management Research, Grant number RES-331-25-0016T.
Figure 4 - Internal Dialogue of Tradition, Culture, and Identity