Ambiguity, complexity, and dynamics of collaboration

Ambiguity in membership and status

It has been argued that one of the key characteristics of a successful collaboration is clarity over membership and status. However, it is not always possible to have a clear view of who the members are, and what their status or capacity is within the collaboration.

Members typically have different motivations for getting involved with a collaboration, and as a result can view themselves as being different to everyone else. These many different perceptions of individual roles lead to the likelihood that there will always be some level of ambiguity over membership status.

Ambiguity in representativeness

Further confusion arises about uncertainty over whether the individuals involved in a collaboration are the members, or whether the members are the organisations they represent.

There is an assumption that individuals usually represent something beyond their own self interest when they participate in a collaboration, but it is likely that the term ‘member’ will always be used interchangeably to refer to both individual and organisational members of a collaboration.

The extent to which the collaboration takes place between individuals or organisations can however be viewed as a continuum: at one end, organisations take little interest in the collaboration, leaving the individuals to take part in their own capacity; at the other end, organisations are fully involved and committed to the aims and objectives of the collaboration.

Sometimes the involvement of organisations is necessary, sometimes the involvement of individuals is necessary. Sometimes both. Ambiguity arises because of where all the different individuals in the group sit on the continuum when representing their organisation.

A further difficulty arises when the purpose of the collaboration changes and takes on a direction that is not in step with the aim and objectives of the organisation. Then, even individuals operating in their own capacity (but with time support from the organisation), may need to reconsider their involvement in the collaboration.

Complexity in structure

It is clear that difficulties lie in explicitly naming members, or knowing the degree to which they are representing their organisation. However, there is further complexity inherent in the structure of many collaborations.

Both individual and organisational members often find themselves becoming members of multiple collaborations, with individuals themselves often holding different capacities within different collaborations.

To further complicate matters, different departments within organisations often get involved at different capacities, independently of other departments. There is often little coordination between departments, with little consideration on the effect of the multiple collaborations on the organisation as a whole.

Dynamics

Any number of factors contribute to shifts in membership, including individuals’ career moves within an organisation, withdrawal of funding for a department’s participation, failure of a member business, etc. As individual or organisational members withdraw from a collaboration for whatever reason, the remaining members have to decide whether to continue with the collaboration with fewer members.

External factors may also change the purpose of the collaboration, causing domain shifts which may result in the withdrawal of some of the members.

The structure of collaborations is continually changing as a result of shifts in membership, shifts in the purpose of the collaboration, and the sheer pace of change.

(Source: Huxham and Vangen, 2005).

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