A note on collaboration and organizational design

linked hands

Is the "market" a collaborative activity?

One colleague put me on to a very simple yet very crisp and practical distinction between coordination, cooperation, and collaboration.  More than a year later, another academic suggested three levels of organizational behaviour: hierarchical, clan-based, and market based.  It struck me that these are essentially the same.

A colleague of mine at Dalhousie University, Prof. Peter Gregson, once explained to me what he believed the differences were between three important concepts: coordination, cooperation, and collaboration.  He very succinctly put it thus: coordination is group activity with clear leadership and clearly defined roles; cooperation is group activity without clear leadership but with clearly defined roles; and collaboration is group activity with neither clear leadership nor clearly defined roles.  I don’t know if Gregson’s take is original – there’s lots of stuff on the Internet about these three concepts (such as this example) – but he’s certainly described it in a way that sticks.

More recently, I attended a seminar given by Prof. Robert Bauer on organizational design.  He enumerated three styles of organizational structure: hierarchies, clans, and markets.  Hierarchies are the typical, “classical” organizational structure; clans are smallish groups where everyone knows their responsibilities but where there is little or no controlling hierarchy; market-based organizations are self-controlling mish-mashes of agents, each undertaking whatever tasks are available, and without any control whatsoever.

I think Gregson’s classification is pretty much identical to Bauer’s classification.

Coordinated activities tend to be the most efficient of the three, but they are also brittle, in that they do not suffer external forces that attempt to destabilize coordination of activities.  In variable situations, coordinated activities are not particularly effective.  Hierarchies are, as I see them, the same: if they’re well-designed, they can be very efficient; but they also tend to be very static and unadaptable to change – they’re not effective except in a rather narrow range of situations.

Cooperative activities are more flexible than, but not as efficient as, coordinated activities because of the lack of leadership.  The cooperating agents must be able to “get along” to make up for this, but given this, they can adapt to some kinds of changes in situation, changes which vary anything but the nature of the roles that the agents undertake.  Clans are similar; they consist rather by definition of agents that can get along and self-organize, within the limits of their roles and abilities.  They’re more effective than, but not as efficient as, hierarchical organizations.

Finally, collaborative activities are the least efficient but the most effective because they are the least sensitive to external perturbations – they’re the most adaptable.  That’s just the same as markets (at least in principle).  A market is composed of agents who are generally willing and able to change quite radically in response to new situations.  Roles are highly dynamic in markets, and there is no hierarchy of control at all.

What’s really interesting here is that the three kinds of activities arise from considering human behaviour while the organizational models arise from the more clinical and much less human-centred area of business and management.  I think that the three organizational models are one set of possible organizational implementations of the three kinds of activities.  I’d even suggest that the only difference between the three kinds of activities and the three kinds of organizations is one of perspective.

Indeed, I see this as a reasonable argument that there’s nothing that economics and management theory can explain that cannot be explained equally well by a study of how individuals and groups of humans interact.  And I prefer to build understanding on the behaviour of real people because, let’s face it, organizations are just constructs of the human mind – they don’t actually exist.

This works for me; your mileage may vary.

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