The winners of the SAP’s Best Practice Oriented Paper Award in 2019 are Madalina Pop (Aarhus University) and Ingo Kleindienst (Aarhus University) with their paper “Spaces and Strategy Work in Inter-organizational Collaborations”
Compliments for receiving SAP’s Best Practice Oriented Paper Award! Can you briefly elaborate on what is your paper is about?
Thank you! We feel very honored to have received the SAP Best Practice Oriented Paper Award – that was quite a surprise. Now, in our paper we analyze how ‘space’ is used in inter-organizational collaborations to balance the interests of the different actors and to accomplish strategy work. To do so, we look into the initiatives that were started in an inter-organizational collaboration—a smart city project—over a period of seven years. What we find is that actors make use of four different ‘spaces’ – personal, private, common, and public—to drive their initiatives. These spaces are characterized by distinct meanings, physical settings, and strategic practices. Our data show that purposefully using these spaces allows actors both to surpass competing interests and to drive change and attract resources to the inter-organizational collaboration. Even in cases where the objective of the inter-organizational collaboration is a public good, a balancing of the diverse interests of the actors is needed. Moving across the difference spaces is one means—in fact the only one we found in the data—that ensures this balancing. In particular, an initiative is initially developed in the personal space, that is, without any interaction with other actors. Subsequently, the initiative is presented individually to different actors. This private space is used to connect the interests of selected actors. As a next step, the initiative is brought into the common space that refers to the regular meetings, in which the overall objective and norms are maintained in order to keep the collaboration going. Finally, the initiative moves to the public space where it is presented to the outside world in order to attract outside resources.
The paper explores the role of space in inter-organizational collaboration. What motivated you to explore this aspect of inter-organizational collaboration?
Initially, we wanted to understand how strategy work is accomplished within inter-organizational collaborations. What fueled our interest was the insight that on the one hand inter-organizational collaborations become increasingly important in today’s world but, on the other hand, the relative lack of hierarchy, structure, and rules creates novel challenges regarding the strategy work. During the research, space emerged as the driving factor that ‘organized’ or ‘structured’ the strategy work. We found that actors specifically planned their strategy work according to the aforementioned different spaces. This finding nicely aligned with the emerging literature that shows that spaces are an integral part of organizational life in a broad sense; acting as organizing mechanisms in themselves.
Your findings result from a multi-sited 24-months ethnography. Can you share your experiences of this field research?
Doing the ethnography in an inter-organizational setting as part of my PhD project was quite a challenge for me. At the same time, it was also highly rewarding: I was able to simultaneously follow the work of multiple organizations and witnessed both the diverse struggles among them and the joint dedication to develop the environment around them. I was particularly excited to observe the work of the participants in person but also to go back and analyze the video data as I videotaped most of the interactions. Analyzing the micro-interactions among the actors was fascinating. Obviously, dealing with eight different organizations that jointly form the inter-organizational collaboration I also encountered multiple challenges. Probably the two most severe challenges were keeping close contact with the multiple actors and establishing and maintaining a trusting relationship with all actors when conflicts between the actors arose.
Your paper showcases how common, private, public, and personal spaces intersect when putting collaborations to work. What are your main implications of these findings for the practice of interorganizational collaborations?
There are probably two main take-aways for practitioners. First, we observe how intense the preparation was on the part of the actors for each space. For example, prior to each one-on-one meeting (private space), the actors reminded themselves of the history that they had with that particular actor and engaged in an intensive work regarding how to best present the initiative in order to connect with the interests of the other actor. Thus, achieving a long-standing success in an inter-organizational collaboration requires a lot of preparation to maintain a balance of the multiple actors’ interests—even in case actors knew each other for a long time (over 15 years in some of our cases). Second, we learned that fulfillment of private interests by actors across different spaces was not seen as either controversial or problematic by the actors. They were aware of the independence and inter-dependencies between themselves and their interests and therefore kept the existence of practices going on in the other spaces quite open. Thus, maintaining openness about the activities happening in the other spaces, while allowing actors to pursue individual interests as well as common interests through the collaboration could sidestep some of the common problems that inter-organizational collaborations face. For example, the common space was specifically characterized by practices of eliminating tensions and conflicts.
Would you like to share any challenges you faced during the research and writing process? If so, how did you overcome them?
One of the main challenges that we faced during the research process is to make sense of a very complex data set: multiple actors engaged in multiple projects over multiple years. Mapping the interests, projects and extended environments of the actors was a challenge. We managed to start getting more clarity by firstly having multiple meetings and rounds of discussion and writing between the “inner” researcher that was the one collecting the data and the “outer” one. Even more, we used different visualization techniques such as the ones pioneered by Clarke and Clarke (2005) to map the different actors and their particularities. Lastly, we faced complexity in finding the right theoretical angle to help us in understanding our data, circling through a few theories ranging from Schatzki’s (2002) practice bundles to framing (Goffman, 1986). Presenting our ideas in multiple (different) versions to colleagues in the field helped us to develop our ideas and sharpen the framing of the paper.
Many thanks for your time. What do you like to share with colleagues who want to win the award in the future?
Thank you for this opportunity as well. Well, as mentioned above, we were very surprised to find out that we were nominated for the award. And, since we did not ‘plan’ this, it is hard to give any advice on how to win the award. However, the main advice we might be able to give is to keep close to the data and—even if it is a tedious, tiring, and sometime frustrating process—push past the initial complexities and confusion that are characteristics for such a research setting. Sharing your ideas and getting feedback from colleagues is a great help in this endeavor.
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WEINFURTNER, T. & SEIDL, D. 2018. Towards a spatial perspective: An integrative review of research on organisational space. Scandinavian Journal of Management.