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Collaborative networks: the initial design strongly influences the outcome: a practitioner-academic offers a model for how (and how not) to establish an effective network structure from four case studies at the state and local level in Arkansas.

Increasingly, when public organizations try to solve difficult problems, they turn to collaborative networks to get the job done. The benefit of these collaborative networks is more than just co-laboring together to reach a given end. The belief is that synergy is achieved by pooling the brainpower of multiple actors and organizations. But because they reach across organizational boundary lines, one of the challenges is the lack of an accountability mechanism to ensure that something actually gets done. A related problem is that many managers have been equipped by their educational experiences to function only in the classic hierarchical, single organization setting, and do not have the tools needed to manage collaborations.

Keys to Success

So how does one meet the challenges of the multi-organization setting and successfully manage a collaborative network? Much has been written about this question, but most of the advice boils down to the necessity of the following ingredients:

* The timing and political climate must be right. Unless people see a clear need to address the problem or concern, they will not be willing to work together as needed.

* There must be leadership, either through an outside facilitator or from the group itself. Someone must be dedicated to the collaborative process from beginning to end. The leader must remember, though, that true collaborative leadership is a bottom-up process that requires developing and unleashing the already-existing competences of the network's members.

* The leader/facilitator must engender trust among the participants. Some experts believe that the quality of the relationships created or enhanced by the collaborative network is key to its success.

* The leader/facilitator and group members must forge a shared vision of what they want to achieve. Some believe that shared power, where no one party can exercise unilateral control, must accompany the shared vision.

Without these four critical elements, historically it has been impossible to achieve an effective collaborative network. However, two other elements are essential when structuring a network. This article will focus on these considerations, the type of network and stakeholder selection, to provide some tips on how to establish an effective collaboration.

Mandatory vs. Voluntary Collaborations

Collaborative networks that have been mandated by some governmental entity have different dynamics than those that come together by mutual consent. Janice Schopler's typology of interorganizational groups looks at two dimensions, whether the task is mandated or voluntary, and the degree of task structure, to develop four types of groups (see Figure 1).

Linking Group Type to Outcome

The Type I group is mandated and with a task structure determined by outside forces, while the Type II group is mandated, but has more autonomy in task structure. The Type III group forms voluntarily, but some external body specifies its task structure, while Type IV groups come together voluntarily and are relatively free of external constraints on their task structure. According to Schopler, group origin and external task structure can predict the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the collaborative network. Likewise, each type of group has a different sort of personality and requires different techniques to succeed.

Type I: Arkansas Department of Human Services

An example of the Type I group is the way welfare reform was implemented in Arkansas following the passage of the 1996 federal welfare reform act. The Department of Human Services was mandated to take the lead role in a collaborative effort to reform welfare, with the mandated participation of 11 other state agencies and the voluntary, but state-encouraged, participation of the business community. A similar collaborative network was to be established at the county level. Unfortunately, despite a statutory requirement to collaborate, only a few of the partners ever became active participants in the process. "Mandatory" participation in a collaborative network rarely promotes the kind of synergy sought from the collaborative process, and may serve as a brake on effective group work.

Type II: City of Little Rock, Arkansas

Although participation is still mandated, a Type II collaborative network stands a better chance of succeeding because more autonomy is allowed to develop the internal structure of the group. The purpose of these networks generally is to examine mutual problems in a given area, and the lead agency's role is simply to facilitate the interactions of the various organizational partners. Although members of this type of collaborative network usually are of the same professional backgrounds and network interactions may be based on much trust and commitment, usually there is no funding or authority to implement the agreements reached by the partners. The dropout rate on a network such as this may be great, because the network, in essence, has no teeth. After the initial meetings and burst of publicity, participants begin to realize that they may be wasting their time and fall away.

The "Vision" process of the City of Little Rock, AR, illustrates the pitfalls of this approach. The city board of directors established a citizen-based volunteer project for the purpose of studying city government and services, and making the recommendations regarding the city's growth and development for the next decade. Volunteers were recruited extensively and over 300 citizens participated in the two-year process, culminating with a media fanfare and a final report. The project manager reported a significant dropout rate of participants before the project was completed. Even as the report was issued, and in the following year's time, laments of how there was no implementation of the recommendations were reported in the newspaper.

Type III: Problem Solvers, a Provider Network in Arkansas

The Type III network in its pure form is not as common as the other three. Although the group forms voluntarily, its structure is dependent on external specifications in order to achieve its task, according to Schopler. The more common form is where the external specifications concern funding requirements. The Type III collaboration may be seen with some federal grants. Parties from a variety of organizations may come together because of a need, and seek funding to meet that need, only to see their creative efforts stymied by restrictive funding requirements. This was the recent experience of Problem Solvers, a statewide collaborative

network of service providers to persons with disabilities in Arkansas. Transportation was identified as the most common obstacle to providing employment opportunities for persons with disabilities who have been de-institutionalized as a result of the Olmstead decision. Strings on existing federal and state funding sources, coupled with liability concerns, have become the brick wall hindering the network's effectiveness.

Type IV: Craighead County, Arkansas

The collaborative network with the most potential for achievement is the Type IV group that is voluntary and free from external influences. This network is made up of interested participants who have recognized the need to work together to achieve a common goal. No one organization or individual can make decisions more than other members and all decisions are reached by mutual agreement. The down side of this type of network is that it may be difficult to secure funding for the work of the group and to see that the plans of the group are implemented. For this kind of collaboration to succeed, it is crucial that the group be composed of some dominant members with external sources of support.

An example of this type group comes from the Craighead County Transitional Employment Assistance (TEA) Coalition Transportation Committee. This collaborative group of citizens representing various organizations with a common recognition of the need for public transportation began work that has continued for over five years. Although there was a shared vision of what needed to be achieved, and extreme commitment to group goals, dominant members with the necessary resources to achieve the goals were missing despite attempts to engage them in the network. This failure to achieve points out the importance of bringing together the right stakeholders for effective collaboration.

Stakeholder Selection

In any collaborative network, stakeholders have to be given an opportunity to "be at the table." This step is most important because the stakeholders determine what is discussed and acted upon, and they also may have assets or liabilities that they bring with them to the process. It is important to involve the key stakeholders, but also to make sure that they are willing to participate meaningfully in the process.

The task of identifying stakeholders is not always easy, for one reason, because they may not all be concerned with the problem at the same time. Another problem is whether the true stakeholders are the individuals themselves or the organizations they represent. Related to this problem is what happens when key individuals are no longer associated with the organizations they initially represented.

Brainstorming, Mapping, and Circles of Influence

An abbreviated version of John Bryson's systematic method of stakeholder identification is helpful to understanding the selection process. The method begins with the initial stakeholders being asked to brainstorm the names of other potential stakeholders. Existing members then group the names and the issues in which they would be interested on a wall or blackboard. Stakeholder influence mapping is used next, where the identified potential stakeholders are evaluated for their relevance to the collaborative process. Those who are deemed most central to the network's success are placed nearest the center of the board. All potential stakeholders are placed on the board by how central they are perceived to be to the process. Finally, circles of influence are drawn to represent the interest and power relationships of those potential stakeholders on the board. At each point in the stakeholder identification process, members are asked whether the identified stakeholders should be included in the collaborative process.

The question of whether a given stakeholder should be included in the collaborative network is an important question. There is disagreement among experts on this point, but personal experience has proven that not every stakeholder should be a part of the network.

The following principle from Harrison Owen's Open Space Technology is especially relevant here: "Whoever comes is [sic] the right people." When the wrong people are forced to come, they do nothing but hinder the collaborative process, serving as a constant check on the flow of ideas. Despite the importance of considering all views in the collaborative process, not everyone should participate, especially if forced to "participate." By all means, invite everyone who has been identified as a relevant stakeholder, but do not lose sleep over those who refuse to take part. On the other hand, if key stakeholders will not play and threaten to veto results, the proposed collaborative network may not meet the first criterion of a partnership that "the timing/political climate must be right." The situation may warrant another look to determine that the network is not being formed prematurely.

Putting It All Together

The underlying message of the preceding sections on the type of collaborative networks and stakeholder selection is that coerced, mandated participation is a deterrent, if not a complete impediment, to effective collaboration. If you want to put together a network to deal with a vexing problem, how do you proceed? Begin by establishing a network structure that is a hybrid of the four types with the best of all four worlds. Even if the legislature mandates action on a given problem, avoid mandating that various organizations are a part of the network. Instead, provide funds for demonstration grants or full implementation of the solution the group develops for the problem, with as few strings attached as possible--"if you fund it, they will come" without mandates.

With a guaranteed source of funding, the solutions and agreements reached will have teeth and stand a better chance of succeeding. Network members will be less likely to fall away because they will realize that their participation has meaning. Finally, include all true stakeholders who wish to make a difference and solve the problem. Be careful not to discount any opposing viewpoints, but do not be concerned if the opposition does not want to participate. By setting up the network in this fashion, your collaboration will stand a better chance of surviving, and even thriving.
Figure 1:

Typology of Collaborative

Group Origin Task Structure

 External Internal

Mandated Type I Type II

Voluntary Type III Type IV

Source: Janice H. Schopler (1987). Interorganizational
Groups: Origins, Structure, and Outcomes. "Academy of
Management Review 12(4): 702-713.


(1.) Chrislip, David D. and Carl E.Larson, Collaborative Leadership: How Citizens and Civic Leaders Can Make a Difference, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

(2.) Mattessich, Paul W. and Barbara R.Monsey, Collaboration: What Makes It Work, St. Paul, MN: Amherst Wilder Foundation, 1992.

(3.) Linden, Russ, Working Across Boundaries, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Marsha Guffey is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock: She has served as a consultant to welfare reform and public transportation groups in Arkansas, in addition to facilitating a variety of collaborative processes.
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Title Annotation:Partnerships and Networks
Author:Guffey, Marsha
Publication:The Public Manager
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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