Collaboration, Coordination and Cooperation Between Organizations

The terms “collaboration,” “coordination” and “cooperation,” write Xavier Castañer and Nuno Oliveira in a recent paper published by the Journal of Management, underpin both the organizations they describe and the study of those organizations, and yet the terms themselves are inconsistently defined and therefore their use can be imprecise or even downright confusing. Their paper’s title, on the other hand, is a model of precision – “Collaboration, Coordination, and Cooperation Among Organizations: Establishing the Distinctive Meanings of These Terms Through a Systematic Literature Review” — describing exactly what they set out to document and what they hope to achieve.

Castañer, a full professor of strategy at HEC Lausanne, University of Lausanne, and Oliveira, an assistant professor at the Tilburg University School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, note in the interview below that their paper appears to be the first systematic study of how researchers in the management actually define and use these key terms. In their research, they reviewed the definitions of the three terms as they appear in nine top journals in the general management literature between 1948 and 2017.

Collaboration defined in dictionary

We remember that the idea for this manuscript started with a conversation at the annual conference of the European Academy of Management in 2014. It was a while ago! From the initial idea, we went through multiple iterations over email, handwritten notes on paper napkins at conference dinners and Skype calls. Perhaps more importantly, we benefitted from discussions with several colleagues at conferences, seminars and workshops who shared an interest in collaboration, coordination and cooperation between organizations. It has been a truly collaborative endeavor.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

We were motivated by a straightforward observation. Collaboration, coordination and cooperation lie at the core of interorganizational activities; these terms are extensively and profusely used both in academic research and managerial discourse. However, recent academic research has pointed out a substantial confusion regarding these terms’ definitions. We felt that the recent solutions these studies propose to address this conceptual confusion were unsatisfactory.

Xavier Castañer, left, and Nuno Oliveira

First, most studies provided definitions for these three terms in the narrow context of interfirm alliances, often only considering horizontal or so called strategic alliances, i.e. alliances among industry incumbents, thus overlooking the wealth of direct interorganizational arrangements which also include joint ventures and cross-sectoral partnerships.

Second, some of the proposed redefinitions to deal with the conceptual confusion drew from a particular theoretical perspective, such as game theory, thus giving a narrow meaning to the terms of coordination and cooperation for instance. This narrow theoretical approach to term definition excludes other important theoretical perspectives which are relevant to our understanding of interorganizational relationships.

Third and probably most importantly, another proposal which has had certain impact advocated for considering collaboration as the mere sum of coordination and cooperation. If so, for the sake of parsimony in scientific research then the use of the collaboration term is unnecessary. Further, we felt that this proposal dispense with the specific meaning of collaboration, distinct from coordination and cooperation.

Finally, when assessing the proposed redefinitions in more detail, we felt that they felt short in terms of providing distinct concepts and taking into account the researchers’ actual use of these terms. 

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Answer: to the best of our knowledge, our article is the first to carry out a systematic review to study how researchers since the inception of the management research field have defined and used these three key terms. It might also be the first systematic review of three terms. The systematic review helped us to establish the distinctive meanings of collaboration, coordination and cooperation. We believe that our research will affect the field in four main ways:

  • First, we find three interactional dimensions that are present to different extents in the definitions we encountered of collaboration, coordination and cooperation (in the interorganizational context): attitude, behavior and outcome. This led us to formulate questions for future research which link these interactional dimensions for collaboration, coordination and cooperation between organizations.
  • Second, we identify and propose two discriminating dimensions that distinguish the terms of collaboration, coordination and cooperation: the type of goal to which the term refers and the goal temporal stage. The temporal stage refers to whether the goal is at the deliberation stage or at the implementation stage while the goal type concerns whether the goal is private (specific to a party) or common.
  • Third, we leverage the two discriminating dimensions to advance review-grounded re-definitions of each term. We propose to refer to coordination as the joint determination of common (IOR) goals while we define cooperation as the implementation of those goals. We suggest employing the term collaboration when referring to voluntarily helping other partners to achieve IOR (common) goals or one or more of their private goals. We believe these redefinitions might also be useful to refer to intra-organizational processes.
  • Fourth, we propose that future research should pay particular attention to voluntary help of others – i.e., collaboration – during the implementation of goals in interorganizational relationships. Helping others glues the partners together who are working to solve increasingly complex (where high interdependence exists among many elements or factors) and ill-structured problems.
  • Fifth, our systematic review shows that only 11 percent of the scientific articles which use either of the three terms define the term/s used. We hope our study will be a wake up call for future management researchers in the need to properly define the key terms of their research.  

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

First and foremost, we encourage researchers not to only to define key terms but also to strive for to uphold the values of construct validity and parsimony in scientific research. Conceptual clarity is paramount for knowledge accumulation and avoiding to conflate the mere re-packing ideas with truly novel findings.

In reviews of a concept that might be unclear or used interchangeably with other concepts, we advise researchers to take extra steps to minimize retrieval and selection biases. These steps include, for instance, developing and testing a list of search words based on an inventory of definitions of concepts that have been used interchangeably.

Collaboration, coordination and cooperation are central to the understanding of conventional (e.g., alliances) and emerging arrangements of interorganizational relationships (e.g., ecosystems). We hope our article provides the conceptual clarity that is necessary to advance research about these areas.

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