Is an alliance, coalition or partnership the right strategy for your problem?

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Do you create or participate in alliances, coalitions or partnerships? Do you ever wonder if your time should be spent in such a process? Have you explored the question of the likelihood of success?

More time, energy and resources are required to deal with the complexity of building this form of organization ( I use the catch-all technical term "trans-organizational system" coined by organization theorist Thomas Cummings) than a traditional organization. Because of the extra capacity building and the interpersonal and intercultural issues that arise, I urge TS members to engage in thoughtful assessment prior to entering into a TS.

In one organization with which I worked, the organizational mission statement expounded that the organization worked in partnership with the community. Broad statements urging partnership in every instance need to be deconstructed and organizations need to determine in exactly what kinds of situations it is a benefit to work with other organizations and when it is not.

When is a TS the preferred organizational strategy?

Most public health units across Canada now require health promotion and disease prevention staff to operate in partnership with other community institutions and agencies. Non-profits, from police departments to hospitals, are involved in inter-organizational processes for prevention purposes. In the business sector, research shows that up to 30% of business is now transacted through an alliance. Partnerships can add value across a business operation's technology transfer, supply chain management, or marketing alliances.

If there is a history of single organizations failing to develop sustainable solutions and partners are willing to collaborate, then you can move forward confidently.

The methodology

In my consulting practice and workshops I use a development framework based on the work of Thomas Cummings:

A 6 Step Model to Develop a Trans-organizational System (TS)

  1. Problem /Problem set identification
  2. Motivation to Act
  3. Member Identification and Selection
  4. Collaborative Planning
  5. Building an Organization
  6. Evaluation

1. Problem/Problem set identification step addresses the question: What intractable problems are surfacing in our environment that we cannot resolve by ourselves?

It is important that all members of the TS construct the same mental model of the problem set. Each member brings their predetermined analysis and probable solutions to the table. Preferred solutions need to be put aside until the opportunity to explore the problem set is worked through the different perspectives of TS members.

2. Motivation to Act - We decide to act in concert with others because of the perceived benefits of collaborative action.

Whoever is the initiator of the process does so because he/she is motivated to act. What are those motivators? What are the motivations of potential members? Self-interest is accepted as the principal motivator.

3. Member identification and selection - Who cares about the problem and is willing to join our process?

The work of an organization is to transform knowledge. The same is true for TSs. Member selection is a process of recruiting knowledge resources into the process. There are three basic ways to do this:

  • The expanding network model
  • The stakeholder analysis model
  • Self-selection model

4. Collaborative planning - Should a TS be created? If so, what are its vision and action strategies?

Until members agree to a common vision, TSs are rudderless and directionless. The common vision acts like a route outlined on a road map, informing all who participate where the process will try to go. In this visioning and strategic planning phase you develop the following:

  • Member commitment
  • Sense of mission
  • Shared values with which to work together
  • Collective vision
  • Goals that can be translated into action and be measured.

This is the major trust-building and direction-setting phase in building a TS. It is wise to hire a neutral consultant to facilitate this phase.

5. Building an organization - How do we organize the vision and action into structure, leadership, communication, policies, and procedures?

Many TSs are stymied by this phase, in which members need to decide how to implement the vision and strategy developed in Phase Four. TSs are often built without members ever considering what they need to do to survive as a semi-autonomous organization and carry out the agreed-upon strategy. Instead, members' energy is invested into implementing the strategy until conflict or lack of participation grabs everyone's attention or simply kills off the process. The group's architecture is neglected and the creation of the form (of the group) fails to follow the development of the function (the strategic response to the problem set).

To offset the high failure rate of TSs, I have developed a tri-process model of organization effectiveness. The model includes Trust-building processes, Governance processes, and Work Co-ordination processes.

6. Evaluation - How is the TS performing in terms of performance outcomes, its quality of interaction, and member satisfaction?

This phase is not necessarily the end of the process, but can signal renewal and moving thorough the development cycle again. All groups ebb and flow, achieving goals, then defining new directions. Some TSs end and permit something new to arise out of the ashes. The capacity built with member organizations and individuals always makes it possible for organizations to transform into new processes and strategic plans.

A trans-organizational system is an emerging form of organization. As a tool, it useful to deal with turbulence and complexity in the environment by developing a common vision to guide systems change. Often a TS is the only way to redirect a stagnant system and introduce efficiency into fragmented service delivery systems. It can also be used to mobilize the political power of inter-organizational collaboration, a very effective organizational form for lobbying purposes.

A TS can be an effective vehicle to create and disseminate a new vision and direction for large scale systems such as communities, sectors or industries or for community/ academic partnerships designed to bridge gap between end users and academics.

Joan's book, entitled "Alliances, Coalitions and Partnerships: Building Collaborative Organizations", is published by New Society Publishers and was released this fall. Visit for more details.

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