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date: 17 October 2019

(p. 525) Key Topics In Inter‐organizational Relations Research


This part of the Handbook focuses on a series of key topics that repeatedly appear in the various literatures dealing with Inter‐organizational relations. ‘Topics’, in the way that they are presented in this part, may be thought of as conceptual slices through the field of Inter‐organizational relations (IOR) research. They are issues—such as trust, power, leadership, legitimacy, facilitation, evaluation, and so on—that appear to have (or have been shown to have) significance in the context of relations between organizations. Hypothetically, it is possible to conceive of a ‘complete set’ of such topics providing a ‘complete’ account of IORs. In practice, of course, ‘completeness’ is unattainable, but the principle, as a defining characteristic of ‘topics’, remains sound.

Needless to say, given the variety of manifestations that are employed in studying IORs reflected in Part II above, as well as the variety of theoretical lenses of IORs revealed in Part III, the range of topics that have been the subject of research by scholars seeking to increase the knowledge base of IOR far exceeds our ability to cover the terrain in this part of the Handbook. The volume of possibilities is such that ‘topics in IOR research’ could easily justify a whole Handbook of its own. This part, more than any other in the Handbook, is an incomplete account of the area.

In selecting topics, we aimed to include issues that clearly were central to discussions of IORs. We also sought topics that could be addressed across most of the manifestations contained in Part III. Finally, we picked topics that, in our view, could only be addressed in useful ways (to scholars and practitioners alike) by exploring them through multiple theoretical lenses. Our eventual selections— embodied in chapters on trust, power, social capital, change and time, learning and innovation, approaches to intervening, and approaches to evaluation—do satisfy these criteria.

But even this collection excludes topics that also would have satisfied the criteria. Some of the excluded topics, at least to some degree, are partially covered in other chapters of the book. Discussion of partner selection can be found in Dacin, Reid, and Ring's chapter on strategic alliances and joint ventures. Issues relating to legitimacy of IORs are introduced by Provan and Sydow within the topic of evaluation. Risk is discussed within the topics of learning and innovation (Nooteboom) and trust (Bachmann and Zaheer). Culture appears in the context of Inter‐organizational projects (Jones and Lichtenstein). Other topics are simply too sparsely researched to date. Perhaps the most significant of these relate to communication, goal negotiation, and identity, all of which are frequently mentioned in (p. 528) IOR research, and emotion, accountability, rupture and repair, and ethics; highly relevant though far less often mentioned.

We asked authors in this part to cover the variety of theoretical perspectives and manifestations relevant to their topic. As with the authors of all chapters, we also asked them to include their own perspective on the area. Thus, all of the topics covered in this part have a particular slant. Inevitably, this means that some aspects of each topic are covered more fully than others. In the remainder of this Introduction, we indicate the central thrust of each chapter and signal other places in the book where aspects of the topic are discussed, including some that are less developed here.

The first four chapters of Part IV relate to inherent characteristics—relating to trust, power, social capital, and time—of Inter‐organizational entities (IOEs) that influence the effectiveness and path of the relationship. Bachmann and Zaheer's approach to discussing trust is rooted in a comparison of economic and sociological approaches to the subject. Drawing principally on literature derived from a commercial sector perspective, they make an argument that is relevant across all sectors. They contend (contrary to the position taken in some economic perspectives) that trust is significant in Inter‐organizational settings, characterizing it as a basic coordination mechanism. They take a view of Inter‐organizational trust that implies it is closely linked to interpersonal trust. Drawing on structuration theory and newer approaches to institutional theory, they argue for an interpretativist approach to the understanding of the subject. Reliance on trust has distinct functions in coordinating differing manifestations of IORs, and an ability to rely on trust is viewed as being an embedded feature of a society.

Trust is addressed in several other chapters in this Handbook. Readers will find the basis for an alternative—transaction cost—theoretical view of trust in Hennart's chapter and more behavioural‐based approaches to trust or trust building in the chapters on social psychology (Schruijer) and intervention approaches (Gray). The role of trust in relation to contract is addressed in Ring's chapter. Geddes draws extensively on public sector literature for his discussion of trust building in local and regional partnerships.

In the chapter on power, Huxham and Beech integrate insights from research on IOR power across several dimensions. Overall, their focus is on the use of power. They first introduce three perspectives on the reasons why power may be used in IORs. They follow this with a discussion of sources of power identified in the various literatures, and introduce the notion of power at the micro level. Their discussion leads towards a view of power as dynamic, shifting continuously between partners at both macro and micro levels. Because their concern is with integration, they do not discuss, in depth, each of the theoretical bases from which power is researched. However, quite detailed theoretical commentary on power appears in several of the chapters in Part III. Power is a central concern in critical theory (Lotia (p. 529) and Hardy, this volume), so that chapter is obviously important in this context, but the chapters setting out political (Knoke and Chen) and economic geography (Yeung) perspectives also have much to say about this topic.

Nahapiet, in her chapter on social capital, explicitly concerns herself with multiple dimensions of relationships, both structural and connectionist, that, she asserts, are often kept separate in other studies. Her approach to social capital thus distinguishes itself from the exclusively (or at least, largely) structural perspective of network studies and the relational perspective of trust and identity researchers. In her view, social capital takes a resource‐based perspective—viewing connections as both a resource and providing access to resources. She concludes that social capital research, typically, has sought to elucidate the performance consequences of social connections, both positive and negative. Other contributors to the book have considered social capital in specific contexts. Nooteboom addresses the role that social capital can play in learning and innovation while Kenis and Oerlemans employ the concept in their contribution on social networks.

Cropper and Palmer review theories of and research into change, dynamics, and time. Research into change in IOR is substantial but it has largely been a hidden concern, framed according to the theoretical perspective on IOR in use and also lacking the focus on planned change that is provided in organizational studies by the organizational change and development literatures. Research into IOR dynamics has more clearly established some distinctive lines of theory development and, in a more limited way, has started to accumulate findings: it is an area perhaps ready for critique before further development. Finally, the initiation of research into time in IOR is very recent. Cropper and Palmer sketch out the variety of ways in which time and temporalities have started to enter as questions to be addressed— starting both from theories of temporality and from the specific character of IOR, as the chapter on project‐based IORs by Jones and Lichtenstein in Part II suggested.

The topic which forms the subject of Nooteboom's chapter, learning and innovation, is of a rather different character from those above, since these are not only characteristics of IORs but also, often, desired outcomes. Nooteboom set out to survey the complex field of alliances and networks designed to help produce innovation and sources of learning, without claiming to be exhaustive. In particular, he looks at two issues: first, competence (which is clearly central to innovation) and learning, observing that learning is all about developing competence; and, second, governance—i.e. the management of relational risks. In his arguments, he employs economics, sociology, and cognitive science, first summarizing the constructivist, interactionist view of knowledge employed in the chapter. He then explores the governance side of relations, in a review of relational risks and instruments that can be employed to manage them. Finally he analyses sources of novelty in IORs, focusing, in particular, on the role of variety and cognitive distance as both an opportunity for competence and a problem for both competence and governance. (p. 530) Issues related to learning and innovation are so pervasive in studies of IOR that they appear in virtually every chapter in this Handbook.

The topics in the final two chapters—approaches to intervention and evaluation—differ in type again. Both may be conceived as relating to the management of IORs. Gray takes an unusual approach to the discussion of intervention approaches, but one that very usefully moves the field forward. She integrates approaches deriving from many different arenas, by delineating underlying theories and linking these to the approaches. Her central thrust is around the tasks that interveners carry out in order to promote IOE effectiveness. Since this chapter is concerned with the process of collaborating across organizations, there is a clear synergy with the chapter on the management of IORs (Hibbert et al., this volume) and there would be merit in reading the two chapters alongside one another. Interestingly, many of the theories that Gray draws upon are not specific to IOR and so are not covered in Part II. However, the chapters on evolutionary theory (Lomi et al.) and social networks (Kenis and Oerlemans) provide extended discussions of two of the theories she draws upon.

Provan and Milward argue that despite the prevalence of IORs in organizational life, and despite the vast amount of research that has been conducted on the topic, discussions of evaluation remain complex. They observe the difficulty in determining with any precision what specific outcomes result from an IOR and what outcomes might have occurred in the absence of an IOR. This problem, they argue, is compounded by the prevalence of different theoretical perspectives for explaining IORs and by questions about the appropriate level of analysis. Their intent here is not to resolve these fundamental differences in perspective. They present a general discussion of the rationale for evaluation, and then discuss and categorize the various ways in which IORs have been evaluated over the years. They conclude with a discussion of the evaluation process, and how it might best be managed in light of current trends towards a collaborative approach to evaluation and the obvious path dependencies of evaluative practices.

As with the other sections, we hope that readers will be stimulated by the overviews and particular thrusts of these chapters to investigate the topics further. Exploring different theoretical or disciplinary bases for their relevance, or potential relevance, to the topic is one approach to doing this. Those covered in Part III are, in one way or another, each relevant to most of the topics, although some will have more direct relevance to particular topics than others. For example, critical theory (Lotia and Hardy) has very direct relevance to power, while the managing perspective (Hibbert et al.) includes power and empowerment as one of many thrusts. Another way of extending understanding of a topic is though consideration of it in the context of particular IOR manifestations. Thus the manifestations chapters in Part II can be seen either as a further source of perspective on the topic or as introductions to contexts in which the topic could be further researched. For example, each of the manifestations chapters has something to say about learning (p. 531) or innovation so would be worth visiting to gain perspectives on that topic. Some are very obvious study contexts for this topic; industrial networks (Lazerson and Lorenzoni), for example, are often set up precisely to stimulate innovation. Others that are notionally less obvious—say, community and voluntary sector partnerships (Mandell and Keast)—may nevertheless be interesting novel areas for study in which there is clear potential benefit of research for practitioners operating within the context. (p. 532)