Discussion

Although our findings are still under consideration at this stage, we have sought to link themes from the interviews and observation back to the literature around learning and collaboration in networks. We have found Tregaski (2003) and Knight and Pye (2002) particularly useful here.

Although writing about subsidiaries Tregaski's (2003) identification of four potential learning network modes is useful for supporting our positioning of the learning network under consideration here. Of the four modes she suggests, we believe the ESeN network reflects an international inter-organisational network. Tregaski (2003) also writes about the role played by culture and power, both of which were manifested in our data. Given the pan-European nature of ESeN, it is perhaps not surprising that we saw evidence to reinforce the role of national culture. For example, a Scandinavian Steering group member reported that collaboration was for him an organisational and cultural norm, although this reference to national culture did not hold true for all the other participants. In addition there was evidence of different styles of organisational/functional

Table III Summary outcomes from the interviews and the participant observation

Interview area Themes about collaboration from interviews Participant observation themes

Why collaborate?1. Task focus

2. Share mutual interests

3. Organisational or national culture

4. Access to more knowledge and resources

5. Feedback on ideas and concepts

6. Dialogue to help analyse and explain

7. Social interaction How? 1. Scientific methodology

2. Project methodology similar to "day" job, e.g. worldwide project implementation

3. Previous EU projects

4. Surveyors, e.g. of a network

5. MBA programme

6. Corporate academic network What works? 1. Strong facilitation and lots of energy

2. Common goals and agreement on ways of working (team charter)

3. Shared language

4. Geographical proximity

5. F:F meetings

6. Electronic support as appropriate

7. Social interaction

8. Time to develop own rhythm

1. Differing agendas

2. Lack of buy-in and urgency

3. Distance

4. Poor relations caused by different personalities As two interviewees pointed out, collaboration is difficult. Interviewees describe learning at an individual level, in the context of a group and/or network

What hinders?

Reflections and level of learning

1. To fulfil EU requirements and justify taking share of funding

2. To produce and supply something tailored to own locality and SME interests

3. To learn from the experience of collaboration and sharing

1. Followed espoused "best practice": produced a charter, community of practice input and social event

2. Use of action learning methodology for both medium and message

1. Attempts to be participative and democratic (had limited success)

2. Strong steer by coordinator helped

3. Social interaction to support negotiations

1. Lack of strong facilitation from coordinator

2. Disunity/power struggle within coordinator contributed to lack of direction

3. Different languages/communities - academics vs practitioners

4. Different agendas

No evidence from steering groups to suggest learning at anything other than an individual level

Elizabeth Houldsworth and Gillian Alexander culture. Two partners involved in scientific fields as well as those from a project environment described collaborative working as their normal mode of working.

Frustrations evident in the steering group meetings may also in part be attributable to different organisational norms. There was evidence of different "tribes" or communities at work. The non-academic partners showed frustration around what they perceived to be ongoing "academic concerns". They felt they had to provide the "real world" insight and reality check. At the third steering group and in correspondence afterwards, they were keen to ensure that the proposed programme for SME managers, maintained an action learning element and that this was flexible so that it could be tailored to local business needs in their host country. Again Tregaski (2003) alludes to something similar, acknowledging the barriers that can arise from a lack of recognition of the value and legitimacy of the skills and knowledge of those educated elsewhere.

It would seem that personal relations, supported by social interaction helped overcome this in the case of ESeN. Tregaski suggests that personal relations, along with communication skills are particularly important in cross-cultural settings. Sole and Edmondson (2002) have similarly suggested that time together, beyond the task in hand may contribute to the success of dispersed teams. In the case of ESeN, there were some stormy exchanges in the second steering group, which were to an extent relieved by the deliberate social events scheduled into the meetings.

If we turn to Knight and Pye (2002) they suggest that collaboration can be supported in a network via through organisational or personal capacity or both. The characteristics that they suggest are included in Table IV.

Given the nature of learning we believe to have been manifested (being individual in nature) it would appear that the personal capacities are most appropriate here. All four capacities perhaps contribute to some of the discrepancies between what was reported in the interviews and what we observed in practice. We shall deal with each in turn.

All the interviewees mentioned the need for a common interest or shared task or goal to support a network. We might assume this would translate into a high reliance on the network to deliver. However, observation from the steering groups suggested different agendas at play. In the early stages of the project only the co-ordinator of the partners appeared aware of their dependency on the others to deliver to contract.

In terms of displaying a positive attitude towards suppliers and an understanding of trust and mistrust, there was a lot of early energy devoted to building a positive attitude and team spirit. However, as the project progressed our steering group observations reveal certain frustrations for all parties. These were particularly apparent if individuals were late, left early or did not appear very "engaged" in the process. As a result

defensive feelings, if not mistrust were discernible in steering groups 2 and 3.

Like the issue of a common goal, all interviewees seem to acknowledge that a network is not self-sustaining and strong facilitation is required. This links to Knight and Pye's (2002) final "personal capacity" to support collaboration which they describe as a high level of personal and/or role influence. The coordinating partner appears to have been lacking this influence in the early stages and attempts to be highly participative and democratic had only limited success. Interestingly the use of a more directive approach appeared to lead to greater collaboration and the generation of outputs.

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