Interorganisational collaboration for the digital economy

Houldsworth and Alexander report on a project, funded by the European Union e-Learning Action Plan, which revolved around the creation of a European small and medium size enterprise e-learning network (ESeN). The project sought to engage with SMEs in order to equip them with emerging knowledge management tools, so that they may become more effective users of information and communication technology in their decision making.

The project involved a business school as the main partner, with collaborators from six EU countries, comprising a mixture of academic and business partners, all of whom were experienced in the use and application of virtual technologies.

The partners not only sat on the project steering group, but also were involved in building relationships with SMEs in their local area. The six partners therefore played a role in the network of partners (facilitated by the business school) and the network of local SMEs (which each partner was responsible for facilitating).

Although the proposition for the project was e-learning for SME managers, the unit of analysis of Houldsworth and Alexander was the network of steering group partners. The project developed a web infrastructure to support online collaboration between the partners. But this web infrastructure was little used, despite the fact that the project was about e-learning technologies. The partners instead tended to achieve collaboration through meetings of the project steering group, with e-mail communication in between and some occasional video-conferencing. In addition, some steering group members had their own preexisting relationships and used face-to-face conversations either outside the formal steering group meetings or on other occasions when they met for different projects or reasons.

Houldsworth and Alexander collected data through interviews with project partners and through observing the steering group meetings.

The ESeN network reflected an international inter-organizational network. It became evident during steering group meetings that participants from some nationalities (for example, the Scandinavians) and from some organizations and functions (for example, people involved in scientific fields) were more at home than others with collaborative working. The non-academic partners sometimes showed frustration around what they perceived to be ongoing "academic concerns" and felt that they occasionally had to provide the "real world" insight. 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 the host country. There were some stormy exchanges in one of the steering group meetings, which were to an extent relieved by the deliberate social events scheduled into the meetings.

All the interviewees mentioned the need for a common interest or shared task or goal to support the network. However, observation of the steering group 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 the contract.

A lot of early energy was devoted to building a positive attitude and team spirit. But observation of the steering group revealed certain frustrations for all parties as the project progressed. Defensive feelings, if not mistrust, became apparent.

All the interviewees seemed to acknowledge that a network is not self-sustaining and strong facilitation is needed. The coordinating partner seemed to lack this influence in the early stages and attempts to be highly participative and democratic had only limited success. The use of a more direct approach appeared to lead to greater collaboration and the generation of outputs.

The ESeN project was an example of learning within a network, where the individual was interacting and learning within an inter-organizational context. The project was not an example of network learning, as there was no evidence of the network itself learning and changing.

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