A whole new discipline: managing collaborative operating models

So many managers are talking about innovative business and operating models. The ambition is often to find new concepts for the value chain with a more open and collaborative touch. Why not focus on own strength and competencies – and let others do jobs that they know best. Outsource, offshore or even crowdsource activities. The goal is a far more agile and lean setup of the organization – nice idea and really trendy. While working with such groups of managers on these types ofconcepts, I often find it is intellectually not too hard to come to valuable concepts and designs.

But once the idea is there the struggle starts. The implementation still is a question of solid change management – feasible. But how to manage and sustain such open and collaborative operating models and organizations. Is there some theory of expertise around? What’s good practice?

To understand these questions, one has to understand the challenges behind the management of collaborative operating models. What are the key differences between traditional more closed organizations and the new style open models? In my experiences, there are two very critical points:

1. Decision making in traditional organizations is based on hierarchical power. This makes life for managers quite comfortable. In open collaborative organizations, power does not come in the first place from status or hierarchy but the ability to negotiate. Decisions are a product of skilled negotiation between the partners.

2. In collaborative organization models, the interest and expectations of the participating partners are far less aligned than thought in the beginning. This is for sure a challenge as managers are in a constant stakeholder management process trying getting the one direction of the partner crowd.

These differences are very fundamental to our way of managing and thinking about organizations. Most of our management tools and methods like IMS (Integrated management System), EFQM, TQM, Six Sigma etc. are not at all designed to drive collaborative models. They seem to be even contra productive as their basis is the well-integrated solid classic organization with nice structures and process under one roof.

Looking out for experience and methods for these new management challenges in collaborative operations we can take a closer look a very interesting field: The international development cooperation. The German development agency GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) has the task to develop and manage huge and complex development programs all over the world. Such programs – like for example transforming the entire health system in Indonesia – require in most cases a participation of many players with very different backgrounds and interest (like political institutions, donors, NGO’s etc.). For the managers, this kind of setup is incredibly challenging – and sometimes frustrating. It is pure collaboration.

GIZ saw the problem and analyzed dozens of their programs and spend a huge research on finding out what makes management of collaborative operations work and what doesn’t. They find out five success factors of managing collaborative programs and organizations:

1. Strategy – orientation and strategy is the common ground of partners and the fuel for alignment of interest. Strategy becomes a constant process for collaborators.

2. Cooperative system – defining the space, the “skin” and the stakeholder involvement is a task the GIZ calls setting the cooperative system. It is well known from the system theory that demarcation is critical to manage a system.

3. Steering structure – as hierarchy is not the paradigm of collaborative models, there is need for negotiating a performing steering structure. It is all about taking decisions and keeping the system agile.

4. Processes – alike strategy the players have to design and set processes for collaboration as a common ground. To agree on such standards and to enforce them may be a demanding task for the involved managers.

5. Learning & Innovation – the strength of collaborative systems can only be unfolded if there is the ability of learning and innovating on the way.

GIZ designed a very useful management concept around these five success factors called “CapacityWorks”. To my knowledge it is the first and so far only method and toolset to really address the management of collaborative operating models. In the GIZ every manager has to be an expert in CapacityWorks. A whole new management discipline that could be of great value for the new breed of managers in innovative collaborative operating models.


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