Collaborative Power Collaborative Power: Collaboration Processes and the Semantic Emergence of Power Kasey Walker kasey. Department of Speech Communication Temple University Philadelphia, PA 19122 USA 215.204.3214 [office] 3rd International Conference on C ritical Management Studies Stream: Communication and Collaboration


Collaboration researchers commonly argue that interorganizational collaborations must maintain a balance of power among partners (see Kumar & van Dissel, 1996). While the collaborative partners may have unequal power bases from which to draw, the assumption is that all collaborative participants will be, and should be, equal within the confines of the collaborative project. Critical scholars should be highly suspicious of this assumption. The primary argument of this paper is that power structures develop in collaboration, not through positional hierarchy or resource dependency, but rather through a struggle over meaning. Power emerges in the semantic convergence, and divergence, among collaboration participants. Drawing heavily on characterizations of power from resource dependency and social exchange theories, most collaboration researchers and practitioners alike define power as control, or action taken to meet an actor’s goals, the ‘source’ of which is material or informational. While an actor’s resources and actions are clearly important in assessing collaborative power, the systems-rationality and interpretive perspectives are insufficient to explain collaborative power. Specifically these approaches are insufficient because of their exclusive orientation toward consensus rather than dissensus. Deetz (2001) characterizes the consensus orientation by its focus on “order production as the dominant feature of natural and social systems” (p. 14), whereas the dissensus orientation of critical and dialogic studies concentrates on “struggle, conflict, and tensions . . . [as] the natural state” (p. 15). Language and meaning are contested and the “ordered observed world” (p. 15) is questioned. The need to approach collaboration and power from a framework emphasizing dissensus is apparent when researchers examine the nature of collaboration. Collaborations involve two or more autonomous stakeholders joining their resources, knowledge, and expertise for a limited amount of time to achieve a mutually, and generally innovative, end (Walker, Craig, & Stohl, 1998). Individuals from each participating organization are assigned to the project, forming the collaborating group (Walker et al.). The high degree of interdependence and relative autonomy of collaborative participants creates a situation in which struggle over meaning is paramount. In fact, a few recent authors have defined and analyzed power in collaboration as a struggle. Das and Teng (2001), examining the relationships among trust, control and risk in strategic alliances, make a distinction among forms of control. Important for this paper is their distinction between “formal control – that is, behaviour control and output control” and “social control . . . [which] influences people’s behaviour through creating shared goals and norms” (p.

exchange of resources. 1995). Power is generally operationalized as centrality and its correlate. which allows us to ‘track’ the contested creation of an ideology that determines the processes and outcomes of collaborative groups. Soliman (2001). Given the high degree of interdependence and relative autonomy of collaborative partners.Collaborative Power 2 263). 2001. Power in collaboration lies not in directly controlling the behavior of individ uals. Collaborative power. but as those whose interpretations of reality are accepted by others. Identifying powerful actors who emerge in semantic networks is important if researchers want to understand and critique how ideology and deep structures develop through the daily discourse of actors in collaboration and other forms of organizing. Maguire. prestige. Whether the network is based on co mmunication. Powerful actors emerge not as those who possess the most resources. They differentiate among several forms of power. creating a network subject to the same analyses applied to networks created by communication links or business transactions. As both a theory and a method. This can be applied to the semantic network as well. p. we can begin to trace the struggle over meaning and the emergence of power structures and powerful actors. social network analysis is generally situated within what Mumby (2001) characterizes as the systems -rationality approach. the less vulnerable an actor is to exclusion. even the meaning of collaboration itself. Finally. one of which is normative control where the power exists in the “ability to shape and to mould the identity of trustee and trustor” (p. but research is still needed to examine the empirical evolution of that ideology in organizing. 303). In a semantic network. the actor who is at the center of the network is considered to be the most powerful. the group that is best able to ‘fix’ meaning and articulate it to its own interests is the one that will be best able to maintain and reproduce relations of power” (Mumby. then. or less tangible relationships such as affect. using a cultural politics framework (see Jordan & Weedon. Thus far the study of power in network analysis has been primarily based on exchange and dependency theories and "posits that an individual's power to bargain is a function of the extent to which the individual is vulnerable to exclusion from communication and other exc hanges within the network" (Monge & Contractor. 614). Phillips. hierarchical and resource dependency approaches may not tell us much about the collaboration. but rather in defining/creating a situation that constrains and enables individuals. Collaborations are not absent a power structure. the more powerful the actor. 2001. Critical theory successfully argues that ideology is (re)created in the daily discourse of actors (Mumby. So. links among actors are based on shared interpretations. Critical perspectives conceptualize power as a “struggle over meaning. p. rather. argues that “collaboration involves a struggle over meanings in the interest of particular groups” (p. . 458). Combining this critical understanding of power with social network analysis creates a critical network perspective. This is an essential step in understanding collaboration. is based in the collaborative participants’ ability to ‘fix’ meaning. Tracing the evolution of semantic networks reveals the ongoing negotiation of meaning by “engag[ing] in empirical analyses that explicate the ongoing. To clearly understand collaborative power researchers must address that struggle. 2001). Through examining these semantic networks over time. 601). 2001. that power structure emerges through the constant struggle to define the collaboration. p. The actor at the center of the semantic network is best able to ‘fix’ meaning and thus is at the center of the collaborative power structure. everyday character of this process” (Mumby. & Hardy (2001) make a similar delineation among forms of power. 219). The question now becomes how the organizational members arrive at this common understanding.

Collaborative Power 3 Data for this study are drawn from participants during two separate nine-week collaborations (LABa and LABb) at an Engineering Research Center (ERC) in a large midwestern university. were divided into project teams that simulated companies and then asked to collaborate across these teams on lab-wide projects. graduates and faculty from a number of different universities located throughout the United States. including undergraduates. At three points during each lab. . Examining these networks over time will “evidence” the struggle over meaning among the collaborative participants and the emergence of power structures. participants were asked: (a) What do you think is meant by Collaboration in the context of the Special Summer Project? and (b) How would you describe the overall goals of the Special Summer Project? Responses are then coded by two independent coders and the network is created on the basis of the participants’ agreement. Participants. The semantic networks generated are based on participants’ agreement on goals for the project and their group as well as defining a key term for the summer projects: collaboration.

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