Collaborating across organizations -- practice makes perfect

Recent research supports what economists have long argued: Sustained collaboration adds real value, but you have to work at it!

Shutterstock image: executive connecting individuals to one another.

About 80 years ago, a young economist at the University of Chicago named Ronald Coase asked a question that might initially seem sort of dumb, but was actually very profound: Why do organizations exist in the first place?

Economists tend to be very impressed with how well markets work to organize production in a society, providing incentives for good quality and low costs. So why should, say, GM exist as an organization? Why doesn't an entrepreneur constantly buy input supplies and talent (workers, marketers, designers) on a spot market, continually taking advantage of competition rather than having suppliers of materials and labor inside the firm who in effect have a monopoly on supplying the organization?

Coase's answer had many dimensions (he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1991 for this and one other paper, and died -- at the age of 103 -- only last year!), but one is particularly relevant for this blog post: If you put people inside an organization, they work with each other on an ongoing basis.

The ability to work with each other is itself an economic resource that improves the quality and lowers the cost of what is produced. People get better at working with each other the more experience they have at it. If that economic resource has value, it may be worth paying for it by foregoing the savings of spot contacting on a market. Hence this is a reason for organizations to come into existence instead of basing production on constantly redone spot transactions among strangers.

I raise this old economics discussion in the context of a recent academic paper published by Qian Hu, Claire Connolly Knox and Naim Kapucu -- three professors in public administration at the University of Central Florida. Their paper, which appears in the most recent issue of Public Administration Review, is titled, "What Have We Learned since September 11, 2001? A Network Study of the Boston Marathon Bombings Response." (The full text of the paper is available only to those whose libraries subscribe to the journal, but here is a link to a summary.)

The paper has a clear -- and positive -- message. Boston did a good job responding to the tragic marathon bombing 18 months ago because, in the wake of 9/11, public officials had worked hard over a decade to develop ties among different organizations that might be needed for emergency response. Different groups of first responders and other agencies at all levels of government had practiced actually working together.

"These networks were built prior to the incident through long-term planning, training, and exercises, as well as an integrated communication infrastructure," the authors wrote. Between 2001 and the bombing in 2013, about 5,500 first responders received training from FEMA, including 12 local and regional exercises focused on hurricane preparedness, biological and chemical attacks, improvised explosive devices and hazardous material incidents. There was even advance preparation in relation to the annual marathons themselves, where local nonprofits and federal and state agencies held a coordination meeting before each marathon and a yearly tabletop exercise designed to train for potential scenarios. On the day of the 2013 Marathon, a Multi-Agency Coordination Center was operating before the bombing occurred.

So the effective response to a terrible tragedy was not just good luck. Achieving collaboration across organizational boundaries is harder than achieving it inside an organization because (among other reasons) the organizations do not have the same routines and experience working together as people do inside an organization. Yet lots of people agree that collaboration across organizational lines is becoming more and more important for successful delivery of public efforts. The lesson of the Qian, Knox, and Kapucu paper is that if government wants to do this well, practice makes perfect.