Book Review:
The Firm as a Collaborative Community: Reconstructing Trust in the Knowledge Economy
Authors: Heckscher, C. & Adler, P.

Heckscher, C. & Adler, P., (2007). The Firm as a Collaborative Community: Reconstructing Trust in the Knowledge Economy, USA: Oxford University Press

Reviewed by: Tony Travaglione

This volume is the result of the collaboration between two diverse specialist groups, namely academics and consultants. The work has been edited by two academics, Charles Heckscher, Professor in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University; and Paul S. Adler, Professor of Management at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. Although the contributors have had extensive experience in working as a part of both specialist groups, the academics contributed to the theory aspects of the volume while the consultants focused on what is actually occurring in organisations currently. The volume is divided into four key parts. The first section, Framing Concepts, deals with the theoretical concepts of collaborative community, and the second, Community Inside Firms, develops these concepts by exploring the internal structure of various firms and industries. In the third section is presented, Community Across Firms, is about systems that cross firm and industry boundaries and the last section, The Process of Change, examines the various issues facing firms wishing to deliberately create collaborative relationships.

The volume opens well, with an excellent contribution by Paul S. Adler and Charles Heckscher entitled Towards Collaborative Community. This chapter takes the reader through the history of community and the evolution of its application in a work environment. The authors explore three forms of community: Gemeinschaft, where the governing principle of social organisation is hierarchy; Gesellschaft, where the market becomes the leading principle; and Collaborative where community itself is the prevailing principle. The authors explore in detail these forms of community, explaining their origins and pitfalls and the values inherent in each, to heighten understanding of them and the ways in which they differ in order to introduce the background and the necessity of the emergence of a collaborative community. The theoretical background is provided through the discussion and exploration of the work of Weber and Durkheim and their belief in and work on ‘value rationality’ and ‘organic solidarity’ respectively.

The chapter goes on to link these foundational concepts to the application of the collaborative community in organisations, charting its development, and exploring in detail the difficulties facing modern organisations attempting to operate successfully in the current climate and in building trust with the employees of the firm, by using real organisations and their experiences as illustrations. This chapter is critically important for laying the foundation for the remaining elements of the volume and plays its role well, although a minor criticism may be that there is too much detail. It reads as though the authors wanted to impart too much of their knowledge all in one chapter and failed to edit sections that, although interesting, contribute little to a better understanding of the concepts being discussed. Otherwise, this chapter is certainly one of the best contributions to the volume, and is an absorbing and informative opening, which is unfortunately is followed by a very opaque chapter by Sabel entitled A Real Time Revolution in Routines, which is not the best contribution to the volume due to its lack of clarity and the degree of difficulty needed to maintain reader engagement.

Health Care Organisations as Collaborative Learning Communities is narrowly focused on one industry, as are other chapters in the volume. For instance, Beyond Hacker Idiocy: The Changing Nature of Software Community and Identity by Adler, and Hyperconnected Net Work: Computer-Mediated Community in a High Tech Organisation by Quan-Haase and Wellman, which exclusively target software companies. Health Care Organisations as Collaborative Learning Communities is a an enlightening look at this unique area, exploring its origins as a craft like industry focused on the individual, through to its transformation into a bureaucracy, which is struggling to keep up with advances in technology and medical knowledge. This chapter is particularly interesting to those who are aware of the issues facing the United States in relation to their under performing health care industry in that it explains many of the reasons that the issue of diminished patient care has arisen. The chapter, however, is very focused on the experience in the United States, as are other chapters in the volume, but this one more notably so, and many parts of this chapter, although informative, are not applicable to experience in Australia thus diminishing the level of engagement of readers from other parts of the globe who have not lived in the American system. The author, Michael Maccoby, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist who consults on leadership and organisational strategy, contributes two other chapters to the volume along with this one.

Maccoby’s chapter entitled “The Self in Transition: From Bureaucratic to Interactive Social Character” is a highlight of the volume and a pleasure to read. In this chapter the author examines at the role of the family as well as work, and details the decline of the bureaucratic character to the development of the interactive character. Using Erikson’s eight stages of life to explore the development of the social character, Maccoby informs in a very captivating and descriptive manner on areas such as trust, autonomy, identity and isolation.

In Collaborative Community and Employee Representation, Rubenstein explores the role of unions, who are organised internally according to Gemeinschaft principles, in the collaborative community. Rubenstein discusses the difficulties faced when organisations attempt to partner with unions rather than view them as adversaries and illustrates by providing details of an eight year study he has undertaken on the benefits and limitations of such alliances. While the benefits, both to employees and the organisation are great, the unions actually have difficulty with the process of aligning themselves with organisations both vertically in joining with management in decision making and horizontally across the various functions of the organisation in a partnership model due to their internal structures and skills sets. Difficulties can also arise due to the intrusion to the partnership of dominant features of the capitalist economy such as downsizing. This chapter distils and illustrates clearly the work of many years into a very informative and honest contribution to the volume, which highlights that even with the best intentions the collaborative community is not a simple goal to reach. Lynda M. Applegate explores a similar theme in her contribution, Building Inter Firm Collaborative Community: Uniting Theory and Practice, discussing inter firm collaborations in the health care, automotive and finance industries, and their attempts to succeed by focusing on a common goal rather than the traditional boundaries surrounding organisations. Despite the benefits to organisations working collaboratively both internally and externally are vast there are immense difficulties in achieving this in the reality of the contemporary business world.

Maccoby and Heckscher in A Note on Leadership for Collaborative Communities’ explain the reality of exactly how organisations can achieve the shift toward a collaborative community through their leaders in one of the closing chapters of the volume. Maccoby’s influence on the chapter is palpable and again his contribution is admirable. The chapter explores the differences between bureaucratic and collaborative leadership, but also examines how leaders can achieve the shift from bureaucratic firm to collaborative, bearing in mind that not all employees will be motivated by a collaborative leader. The latter employee then requires a commitment to values and the leader needs to focus on connecting personalities rather than taking a one size fits all approach with employees. The authors discuss the concept of the collaborative leader as an elder sibling figure who works among the team rather than a paternal figure commanding unquestioning authority and loyalty working above the team. In order to achieve this the leader must build attachment not to himself or herself, but to a group goal or task. The chapter also describes various types of collaborative leadership styles and the difficulties of moving employees who are loyal to the bureaucratic style of leadership across to the collaborative firm, and concludes that to achieve the shift successfully leaders must satisfy the needs of all employees, encompassing those who respond to bureaucratic as well as collaborative styles. This chapter is a welcome addition in a volume where many difficulties are raised as questions alone, in that it presents the problems and gives examples of those who have succeeded, illustrating practically how other leaders attempting to shift toward collaborative styles of leadership can also succeed.

That the shift from a bureaucratic to a collaborative organisation is not easy is further illustrated in the remaining to chapters. Heckscher and Foote explore how to regenerate trust in a new form and explain the Strategic Fitness Process as a way to create a collaborative community and ‘The Power to Convene’ by Bonchek and Howard explores the all important issue of customer relations. This final section, The Process of Change, is the success of this volume. All three chapters are well written, clear, engaging and pragmatic, giving the reader hope that the collaborative community as a basis for a knowledge based organisation is not a thing of fantasy, but actually achievable, albeit through the hard work which is necessary in order to triumph over the many difficulties that have been outlined throughout the rest of the volume.

With many informative chapters, this volume overall is a positive and useful contribution to the debate and discussion on this topic, and is recommended to those with an interest in the areas of values, trust, the knowledge economy, organisational structures and the collaborative community. From an academic viewpoint this volume has a sound basis from which to work when developing further ideas. The authors propose further effort and discussion on the problem of collaborative accountability a notion that was ‘touched on’ in this volume, but not pursued. From a business perspective many of the chapters in this volume would be helpful and relevant to consultants or managers wishing to develop collaborative communities in organisations, and indeed would also be useful to employees who would like to create a collaborative community within their teams.

Professor Tony Travaglione
School of Management
Curtin University of Technology