Competition, Cooperation, Collaboration, and Consolidation

“Interdependence is a fact, it’s not an opinion.”
–Peter Coyote


Last week I read a prepublication report issued by the National Research Council on interagency collaboration.  The NRC recently conducted a study of NASA’s interagency cooperation on Earth science missions called for in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008.  The key finding in the report was quite telling: “…engaging in collaboration carries significant cost and schedule risks that need to be actively mitigated. Agencies are especially likely to seek collaborators for complex missions so that expected costs can be shared. However, … inefficiencies arise when collaborating agencies’ goals, authorities, and responsibilities are not aligned.”  Setting aside for a moment the slightly confusing interchange of “cooperation” and “collaboration”, let’s examine the fundamental question here: when should two parties engage in various forms of interchange, and what value is there in it?

You can tell I’m setting the table in a particular way because I said “value” above.  Yes, we will look at this question from the perspective of the value equation I introduced previously.  But first, some background.

A number of years ago I was involved in a NASA-wide special project called “One NASA”.  This O’Keefe-era initiative (discontinued by Griffin in 2006) focused on enhanced coordination, collaboration and communication among all Agency elements to reach common goals.  At the time of the initiative, I was involved in my Center’s formal mentoring program, and my mentor was the person in charge of representing our Center to One NASA.  One of my mentoring tasks was analyzing a set of survey results collected by One NASA from Civil Servants and contractors from across the Agency, touching upon topics of coordination and collaboration.  This experience was formative for me in that I started to picture what it means to coordinate and collaborate, and those thoughts recently resurfaced both as I read the above report as well as prepare for my coming assignment.  It’s this framework that I’ll share next, and I’d love to get your feedback on it.

First of all, what is the most essential ingredient to an interchange?  Well, it’s quite simple: there has to be two or more parties involved.  Seems obvious, yet this is important in that it establishes the foundation for how an interchange occurs.

The important variable in characterizing the interchange between two or more parties is the degree of their interdependency in achieving outcomes.  I’ll have more to say about this in a moment.

Finally, the decision to choose one degree or another of interdependency is a function of the value equation, where value equals benefit minus costs.

Using the above, I’ve formed a spectrum of interchanges between two or more parties as a function of interdependency.  I’ve provided names to particular points on the spectrum that equate roughly to the definitions I formed on the basis of the One NASA survey results, and that align fairly well to the definitions in the NRC report.

Competition.  Two or more firms compete for work.  On the scale of interdependency between firms, we are at one extreme: there is none, nor is there any required.  (In fact, if there is any, we call that “collusion.”) Furthermore, the goals, authority, and responsibility of the firms involved are completely independent.  The idea behind competition is to solicit for ideas and approaches in an almost Darwinistic vein of “survival of the fittest”, using the value equation: seek the combination of benefit and cost that provide the best value.  (Sometimes it is increased benefit, or lower cost; sometimes it is both.)  The concepts behind competition govern most of my daily work life as I lead the development of procurement strategies for mission operations, yet the concept of competition surfaced repeatedly as an idea in the One NASA survey results: why not let different NASA elements compete for work?  Although this concept did not meet with the strategic direction of the Agency, the basic idea stuck with me as one of the anchor points for describing interdependency between elements.

Cooperation.  Moving further along the interdependency spectrum, we next encounter cooperation.  Here, two or more firms engage in some form of exchange or coordination that provides some measure of increased benefit that would not be available should the parties go it alone.  The cost associated with the exchange is negligible and can be ignored.  The parties still keep to their relatively independent goals, authority, and responsibility, although there may be a small amount of congruence.  The classic case in my mind is international cooperation: each party sticks to its own goals and maintains relative autonomy relative to the other; however, each party sees some increased benefit whether it is in terms of a unique contribution from another party, or in terms of secondary benefits (such as international diplomacy).

Collaboration.  Continuing ahead, we next encounter collaboration.  Here, two or more firms engage in a higher degree of exchange characterized by a high degree of interdependency.  The firms work towards a common shared goal and work out a formal arrangement on authority and responsibility.  In a collaborative setting, the interchanges can be quite numerous and complex, leading to the need to examine carefully and distinguish between inherent complexity and imposed complexity, with the desire being to reduce imposed complexity as much as possible.  In terms of the value equation, the benefit of collaboration (primary, secondary, or otherwise) has to outweigh the extra costs associated with a collaborative effort.  It is the benefit-cost trade that is at the heart of the NRC report I mentioned earlier.  Entering into a collaborative effort without an examination of goal alignment and the value equation is irresponsible and can lead to the failure of the collaborative effort.

Consolidation.  At the other end of the spectrum is consolidation.  In this case, the goals, authority, and responsibility are highly aligned (or are forced to be so, which is a whole different story).  The degree of interdependency is total and complete.  An examination of the value equation says that tremendous value can be achieved if the separate parties are combined into one, usually around the parameter of cost.

In the end, I formed the following picture:

Competition Cooperation Collaboration Consolidation
(No interdependency) (Little interdependency) (High interdependency) (Total interdependency)

What would you add to this picture?


Competition, Cooperation, Collaboration, and Consolidation