Academic journal article Human Organization

Discovering the Rules: Folk Knowledge for Improving GM Partnerships

Academic journal article Human Organization

Discovering the Rules: Folk Knowledge for Improving GM Partnerships

Article excerpt

Partnership collaboration, a critical emerging strategy for General Motors (GM) and for organizations in general, is a way to combine resources and complementary expertise to create new knowledge, products, or services. Since partnerships are a relatively new organizational form, our team was commissioned by the head of GM Research and Development (GM R&D) to understand how private-sector research partnerships functioned and how we might offer suggestions for improving their effectiveness. Participants and organizations engaged in partnerships represent a vast population that stands to benefit from social science research. Understanding partnerships involves examining aspects of the culture of the partnering organizations, as well as the historical context of the partnership, partnership structure and dynamics, activities undertaken, and partnering outcomes. Through our analysis of interview data from the Alcan-GM and BP-GM partnerships, we discovered the concept of partnership rules - prescriptions offered by partnership participants for how partnerships should work. In this report, we develop and validate a methodology for uncovering these unwritten rules. We discuss the methodological and organizational contributions from this methodological analysis and describe the impact of this methodology on all types of GM's research partnerships.

Key words: Partnership rules, unwritten rules, methodology, partnership cycle, partnership structure and dynamics


In recent years, a number of firms have entered into a variety of inter-organizational relationships such as strategic alliances, joint ventures, franchises, coalitions, university research consortia, and partnerships (Ring and Van de Ven 1994). Firms initiate these types of relationships to reduce costs, gain access to new technology and markets, leverage emerging expertise across different internal organizational units, accelerate commercialization of new technologies, facilitate knowledge from laboratories to industry, and merge complementary skills (Ertel, Weiss, and Visioni 2001; Hagedoorn 1993; Mowery 1998; Ring and Van de Ven 1994).

Despite the perceived benefits of these partnering relationships, the failure rate of such ventures is high-upwards of 60 percent with some as high as 80 percent (Duysters, Kok, and Vaandrager 1999; Gulati and Khanna 1994; Meschi 1997; Nahavandi and Malekzadeh 1988). Organizational and cultural differences account for most of the difficulty in achieving synergy among the partnering organizations. Some studies have highlighted strategies to increase the likelihood of partnership success, including examinations of relationships (Gill and Butler 2003; Masciarelli 1998), trust and control (Das and Teng 1998; McAllister 1995), negotiation (Brannen and Salk 2000), and structure and project characteristics (Yang and Taylor 1999). Researchers associated with these studies have used a number of methodologies (e.g., surveys, archival data, lab experiments) to examine partnership functioning and effectiveness (Cravens et al. 1993; Weber and Camerer 2003; Yang and Taylor 1999). Other researchers, relying largely on social-network analyses, have directed attention to partnership structure and how it evolves over time (Ahuja2000;Anderson 1994;Gulati 1995 ;Kogut and Walter 2001 ; Madhavan, Koka, and Balaji 1998). The primary focus of these studies has been to illustrate stages in structural forms emerging during the partnership cycle.

Neither the partnership effectiveness studies, nor those exploring collaboration networks, shed much light on partnership culture as it is in the process of forming. In these new and highly volatile partnering entities, there is little chance to understand emerging and evolving assumptions and expectations in relation to actual behavior, or to offer assistance to the participants to enhance the likelihood of partnership success. Documenting the emerging culture of these partnering entities would fill a gap in the evolutionary stream of partnership research by providing an understanding of the day-to-day partnership activities, work processes, and participant concerns during the partnership cycle. …

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