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A Manager's Guide to Resolving Conflicts in Collaborative Networks new Highly Recommended

Bibliographic Details:

Lisa B. Bingham and Rosemary O'Leary. IBM Center for the Business of Government. Networks, Collaboration, and Partnerships Series, 2008.


This 50-page report expands on previous Center reports by adding an important practical tool for managers in networks: how to manage and negotiate the conflicts that may occur among a network's members. The approach they describe - interest-based negotiation - has worked in other settings, such as bargaining with unions. Such negotiation techniques are becoming crucial in sustaining the effectiveness of networks, where successful performance is defined by how well people collaborate and not by hierarchical commands.

The following January 7, 2008 article by Florence Olsen from Federal Computer Week provides a nice overview of the Guide and of why public and corporate managers need to build skills in collaborative problem-solving and conflict management.

IBM Study Points to Need for Negotiating Skills

Some public managers might feel they are ill-suited by temperament and customary practice to sharing power, but new public policy research shows that managers can adapt to changing rules of governance in the public sphere by becoming, in essence, better listeners. 

Multiagency collaboration and decision-making demand a new kind of public manager, one skilled in negotiation, bargaining, collaborative problem-solving, conflict management and conflict resolution, according to a new report published by the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Among the managerial attitudes described in the report, adversarial is out, cooperative is in.

Negotiations across organizational lines in which no one person is in command demands a special attitude, said the report’s authors, Rosemary O’Leary, professor of public administration at Syracuse University, and Lisa Bingham, professor of public service at Indiana University at Bloomington. That attitude, they said, must be one of “understanding others when they misunderstand you, consulting others even if they appear not to listen…being non-coercive and not yielding to coercion, and accepting others and their concerns as worthy of consideration.”

The authors said conflict is inevitable when organizations with different missions, organizational cultures and stakeholders are asked to be partners in governance networks that cross traditional jurisdictional boundaries. Managers face that situation as more public services are delivered through networks of federal, state and local government agencies, nonprofit and for-profit corporations.

Collaborative public management has proved successful in several high-profile cases, such as ending apartheid in South Africa and signing the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, according to the report. The authors said President Clinton believed so strongly in collaborative problem solving that he signed an executive order in 1993 that directed all federal agencies to use it to increase union involvement in agency decision-making. President Bush later rescinded the executive order.

The researchers found that collaborative managers view others as negotiating partners, honestly disclose what is important to them and willingly revise their positions when presented with good options. Collaborative managers look for ways “to expand the pie” rather than fight for the largest piece.

Learning the language of collaborative management is not difficult, the authors said. Their report offers examples of language that managers should use when negotiating across organizational lines: “What will having X do for you? What difference would it make for you to have X? How would it be helpful or beneficial to get X?”

In addition to such suggestions, the report cites several successful collaborative projects that engage citizens in public policy decisions: the Public Conversations Project, AmericaSpeaks and the Kettering Foundation National Issues Forum.

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