Fall 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Getting Serious About Strategic Alliances

Establishing linkages with other agencies takes time, a lot of hard work, and a commitment to success. It won't be easy, but the goal is worth the effort. Cowboy management must go the way of the frontier. Instead, the more we work together, the more we have the possibility of better understanding complex social problems and acting on the in an atmosphere of trust, cooperation, and mutual respect.

Kirk A. Astroth
Extension Specialist
4-H Youth Development
Montana State University-Bozeman

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered one of the most influential papers in American history, proclaiming the end of the American frontier. Turner believed the frontier had exerted a powerful influence on the cultural development of the United States, producing our unique forms of democracy, opportunity, and individualism. However, with the publication of the 1890 census, any reference to a "frontier line" was eliminated, and thus, claimed Turner, ended the "first period of American history."1

Frontier Mentality

Almost a century later, though, a "frontier" mentality continues to exert an important influence on the value system and management practices of many organizations. "Cowboy management," as Kanter calls it, thrives in some organizations as a guiding philosophy despite a changing world reality that calls for a new style of management.

As if still living in our frontier past, cowboy managers romanticize the virtues of rugged individualism. Such managers cherish the go-it-alone posture. It's every man (and here man is still apt in most cases) for himself and ignore the sissy city folks who might get uncomfortable. "What the cowboy manager likes best is being alone out there in the wilderness with a few trusty pals, no constraints, and a few foreign savages to fight."2

How times have changed. No longer do we revere such rugged individualism. "Networks," "cooperation" and "collaboration" have become the bywords of the 1990s. In the new, "post- entrepreneurial" age, cowboy management is an anachronism and the competitive value system has become dysfunctional.3 The frontier has closed.

Unfortunately, parts of Extension may still be trying to live in the romanticized frontier past. Embattled by legislators, policy makers, and skeptics who insist on accountability and the elimination of duplicate services, "Fortress Extension" is under siege and suddenly looking for allies. In the past, our typical response was to circle the wagons and start shooting inward-with the predictable casualties: legislative audits, budget cuts, program reviews, and staff reductions.

And as these skirmishes spread from state to state, about the only way to tell the pioneers from the settlers was by the location of the arrows.

Muddled Concepts and Confused Thinking

Clearly, building strategic alliances is the professed goal today in many fields-education, organizational development, mental health, and even applied sciences. Unfortunately, the terms used to describe the various kinds of alliances are rather confusing. Cooperation, networking, collaboration all are used nearly interchangeably and without clear distinctions.4 The problem with such muddled use of these terms is they lose much of their meaning or distinction. As a result, we come to believe- naively-that collaboration is easily attained and can occur through something as simple as shaking hands. But true collaboration is more than just good intentions.

What we lose sight of in our fuzzy thinking about building strategic alliances is that such linkages result from a developmental process that involves distinct phases. As education professionals, we have an opportunity to demonstrate we're in the forefront by changing the way people think and talk about strategic alliances. We can do this by providing a conceptual model that clarifies the differences between the various kinds of alliances that can be formed based on our experiences in working with others-both public and private.

My concern is more than just one of semantics-it strikes at the heart of our commitment to a new world reality based on a changed value system. How serious are we about working with other agencies when we haven't conclusively established we can work with our colleagues across campus? Do we really understand the process of collaboration? If we're serious about collaboration, then we must develop a clear notion of the process for establishing such alliances and be able to explain this process to others.

While the literature is full of definitions for collaboration,5 the literature is often ambiguous, provides highly esoteric descriptions, and largely ignores what many are beginning to recognize as the developmental nature of building strategic alliances. Only Loughran suggests viewing these alliances as a continuum, moving from the least to the most intense.6

Based on my experience in working with other agencies, I'd propose the following "4-Cs Model" to distinguish between the various types of alliances as well as explain the process of establishing strategic alliances (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. 4-Cs model of established linkages.

4-Cs Model

Level I: Communication

At this initial stage, individuals develop communication links to exchange information and resources. The emphasis is on tapping into other people for contacts, information, and resource location. Working at this level helps establish you as a source of information to others as well. The initial focus is rather narrow and specific-finding someone who can meet an immediate need. However, contacts can become long-term, enduring for many years, but going nowhere. Since little institutional legitimization exists here, the risk is low in allowing a few individuals to establish informal contacts with others. A loose agreement to "stay in touch" prevails.

Level II: Cooperation

Cooperation is a logical extension of the individual networking done in the first level. Participation at this level centers on trying to accomplish a specific purpose or goal. Work at this stage is driven by individuals rather than the organizations they may represent. If anything, a loose, informal association of a few people develops for some mutual benefit or easily obtainable goal (conducting a workshop, conference, or event around some specific issue). Note that individuals at this level can be vigorously involved without really doing anything very different.

Level III: Coalition

This stage of building linkages occurs more typically at the organizational level. Organizations participate in a more formal way around an issue or a common set of interrelated issues. The focus of the coalition may be rather broad, but the intent is to address a specific need and then disband. The purpose for forming a coalition is synergy: to amass enough influence and resources to have an impact on an issue beyond what one group could do alone.

Coalitions tend to be rather short-lived even though the issues they work on are complex and difficult to resolve. At this level, too, each organization shares a measure of responsibility for the success or failure of the coalition, but the level of commitment is moderate. The diversity of coalition membership is a strength as well as an Achilles heel inviting dissension.

Level IV: Collaboration

The highest and most difficult level of working with others is collaboration. At this level, organizational relationships are formalized and involve a long-term commitment to address critical and complex social issues of wide concern. In this phase, turf protection can be high and the ability to let go of control over the direction of the group is critical. A high level of trust is needed in the group process.

Collaborations are long-term and focus on a wide variety of issues. Organizations in collaborative ventures share resources: develop, implement, and evaluate programs together; establish policy; and jointly conduct educational programs.

Challenge of Genuine Collaboration

Establishing linkages with other agencies takes time, a lot of hard work, and a commitment to success. It won't be easy, but the goal is worth the effort. Just as no one social system is responsible for a problem, no one system alone can solve it. Fragmented communities don't need fragmented services. In a new age, "competition as a valued behavior can no longer ensure survival in the turbulent environment."7 Cowboy management must go the way of the frontier. Instead, the more we work together, the more we have the possibility of better understanding complex social problems and acting on them in an atmosphere of trust, cooperation, and mutual respect.


1. Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1968), p. 4.

2. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, When Giants Learn to Dance: Mastering the Challenges of Strategy, Management, and Careers in the 1990's (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 71.

3. Dee G. Appley and Alvin E. Winder, "An Evolving Definition of Collaboration and Some Implications for the World of Work," Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, XIII (No. 3, 1978), 288.

4. See, for example, Bonnie Benard, "Working Together: Principles of Effective Collaboration," Prevention Forum , X (October 1989), 4.

5. See, for example, Shirley M. Hord, "A Synthesis of Research on Organizational Collaboration," Educational Leadership, XLIV (February 1986), 22-26; Appley and Winder, "An Evolving Definition;" or L. Davis Clements, "Involving the Technical Expert in the Collaborative Process" (Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Santa Fe, New Mexico, April 5-9, 1989).

6. Elizabeth Loughran, "Networking, Coordination, Cooperation, and Collaboration: Different Skills for Different Purposes," Community Education Journal, XXXVII (July 1982), 28-30.

7. Appley and Winder, "An Evolving Definition," p. 280.