There are many ways of representing organisations in order to analyse them. Often, they are seen as structures or sets of resources, and time as ‘frozen’. From this perspective, decisions and processes are analysed as if they were fixed. Actions are the result of putting plans into action, not improvisation or impulse. And relationships are stable networks that can be designed and managed, or resources that can be used as desired.
We take a different approach, based in pragmatist ideas. In our view, organisations are not fixed objects, but dynamic processes that unfold as managers take actions and discuss those actions. Organising is an ongoing effort to change the world, and to understand that effort through dialogue.
We see inter-organisational relationships as processes too. They are organising inquiries into new ways of working. Faced with new challenges, managers must define what problem they think they are confronting and find a way to solve it through dialogue and hands-on experimentation.
This inquiry is always situated – it has a place in time, the world and society. The situation facing managers comprises everything they sense or feel as the inquiry develops. The inquiry and the situation influence each other: as the inquiry continues, the situation changes, which in turn influences the inquiry.
The inquiry evolves through dialogue – not a series of occasional interactions, but a continuous process of integrating different points of view. Through this ongoing conversation, the inter-organisational relationship is continually created.
Experience of time
The inquiry does not start from a blank canvas, but is rooted in the words and actions of the past. It develops over time as managers act in the present to escape from that past and create a different future. So past, present and future are not just stages in a process, but real, immediate aspects of people’s lived experience.
For those involved, the inquiry is a vital experience that is situated in time – the actual time of their lives. They each have different timelines that run in parallel, meet and sometimes clash. Also, the situation has its own timeline – it continues to change and develop, even as managers inquire into it.
Managers try to shelter their efforts from disruption, but they may find other ‘elsewheres’ impinging on their inquiry – memories of the past, the pressure to create the future or voices from other social spaces, which interfere with their efforts. Such disruptive events ‘thicken’ the present, giving it more substance.
We wanted to look into the way managers experience time in inter-organisational relationships. To do that, we examined the relationship between a leading French retailer and its suppliers during a time of radical change.
Traditionally, negotiations had been tough and adversarial, but in 2006, Nicolas, the head of the retail company’s merchandising department, tried a new approach. He asked selected suppliers - "category leaders" - to work on a category management basis, where the retailer and the supplier teams involved in a particular type of product would work together on it as a strategic business unit.
We monitored the developing relationships from within, getting to know the managers involved, attending key meetings, conducting interviews and using written documents.
Changing rules, roles and timeframes
Nicolas’ new strategy involved several changes. A charter was drawn up specifying the constructive behaviours that were now expected. Suppliers selected as "category leaders" agreed to speak on behalf of all suppliers in a category, including their competitors, in the interests of improving that category. Joint business plans and inter-organisational scorecards were created. The timeframe of the project was two to three years. This changed the time horizon of the relationship, allowing important new initiatives such as the candy category designing new furniture for point-of-sale display.
The cheese drama
Suppliers liked the new direction. The retailer’s own buyers were initially reluctant, but came round to the idea after a while. But then something happened to disrupt the situation.
The cheese category had been running well for six months when a buyer at the retailer discovered that one supplier was secretly offering a competitor lower prices. He burst into a meeting, slammed down the competitor’s price list in front of the supplier’s representative and stormed out without saying a word.
This intrusion from the ‘bad old days’ made it clear that the supplier did not share the retailer’s vision of the future, and the cheese category was dissolved. During this episode, different futures collided, and the unwelcome voice of the retailer’s competitor entered the dialogue.
As part of the product-category initiative, the retailer wanted to introduce ready-to-sell packaging. With this approach, instead of packing products into cardboard boxes that are discarded once unpacked in-store, packaging is designed that can be placed directly on the shelf, saving time and helping consumers recognise brands.
At first, suppliers felt they were doing all the work while the retailer made all the savings. However, once they were invited to the retailer’s grocery warehouse to see and touch existing ready-to-sell packaging, they began to see the possibilities. The move brought past experiences into the inquiry’s present, highlighting new potential futures.
Ready-to-sell packaging received two more boosts when marketing staff emphasised its power to increase market share, and when the retailer involved experts from an institution specialising in new practices and standards. This linked the inquiry with other processes elsewhere, bringing influential new voices into the conversation.
Lessons from the case study
Our research shows how managers in one inter-organisational relationship changed their shared narrative by exploring new temporal frames (the two-year project lifespan), spatial frames (co-operating on packaging), social frames (bringing in outside experts) and roles (the retailer’s buyers losing status).
By setting up shared rules and language, they ‘bracketed’ the enquiry in time and space, protecting it from outside interference. However, situations are unpredictable, and don’t always conform to our plans. In our case, the spell was broken by the cheese drama, with its sudden intrusion of past history and the reality of competition. Similarly, ready-to-sell packaging brought new voices into the dialogue, but with a more positive outcome.
The category-management enquiry evolved through dialogues that originated in the relationship between the inquiry and the situation. Sometimes, these dialogues were unproductive, as when the retailer and its suppliers first spoke about ready-to-sell packaging. But when others were involved, the dialogue changed, and new possibilities appeared.
Our work highlights the strong links between inquiry, situation, dialogue and time in one inter-organisational relationship. It may be that this link is much more widely applicable, so that we can understand all organisations in the same way. This is something for future research to consider.
We also show how organisational time is ‘thickened’ by the legacy of history and the shadow of the future, as well as other social ‘elsewheres’. When the meaning-making relationship between inquiry and situation is disrupted, time is punctuated by major turning points such as the cheese drama.
Finally, we show how we can move beyond the dualist opposition between independent ‘individual’ and ‘organisation’ levels of analysis. In our framework, behaviour flows from dialogue rather than individual action, and larger structures can only play a role when they engage in dialogue. From this perspective, organisations are dynamic ways of interacting, not shared structures.
"The Experience of Time in the Inter-Organizing Inquiry: A Present Thickened By Dialog and Situations", published in Scandinavian Journal of Management
"From the Analysis of Verbal Data to the Analysis of Organizations: Organizing as a Dialogical Process" , published in Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science
"L'activité collective, processus organisant : un processus discursif fondé sur le langage pragmatiste des habitudes", published in Activités