Conceptual Definition of Interorganizational
Collaboration and Classification of its Forms
Adam J. Darnell, Ph.D., James G. Emshoff, Ph.D., Gabriel P. Kuperminc, Ph.D.
Driving Questions
1. What is the conceptual definition
of collaboration?
2. Are there differences between
forms of collaboration that are
important for theory and
empirical study of collaboration?
Basic Distinctions
Process concepts = actions or changes
Class concepts = objects or forms
(McLeod & Pan, 2005)
Collaboration is a process concept.
Coalition, partnership, collaborative, etc.
are class concepts.
Table 1. Definitions of Collaboration as a Process Concept
Forms of Interorganizational Collaboration
A Common Definition of
A process of forming a relationship
between formerly independent parties
Parties necessarily include organizational
Purpose is to pursue a common goal with
the aim of combining resources more
effectively than when working
Wood & Gray
Provan, et al
Thomson, et
Year Definition
1989 “A process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can
explore constructively their own limited vision of what is possible.“
1991 “Collaboration occurs when a group of autonomous stakeholders of a problem
domain engage in an interactive process, using shared rules, norms, and
structures, to act or decide on issues related to that domain.”
1992 Collaborating is defined as exchanging information, altering activities, sharing
resources, and enhancing the capacity of another for mutual benefit and to
achieve a common purpose.
1994 “(Collaboration is) the process through which multiple stakeholders identify a
common mission, allocate resources, and engage in activities designed to
achieve that mission.”
1996 Organizational collaboration is defined as a process in which organizations
exchange information, alter activities, share resources and enhance each
other’s capacity for mutual benefit and a common purpose by sharing risks,
responsibilities and rewards.
1998 “Collaboration is a process through which parties who see different aspects of
a problem can explore constructively their differences and search for (and
implement) solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is
2001 A mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or
more organizations to achieve common goals. The relationship includes a
commitment to a definition of mutual relationships and goals; a jointly
developed structure and shared responsibility; mutual authority and
accountability for success; and sharing of resources and rewards.
2003 “We define collaboration simply as the development of working relationships
between and among organizations.”
1994 Collaboration has been defined as the process through which multiple
stakeholders identify a common mission, allocate resources, and engage in
activities designed to achieve that mission
2007 “Collaboration is a process in which autonomous or semi-autonomous actors
interact through formal and informal negotiation, jointly creating rules and
structures governing their relationships and ways to act or decide on the
issues that brought them together; it is a process involving shared norms and
mutually beneficial interactions.”
This research was made possible with support from the Georgia Family Connection Partnership.
Address Correspondence to Adam J. Darnell: [email protected]
Interorganizational collaboration is the process of forming a
relationship between two or more representatives of
organizations to pursue a common goal, with the aim of
combining resources in a way that brings about change that the
organizations could not have accomplished separately.
Note: Specifying interorganizational
collaboration distinguishes this from other
group phenomena (e.g., community
organizing, teams, international alliances)
What types of things collaborate?
What is the difference between a coalition and
a partnership and other specific forms?
There are a larger number of terms in use to
refer to specific forms of collaboration (Table 2
provided separately).
Please see handout.
We make the following observations regarding
the current population of terms in use:
1. There is substantial overlap between
definitions of specific forms
2. There is variance in the specificity of
terms(e.g., network vs collaborative
partnership for community heath and
development) suggesting a typology in use
3. There is inconsistency in the selection of
defining features of specific forms, and
terms used to refer to specific forms
4. There is no empirical basis on which to
differentiate specific forms
Coordinating Councils
health partnerships
Collaborative partnerships for
community health and development
Interorganizational Networks
Note: Interorganizational network is proposed as the label for the broad category of forms.
Looking Ahead to a
Taxonomy and typology are synonymous
(Bailey, 1994)
Development of a taxonomy would
proceed by:
Forms of Interorganizational
1. Conceptual identification of dimensions
of variation
2. Operationalization of dimensions
3. Observation of actual forms and
description in terms of dimensions
4. Classification in terms of selected
5. Some combinations of dimensions will
be more common (i.e., types)
6. Accumulation of knowledge will lead to
focus on specific dimensions of
variation that are germane to theory
and empirical study
Potentially Important
Dimensions of Variation
Definitions of forms of collaboration in
Table 2 (handout) suggest important
dimensions of variation between specific
• Types of organizations collaborating
(e.g., social service, for-profits)
• Involvement of private individuals, and
degree of empowerment (e.g.,
community coalition)
• Target issue (e.g., substance abuse,
• Geographic scope (e.g., local, state)
• Size
• Organizational formalization (e.g.,
memoranda of agreement, committee
structure, by-laws)
• Others?
• Interorganizational collaboration (IC) is the unifying term, and interorganizational
network (IN) is the label for the general class of forms
• Naming and definition of specific types of interorganizational networks is not consistent
• Extent of generalizability of theory and empirical findings across specific types of INs is
not yet determined
• Studies should relate their content to the broader content of interorganizational
collaboration and address the extent to which their specific forms pertain to that general
• Studies should describe the demographics of their INs more exhaustively to aid
comparison of findings from one specific form to another and support gradual taxonomy

Conceptual Definition of Interorganizational Collaboration and