The Evolution of Relational Coordination
In our work with Relational Coordination in Danish municipal organizations, we have discovered many factors that render the well-known Relational Coordination model inadequate. The core research in Relational Coordination is based on some rather clearly delineated and well-defined tasks, such as flight departures and hip replacement surgery, where the task and the role of the professionals involved are precisely outlined. This has proven effective in the aforementioned contexts, leading to shorter waiting times and courses of treatment, higher passenger and patient satisfaction, shorter hospital stays, more flight hours, fewer complications, etc. But when we look at many of the complex tasks performed by municipal organizations, they differ from the contexts examined in the core research in three ways.
From Relational Coordination to Relational Capacity
many tasks cannot be limited to a specific timeframe, location or task description. Employment efforts for citizens with challenges beyond unemployment itself and the servicing of citizens with complex social, mental or physical issues extend over many years and often involve staff from 10 to 20 different areas of specialization.
the tasks are so complex that no single clear and common goal can be established. A multitude of goals exist concurrently, and sometimes one solution may counteract another, as in the example above. As a result, the underlying premise of the research regarding clear common goals, as well as clear goals for each area of professional specialization/function, is simply not possible. Nonetheless, professionals in municipal organizations can still benefit from consulting with each other and pursing a holistic approach to providing effective services that citizens find helpful.
the separate specialists and functions interact with a varying number of important partners over time and from case to case. This reality is not reflected in the analyses used in Relational Coordination, which assume that all of the involved specialists collaborate with each other. Municipal organizations often have a number of clusters where many relations are gathered around certain functions. For example, a benefits office or an authority function has many points of contact within the organization, and the services granted to a citizen greatly determine how other specialists in the municipality are able to work with that citizen.
On the whole,
there is no doubt that relations and Relational Coordination strongly impact the ability to deliver complex welfare services. But when we transfer the theory and approach to a Danish municipal context, they need to be adapted to meet the challenges specific to that particular context.
In many fundamental respects, the reality of municipal organizations is different from the implicit assumptions on which research into Relational Coordination is based. Relational Coordination has served as a major source of inspiration for many public sector organizations as a means of conceptualizing and visualizing the organizational and practical challenges in their efforts to deliver coordinated services for citizens, particularly those citizens who have many points of contact with staff within the organization. However, we must also recognize the need for further development of the model before it can be operationalized in a Danish context.
There is a need for a more flexible structure in the model, allowing us to shift from coordination of specific recurring tasks to a more unique capacity to engage in collaborations of varying complexity.
There is a need to work with other dimensions and questions, as some of the questions in the model are not relevant, while other important dimensions are overlooked.
There is a need to incorporate the role of management in the study, as our data shows that the behavior and focus of managers has a significant impact on employees’ ability to engage in and access cross-organizational collaborations.
Consultative and managerial framework
There is a need for a model that can be operationalized. The research is not designed as an intervention model, but only as an analysis model.
If the model is to function as an aid, it must be envisioned within a consultative and managerial framework.
New dimensions and questions
In our experience, it is important to examine how different groups perceive the collaboration. Sometimes there is a lack of knowledge about what others in the organization are doing, which makes it difficult to think about collaboration in their everyday work. Other times, there is a perceived lack of respect from others, which easily leads staff to distance themselves from those they find to be disrespectful.
The new dimensions and questions can also help us to identify another very important factor in the cross-organizational collaboration. We often find that the professional asymmetry between highly educated and low-educated personnel groups plays a role. In our experience, staff in some departments that have many points of contact with other departments have no idea whether the collaboration with these other departments is relevant.
Conversely, other departments express that the collaboration is very relevant. Comparing the figures for general well-being, we see that this same department has a high degree of well-being and satisfaction with their immediate managers. These findings underpin a hypothesis that the department in question is very inward-looking in its goals, that staff carry out casework at a very individual level, and that the manager has shielded the department from the surrounding world, thus protecting employees from outside inquiries. With these hypotheses, it becomes easier to engage in conversations that foster an understanding of the challenges and what is needed to develop practices rooted in a holistic understanding of the tasks to be performed. By working with multiple dimensions, we can identify and collectively discuss some of the most relevant themes to gain a clearer understanding.
We have illustrated how the municipal reality necessitates further development of the Relational Coordination model and analysis. These adjustments significantly alter the foundational premise on which the research is built; thus, we argue for Relational Capacity, with adoption of the Joint Action Analytics analysis tool and new dimensions of examination. These methods can make important contributions to managing the complexity of municipal services for vulnerable citizens and citizens with systemic challenges.