The Relational Coordination Difference
RELATIONAL COORDINATION THEORY HAS SOUGHT TO EXTEND Mary Parker Follett’s work by offering a unique way to conceptualize the relational dynamics of coordination, their expected outcomes and their structural predictors. But how is RC theory different from other theories? (For full article published in Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, please see here.)
1) RC theory specifies the nature of relationships through which coordination occurs, proposing that these relationships include shared goals that transcend participants’ specific functional goals, shared knowledge that enables participants to see how their specific tasks interrelate with the whole process, and mutual respect that enables participants to overcome the status barriers that prevent them from seeing and taking account of the work of others. Together these three relational dimensions reinforce and are reinforced by communication that is frequent, timely, accurate and focused on problem-solving rather than blaming.
For example, knowledge of what each participant contributes to the overall work process enables them to communicate in a timely way with participants in other functions, grounded in an understanding of who needs to know what, why, and with what degree of urgency. Shared knowledge also enables participants to communicate with each other with greater accuracy due to knowing not only their own specific tasks but also how their tasks relate to the tasks of participants in other functions. Shared goals increase participants’ motivation to engage in high quality communication as well as increasing the likelihood that they will resort to problem-solving communication rather than blaming when things go wrong. Mutual respect increases the likelihood that participants will be receptive to communication from their colleagues in other functions irrespective of their relative status, thus increasing the quality of communication given that communication is a function of what is heard as well as what is said.
Relational coordination is defined as “a mutually reinforcing process of interaction between communication and relationships carried out for the purpose of task integration.” (For this definition, please see here.) Together, these mutually reinforcing relationship and communication ties form the basis for coordinated collective action.
2) RC theory focuses not on personal relationships but rather on task-based relationship ties. These relationships are conceptualized as ties between work roles, as shown below, rather than personal ties between the individuals who inhabit those work roles.
3) RC theory explores how relational coordination impacts performance. Follett proposed that a relational approach to coordination is more effective than more mechanistic approaches, but the theory of relational coordination proposes specifically that both quality and efficiency outcomes can be improved simultaneously, moving beyond the tradeoffs between quality and efficiency that are typically found, by enabling participants to achieve better results for customers while engaging in less wasteful and more productive utilization of resources. How? In contrast to the traditional bureaucratic form of coordination that is carried out primarily by managers at the top of functional silos, relational coordination is carried out via direct contact among workers at the front-line, through networks that cut across functional silos at the point of contact with the customer. Relational coordination thus improves performance of a work process by improving the work relationships between people (shared goals, shared knowledge, mutual respect) who perform different functions in that work process, leading to higher quality communication. Task interdependencies are therefore managed more directly, in a more seamless way, with fewer redundancies, lapses, errors and delays.
4) Relational coordination is also expected to increase job satisfaction for two reasons. First, high quality relationships found in relational coordination are inherently gratifying, making work more enjoyable and less stressful. Second, the high quality relationships found in relational coordination make it easier to get one’s work done efficiently and with better quality results, which is also inherently gratifying to many people.
5) RC theory argues that relational coordination is particularly useful when work is highly interdependent, uncertain and time-constrained. Building on information processing and contingency theories, RC theory argues that relational coordination is particularly useful for achieving desired performance outcomes under conditions of reciprocal interdependence (Thompson, 1967), task and input uncertainty (Galbraith, 1972; Argote, 1982) and time constraints (Adler, 1995). When tasks are reciprocally interdependent, there are feedback loops among them, therefore increasing the need for relational coordination to enable participants to mutually adjust their actions in response to the outcomes of each others’ tasks. Furthermore, when task and/or input uncertainty is high, relational coordination becomes more important for enabling participants to adjust their activities with each other “on the fly” as new information emerges in the process of carrying out the work. Finally, as time constraints increase, as in high velocity environments, relational coordination becomes more important for enabling participants to adjust their actions rapidly in response to each other and newly emergent information, without wasting additional time referring problems upwards for resolution.
6) RC theory argues that organizational structures can support relational coordination, if designed properly. In organizations with traditional bureaucratic structures that reinforce functional silos, relational coordination networks are expected to exhibit strong ties within functions and weak ties between functions, resulting in fragmentation and poor handoffs among front-line workers. By contrast, in organizations with structures that cut across functional silos – structures that include for example selecting participants for cross-functional teamwork, measuring and rewarding participants for cross-functional teamwork, resolving conflicts proactively across functions, developing work protocols that span functional boundaries, designing jobs with flexible boundaries between areas of functional specialization, and designing boundary spanner roles to support the development of networks across functional boundaries – relationship and communication networks are expected to be more cohesive. These cross-cutting structures represent a redesign of traditional bureaucratic structures, and together they constitute a relational work system that strengthens cross-functional networks of relational coordination without sacrificing the benefits of the division of labor.
New Directions for Relational Coordination Theory (in Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship)