Relational Coordination Theory
RELATIONAL COORDINATION THEORY SHEDS LIGHT on the relational work process that underlies the technical work process, arguing that coordination is not just the management of interdependence between tasks – it’s also the management of interdependence between the people who perform those tasks. RC theory reveals the inter-subjectivity of the coordination process, paying close attention to the quality of communication and relationships among participants, as well as to the technical requirements of the work. Relational coordination theory shares much in common with other relational approaches to the coordination of work, such as Karl Weick and Karlene Roberts (1994), Samer Faraj and Yin Xiao (2006), Ryan Quinn and Jane Dutton (2005), Beth Bechky (2006), and Charles Heckscher and Paul Adler (2006).
Mary Parker Follett appears to be the first theorist to have proposed a relational theory of coordination. She accepted the then-prevalent argument that the primary function of organizations was to coordinate work. She argued uniquely, however, that coordination at its most effective was not a mechanical process but rather a process of continuous interrelating between the parts and the whole. In her words:
“It is impossible…to work most effectively at coordination until you have made up your mind where you stand philosophically in regard to the relation of parts to wholes. We have spoken of the relation of departments – sales and production, advertising and financial – to each other, but the most profound truth that philosophy has ever given us concerns not only the relation of parts, but the relation of parts to the whole, not to a stationary whole, but to a whole a-making” (Follett, 1941: 91).
Consistent with Follett’s argument, Thompson later suggested that coordination as a process of reciprocal relating, or “mutual adjustment,” can indeed be beneficial. But he offered a contingency argument, suggesting that this is true only when tasks are reciprocally interdependent, or in other words, when outcomes from one task feedback and create new information for participants who are performing related tasks (Thompson, 1967). Moreover Thompson saw mutual adjustment as playing a limited role in organizations. Because mutual adjustment is prohibitively costly, he argued, coordination more commonly occurs through coordinating mechanisms such as supervision, routines, scheduling, pre-planning or standardization.
Since then, the nature of work has changed. Work is characterized by increasing levels of task interdependence, uncertainty and time constraints, expanding the relevance of mutual adjustment beyond what Thompson originally foresaw and forcing the exploration of coordination as a relational process. Organizational scholars have responded by developing relational approaches to coordination that build on Follett’s concept of coordination, including the concepts of sense-making (Weick & Roberts, 1994), expertise coordination (Faraj & Sproull, 2000; Faraj & Xiao, 2006), coordination as energy-in-conversation (Quinn & Dutton, 2005), role-based coordination (Bechky, 2006) and collaborative community (Heckscher, 1994; Heckscher & Adler, 2006).
New Directions for Relational Coordination Theory (in Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship)