The commons as a framework for collaboration research and practice
journal contributionposted on 02.11.2017, 06:17 by Selsky, John W.
During the 1990s research on collaboration has been driven by several frameworks (Gray 1999), including institutional theory, resource dependency theory, transaction cost approaches, strategic management approaches, and political and critical perspectives. A distinct body of interdisciplinary research and literature has grown up outside these approaches, where a "commons" framework underpins the study of the sustainable management of resources in communities (see Ostrom, 1990; Bromley, 1992; Memon & Selsky, 1998). The resources are usually natural, and the management occurs usually by the members of a local (rather than regional or global) community. In a related development, Lohmann (1992) has used commons principles to articulate a theory about the nature of the nonprofit sector. Nevertheless, the growing body of interdisciplinary research on the nature and management of the commons has not been absorbed into the study of collaboration in the organizational sciences. We need a commons perspective because it is important that holistic rather than segmental perspectives be used in collaboration research. In a holistic perspective the unit of analysis is the whole social system with an interest in, or affected by, the issue in which collaboration is being attempted. This is in contrast to perspectives that focus on a particular element (often a powerful organizational "actor" or a key set of relations) of a social system. I will show that the inherent holism of the commons perspective provides advantages for understanding and managing collaborative action. Having trialed a commons framework in research on urban port domains in New Zealand, in this paper I comment on the broader applicability of this framework for understanding processes of collaboration in other kinds of domains. I draw together themes in recent research by others as well as myself.1 Specifically, the purposes of this paper are (1) to describe a "commons" framework for collaboration research and to situate it in relation to socio-ecological theory and institutional theory; (2) to highlight the potential uses of such a framework in research and practice; and (3) to illustrate two diverse applications of this framework.