Brian Tjemkes on Public-Private Collaboration: ‘Everyone Is Focused on Their Own Piece of the Puzzle’

Brian Tjemkes on Public-Private Collaboration: ‘Everyone Is Focused on Their Own Piece of the Puzzle’
Collaboration is a hot topic. But it is not easy. In a new series for Management Scope, Machiel van der Kuijl, Chairman of the entrepreneurs’ association evofenedex, delves into the world of public-private collaboration. What does it involve? What are the pitfalls? How do you ensure that collaboration yields results? This time, he talks to Brian Tjemkes, Professor of Strategy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Tjemkes conducted extensive research on public-private collaboration and wrote a book about it. ‘Collaboration might be the most underestimated skill in the world.’

Brian Tjemkes settles in for the conversation. He has been pondering the theme of public-private collaboration over the past few days, in between renovation work, as Tjemkes has been ‘involved in a sustainable renovation for eight years.’ He sees some similarities. ‘Speaking of collaboration,’ he sighs, ‘there are always people coming to our place, each doing a piece of the solution. They have no clue about the whole, and they do not care.’ He sees an analogy with the public-private collaborations he has studied: ‘Everyone looks at their own piece, at their own interest.’ With a smile: ‘And in the end, the plasterer has to cover it all up.’

Collaboration is not easy. Why does it often go wrong?
‘To provide a good answer to that, we need to zoom out and look at the world. It is often said that we go from crisis to crisis, but if I were to describe reality, I would use the word ‘chaos’. We have to acknowledge that we live in a chaotic world. Geopolitical issues dominate the debate, there is war, significant climate problems, and above all, there is an ideological battle raging about almost everything, a battle of ideas. Polarization is increasing, there is significant social unrest, and there is distrust in the government. In this chaotic world, there are also unprecedented developments happening in terms of digitization and artificial intelligence. And governments and businesses have to navigate in these turbulent waters, with a future that is completely uncertain.’

And if we zoom in on the business sector and government, the partners in a public-private collaboration?
‘All parties in a public-private collaboration deal with their own problems and trust issues. The government has repeatedly proven to be an unreliable partner, who, depending on the political winds, releases test balloons, turns a blind eye, introduces complex laws and regulations and changes them again if the intended effect is not achieved. The business sector also faces trust issues. There are countless examples where the business sector has lost its moral compass. When a leading accountant like KPMG engages in exam fraud, that says something. Companies still tend to focus too much on shareholder value; their efficiency thinking has gone astray. Often, they operate well within legal boundaries, but with questionable moral behaviour. Chemours may have discharged its waste within the permitted allowance, but ecologically and socially, there are questions to be raised.’

Do these trust issues make collaboration extra difficult or even impossible? I believe many individuals are well-intentioned and completely honest…
‘The problems arise at a more systemic level. Parties are too focused on navel-gazing and make choices primarily based on self-interest. It is like my renovation: the carpenter does not care about the problems the plumber encounters. Everyone has their own starting point. The business sector has a certain corporate logic, the government has its own social logic, and knowledge institutions are also engaged in their own logic. They all have different interests, incentives, and triggers. They do not look beyond their own silos, or they only focus on the short term and forget the long term. For example, the Netherlands is now covered in solar panels. That is good news, but we already ten years ago knew it would create a significant recycling problem. Back then, people knowingly created a future problem because they only looked at the short term.’

Is it all too complex?
‘Yes, it is too complex, and there are too many organizational flaws. We rely too much on classical organizational theory, which focuses on efficiency. Your unit has a specific task. To perform it as well and efficiently as possible, you create rules. But the consequence is that you are mainly occupied with internal organization. If you look at the broader perspective – the greater good – efficiency might not be the only, let alone the most important, goal. The goal might be ‘more sustainability’ or ‘absorbing technology’. Everyone is now focused on their own piece of the puzzle, or at most, their own corner of the puzzle. But who has the overview? Who is going to complete the entire puzzle?’

But then collaboration should be part of the solution, right?
‘Yes. All major, important issues we face – climate transition, energy transition, all the United Nations’ sustainable development goals – can only be addressed through collaboration. There is no single party – neither government, nor business, nor knowledge institutions – that has a sole solution. Parties will have to collaborate cleverly in ecosystems, creating value in a joint organizational form. The advantage of an ecosystem is that, if done smartly, you can complete the puzzle together. However, there is a problem: collaboration might be the most underestimated skill in the world.’

Why is that?
‘One of the reasons is because we quickly label ‘interaction’ as ‘collaboration’. Much of what is nowadays called ‘collaboration’ is not that at all. A government that outsources is not collaborating, a government that commissions a construction company to build a viaduct is not collaborating. That is just classic client-contractor relationships. Advocacy or lobbying is not collaboration. The result is that parties try to organize their engagement with the wrong expectations and approach. Another important reason it goes wrong is that the intentions are not clearly communicated beforehand. Why should I enter an ecosystem? Often, the concept of ‘trust’ is brought up: you have to trust each other. But I do not enter a collaborative relationship because I trust someone else. I enter a relationship because there is something to gain for me. You need to be clear beforehand about what you think you will gain, both in the short and long term. The short term usually works out. Take, for example, government subsidies to help people with employment disadvantages find work. The initial incentive is clear, but what about the long-term incentives? Why would a company continue to participate once the subsidies stop? That needs to be considered in advance.
When it comes to collaboration, it is extremely important to also consider under what conditions you would end the collaboration. How would the separation be done? There are consultants who say that collaboration is a marriage. But as a romantic, I disagree: a marriage is forever, a collaboration is not. An alliance is finite. It ends. You collaborate temporarily to achieve a goal. And whether it is a year or 40 years – it eventually ends. That means you need to clearly agree at the beginning under what conditions you will end the collaboration and how you will continue or discontinue the underlying goals and activities without a partner. This is almost always forgotten. So, clearly state in advance why you are participating. If you do not discuss this with each other, it is bound to go wrong somewhere. And it always happens at an unforeseen moment. Then you get conflict, and everyone resorts to their own reflexes, sticks to their own beliefs, and polarization occurs.’

How do you prevent that?
‘To manage these initial processes well, you really need alliance managers or collaboration managers. Connectors. Bridge builders. People who are empathetic and have good interpersonal skills, people who understand that there are different insights, different rhythms. But this is completely underestimated. Everyone thinks they can collaborate. Collaboration is an expertise; it is an exceptional skill not everyone possesses. Procurement managers are appointed as collaboration managers without a clear reason. But a procurement manager needs totally different skills. They need to negotiate the best price. That is ‘us’ versus ‘them’. It is a completely different way of operating. Collaboration is about ‘us.’

Does collaboration also demand something extra in terms of leadership?
‘Getting people moving, engaging people, motivating, making people collaborate – that is the most difficult thing there is. Of course, leaders have a role to play. It requires a different form of leadership, something I previously called humanized leadership. Leaders who can deal with paradoxes and dilemmas. This should be a focus within organizations. Currently, it is often about whether people meet their KPIs or targets. We need more transition thinkers. And leadership also involves something like ownership or accountability. Who is the owner of which problem? What you see is that all these parties only feel responsible for their own piece and not for the other. But who takes responsibility for the whole? That is also crucial to discuss in a collaboration. In a public-private collaboration, the parties share the responsibility. All involved parties are used to working in a hierarchy. But in collaborations, there is no hierarchy. Usually, you start based on equality, without one party having decision-making authority. So, the first thing you need to do is agree on a hierarchy among yourselves. How do we handle decision-making? In classic transactional relationships, it is clear: the client is the boss. They decide what happens; the other party executes. If you do it together, you have shared responsibility. Suddenly, you get a completely different way of thinking.’

What is a good piece of advice for companies or supervisory boards?
‘I think we need to move away from the idea that the world is malleable. That is deeply ingrained in everyone: if we just take the right measures now, everything will be fine. We do ‘this’ and it leads to ‘that’. There is a problem, and we solve it. If we take the right measures now, everyone in the Netherlands will have social security, the nitrogen problem will be solved, we will reduce CO2. This is all based on a very deep assumption of feasibility. I think the world is not malleable. I think the world consists of paradoxes, contradictions, which are inherently unsolvable. The world is not made for efficiency; continuous growth is not a necessity in the world. These are all just assumptions. And decisions are made based on these deeply rooted assumptions.
We need to move towards a reframing of some basic assumptions. It is time to question and possibly revise these assumptions. For politicians, or leaders of large companies, this requires a significant mind shift. It calls for a different way of thinking. I think a supervisory board, especially, has the task of translating these developments. I see it as a crucial task of a supervisory board to question the assumptions underlying the strategy and with it the necessity and relevance of participating in collaborations and ecosystems.’

What else would help companies?
‘I believe organizations would benefit from two perspectives. First and foremost is allowing rebellion and divergent thinking. I think many large organizations would benefit from a culture where people are allowed, or even encouraged, to speak up, to resist authority. This eliminates blind spots. It makes you see the world differently. The second is that much more focus should be put on cross-silo thinking. So, educate, coach, guide people, provide them with a career to genuinely build bridges between units in the organization. If people can build internal bridges, then the step to building external bridges, for example, between public and private sectors, is a logical continuation.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 10 2023.

This article was last changed on 21-11-2023