Problem solvers without bosses

Complex problems can be solved in networks where the members themselves decide how to participate. How is it possible to keep control without bosses and lines of command?

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Collaborative communities

We are witnessing a shift towards much more network-based interaction within as well as between organisations. This trend is driven by technology, businesses and organisations that are more and more knowledge-based, and the need to solve complex problems across academic, cultural, geographic and organisational dividing lines.

This has created an entirely new type of organisation: so-called collaborative communities where companies and individuals collaborate in a network in order to develop new knowledge, new products and services and new business opportunities. 

It is up to the members themselves how much and in what way they contribute to the collaboration. There is no top management making the decisions, nor do we find traditional organisation charts with a hierarchy and lines of command.

Is it possible to control organisations without bosses? What kind of management mechanisms do we find in such collaborative communities? How do they go about solving complex problems? What do these organisations look like, and how does such an organisational design develop over time?

Four collaborative communities

Researcher Vegard Kolbjørnsrud has in his PhD project at BI Norwegian Business School conducted a study of four purely collaborative communities to find out how such networks are controlled.

  • The largest network in the study, Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD), comprises 8,000 researchers, students and other contributors from over 130 countries who cooperate on discovering and developing new medicines against tuberculosis and malaria.
  • Networks of independent consultants who cooperate on conducting projects which are too large for any one of the members to carry out.
  • Networks of small and medium-sized companies that collaborate on developing products and services that are environment-friendly, ecological and sustainable. They have also established a forum to link investors with attractive member companies.
  • Networks of IT directors from various organisations that collaborate on developing ideas, projects and solutions.

The four examples have been taken from different sectors – IT, consumer products and services, medical research and consultancy – across countries in Asia, North America and Europe. He has conducted 75 interviews, watched collaboration in the flesh and online, and has accumulated a large amount of written documentation.

Agreed ground rules

The networks in the study began on a small scale, with a founder or a small group of initiators, but they then grew organically, and at times rapidly. The participants are not employed by the network and contribute as they wish. The network organisations have developed through extensive experimentation.

Kolbjørnsrud identifies three main types of challenges in managing collaboration between the members:1) Sharing and building common resources in knowledge pools, 2) Collaboration in teams, and 3) Arranging contact and exchange between the members.

“The management challenges are mostly solved through a set of agreed ground rules that the members follow up with each other,” explains the BI researcher, who is also a strategy consultant in Accenture.

These ground rules consist of values and purposes, rules or protocols for how collaboration should take place, and incentives that encourage contributions. These ground rules take the place of a traditional authority structure. Quality assurance is mostly carried out by the members assessing each other’s work.

The key ground rules are determined right at the beginning and become part of the network’s identity and way of working. Gradually the ground rules become institutionalised and difficult to change.

“When the ground rules are appropriate, this is a strength and a source of positive predictability,” says the BI researcher.

Much to learn

We are going to see more and more organisations of this kind, Kolbjørnsrud predicts. This type of organisation is particularly suited to solve complex problems that require a dynamic mobilisation of many different types of expertise.

The networks are characterised by two important positive, self-reinforcing processes:

1) Opportunities for collaboration, sharing and exchanges increase with increasing participation (network effects). 2) As the shared resources grow, using and contributing to them becomes more attractive.

Vegard Kolbjørnsrud has studied four pure network organisations that differ a great deal from the organisations most of us are working in.

“Many traditional organisations struggle to create innovation. The network organisations represent new ways of organising knowledge development, business development and problem solving.  More traditional enterprises can learn a lot from them,” Kolbjørnsrud underlines.


Vegard Kolbjørnsrud: On governance in collaborative communities. Series of Dissertation 12/2014, BI Norwegian Business School. (Abstract).

This article is published in the online news service ScienceNordic on November 22, 2014.

Text: Audun Farbrot, Head of Science Communication, BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 24. November 2014

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