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"Best Practices" for Promoting Cooperation Among Multiple Stakeholders

Jon Gans, May 1998

Labor-Management Committees

The benefits of cooperation between labor and management are increasingly becoming obvious to governments in New York State. The labor-management committee is an effective tool to promote communication and cooperation. The dynamics of labor-management committees are complex due to the diversity of viewpoints represented. Analyzing other efforts at cooperation between multiple stakeholders may yield insights that will enable these committees to be more successful. For labor-management committees, the following "best practices" are recommended:

  • Establish a central, guiding committee to oversee the endeavor.
  • Integrate committees into the organizational structure.
  • Define expectations and parameters for decision making.
  • Include as many stakeholders as possible and necessary.
  • Communicate and foster a shared understanding of goals and objectives for both the committee and the organization.
  • Address issues that are easy to reach consensus at the outset in order to build momentum to tackle more difficult topics.
  • Be cognizant of power differentials and the effect these may have on communication.

Working in groups is often difficult when there are many stakeholders with diverse points of view involved in the process. Two models which provide insights that are relevant to efforts in labor-management cooperation are Quality of Work-Life (QWL) programs and Search Conferences. In terms of labor-management cooperation, these insights may be helpful to enable communication, develop trust, and identify potential obstacles to success. Developing mission statements creates a shared understanding of the goals for an organization based on the activities and values that have guided the organization in the past. One tool that is useful in creating mission statements is concept mapping. A review of these tools highlights key elements of multiple stakeholder cooperation in decision making.

Quality of Work-Life

The Quality of Work-Life experience reveals three points for both labor and management to consider in establishing committees:

  1. Integrate committees into the organizational structure.
  2. Define the parameters of decision making authority.
  3. Communicate objectives and goals clearly.

Quality of Work-Life programs show the usefulness of a central administration, with the inclusion of as many stakeholders as possible, to coordinate the effort. In addition, considering how power differentials influence the committee process is important. One limitation is due in part to the committee structure of QWL.

Committee Structures in Quality of Work-Life Programs

One mechanism that has been implemented to enhance labor-management cooperation in the private sector is referred to as Quality of Work-Life (QWL). Edward Lawler is one proponent of QWL who asserts that cooperation results in more effective organizational performance. QWL projects seek to not only improve productivity but all aspects of life at work. While QWL initiatives have many drawbacks, such as limited authority to implement ideas and poor communication flows, there are several elements of the framework that might contribute positively to discussions of labor-management cooperation in the public sector.

Joint Committees

The committee is the centerpiece of QWL and they form the link between labor and management. Administratively, these joint committees are parallel to the formal organizational structure. The hierarchical nature of this structure turns out to be one of the major shortcomings of QWL initiatives. The ability for committees to effect change is limited because there are no formal mechanisms that provide the necessary authority. The committee must convince management to implement any ideas that emanate from the process.

Shared Goals

The implementation of QWL has led to several important lessons regarding labor/management cooperation. One insight is to overcome obstacles that are relatively easy to address in order to create momentum to tackle larger, more difficult issues. Every committee drafts a letter of agreement specifying the framework and objectives of the group. Once the framework is established the letter is signed by both parties and disseminated throughout the organization. The objectives are summarized into a few general statements to create a shared understanding of the overall goals. For management, these may be improved quality, productivity and labor/management relations. Unions may seek to provide a better environment for membership.


Training in cooperative problem-solving initiates relations between labor and management and serves to build trust. It also shows the commitment of both union and management to the process. In order for QWL programs to be successful both parties must be committed to the idea. One strategy to overcome this obstacle is to approach the union and determine which organizations are most willing to attempt using the model. Implementing QWL becomes easier when management is assured of the unions' commitment to the idea.

Search Conferences

Search Conferences (Weisbord and Janoff, 1995) recognize the value of considering both internal and external factors in decision making. Expanding the scope of committee discussions to incorporate the entire system within which the organization operates helps the group develop a shared understanding of the goals and objectives. This provides managers and employees with a sense of their larger purpose in the organization. Search conferences also focus on the history of the group in order to foster this sentiment. Perhaps the most influential exercise in a Search Conference is an evaluation of what will likely happen if the organization maintains its present course. This 'Do-Nothing' evaluation enables conference participants to recognize the organization's vulnerabilities.

Search conferences attempt to deal with problems that are multi-dimensional in nature and require coordinated strategies with multiple stakeholders to be dealt with effectively. The ultimate goal of a search conference is to map where a group has come from, where they would like to go, and what resources they have to get there. This past, present and future mapping of resources and goals develops a shared understanding of the direction the organization is heading toward within the context of a larger system.

The Search Conference Process

There are typically three modules in a search conference spread out over three consecutive days. The first day is oriented toward building timelines of past events to identify trends, influential people and other factors both internal and external to the organization that have affected its historical development. Once this task is accomplished, every participant has a shared understanding of the history of the organization. The second day is spent identifying and articulating a vision for the future of the group. A scenario of what will likely happen if the group continues along its present course is developed. This 'do-nothing' evaluation enables the conference participants to recognize where the organization is vulnerable and contributes to the overall expression of an ideal future. The third day is devoted to planning a course of action for achieving the ideal future. Operationalizing the strategic plan involves identification of the individuals or groups linked to available resources and the key relationships between organizations to build networks.

Shortcomings of Search Conferences

Although the search conference is meant to blur or eliminate traditional power differentials they remain in place inhibiting open communication. Individuals mat be fearful of expressing ideas that may comprise their relationships with their superiors once the conference is over. In addition, traditional conflicts and biases toward individuals present obstacles that are not easy to overcome.

Insights from Search Conferences

The recognition that problems are multifaceted and due, in part, to structural, systemic factors is an important insight. Likewise, creating a shared understanding of the historical elements enables participants to understand the broader context of their involvement with the group as well as foment a common vision for the future. Search conferencing, like QWL projects, recognizes the value of knowledge that resides in all facets of the organization or association. The importance of this last point cannot be understated. Accessing the expertise of individuals on the 'frontline' is crucial to successful efforts at labor-management cooperation.

Mission Statements

Developing a shared understanding of purpose in the context of labor-management committees may be achieved through Mission Statements. Indirectly, creating a mission statement develops a foundation for relationships that enhances future committee work.

Developing Consensus

A mission statement is a clear formulation of an organization's 'reason for being'. It is an expression of the functions and processes that an organization uses to fulfill a purpose. For employees a mission can provide 'an understanding of how what they do is tied into a greater purpose' (Goodstein, 1993). Ideally, a mission statement should indicate the scope and direction of an organization's activities based on the values that have guided the organization in the past.

Labor and management committees should, at some point, articulate the mission for their group and, if necessary, the overall organization they serve. The advantage of creating a mission statement lies in the creation of a shared understanding between labor and management for the goals of a committee. It also serves to develop relationships that will likely enhance future committee work. Mission statements bring focus and energy to an organization and its members because of the need to reach a consensus on the specifics of the document. For these reasons, developing a mission statement is worth the effort.

Concept Mapping

Concept Mapping is one tool that can be used to define the mission of an organization. The strength of Concept Mapping lies in its ability to visually represent a set of ideas that the group creates itself. Reaching consensus in this manner is easier because the map is a fair representation of the opinions of the group.

The idea of charting out ideas that relate to each other is a common practice in many strategic planning discussions. Concept mapping provides a framework to structure ideas in such a manner as to recognize patterns or clusters of ideas that are related to each other and represent them visually (Trochim, 1997). Concept mapping has proven to be a valuable tool in planning for public, private and not-for-profit organizations alike and could enhance efforts at labor-management cooperation.

The concept mapping process starts by identifying and selecting a focus for the conceptualization, for example the overall mission of an organization, with the input of as many relevant stakeholders as possible. Once a focus is established each group member generates statements that attempt to capture their individual understanding of the concept.

Individual cards that have each statement printed on them are distributed to the participants as a set. The individuals are asked to create piles by distributing the statements in a way that makes sense to them. Every statement is also ranked, usually on a scale of one to five, for its importance to the overall concept.

The next step is to define clusters of ideas that each participant has determined are linked through the sorting process. This can be done with a computer or by simply using the index cards. A map of the statements is produced and the process is complete. Plans of action and strategies may now be undertaken to fulfill the goals and visions generated by the participants in the concept map.

Concept mapping is a very flexible tool used to identify common ground in strategic planning. Labor-management cooperation efforts could benefit from such a framework because it visually represents ideas in clusters that have been created by both parties; concept mapping is particularly useful for reaching consensus on difficult issues between multiple stakeholders. Most importantly, perhaps, is the ability of a concept map to create a shared vision of the future direction of the organization that is comprehensible to all participants; a prerequisite for developing mission statements.


Labor-management committees have the benefit of learning from past attempts at multiple stakeholder cooperation. Quality of Work-Life initiatives reveal the value training can add to the functioning of committees. Likewise, commitment on behalf of both management and labor is required for success. Search conferences provide a rationale for incorporating labor in decision making given the value of knowledge that resides in frontline employees. Power differentials play an important role in limiting search conferences and this awareness should be considered in labor-management committees. Developing a mission statement is one way to foster a shared understanding of committee goals and represents an opportunity to develop important relationships between labor and management. Concept mapping is a tool that can facilitate the development of a mission statement. Labor-management committees can be successful when both parties understand some of the shortcomings of other attempts at multiple stakeholder cooperation.


Goodstein, Leonard, Timothy Nolan, and J. William Pfeiffer. 1993. Applied Strategic Planning. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

This publication gives a detailed framework for strategic planning in various types of organizations. Several tools are discussed for developing an effective strategic planning environment in organizations.

Lawler, Edward. 1990. High-Involvement Management: Participative Strategies for Improving Organizational Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This text provides insights into the effectiveness of many concepts related to 'Quality'. Self-managing work-teams, gainsharing, and employee involvement ideas are presented and evaluated using many examples.

Trochim, William. 1998. An Introduction to Concept Mapping for Planning and Evaluation.

The full text of this article describes all of the steps for using concept mapping and enables the visitor to use a simulation of a computer program based on the tool.

Weisbord, Marvin and Sandra Janoff. 1995. Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Some very practical information on the process of conducting a Search Conference with examples.