CROFT Guideline for Enhancing Online Collaboration Between SME Cluster Members

CADIC Relational Online Framework and Toolset

 

Foreword

 

Collaboration requires individuals working together in a coordinated fashion, towards a common goal. Collaborative software helps facilitate action-oriented teams working together over geographic distances by providing tools that aid communication, collaboration, flows of Intellectual capital  and the process of decision making and problem solving.

With an aim to take best advantage of collaborative software, we have developed a platform independent methodology to assist groups or ‘clusters’ of organisations achieve their common goals more efficiently and effectively.  This is the CADIC Relational Online Framework and toolset: CROFT. This methodology has been developed based on time spent observing and working with self-motivated SME clusters across Europe. 

Being platform-independent, CROFT may, in theory, be implemented on a variety of collaborative software platforms. However, on the basis of our research on CROFT implementation in the CADIC pilot clusters and elsewhere, we recommend, as the vehicle for implementation, the online collaborative software ProjectPier.

CROFT implementations in ProjectPier are offered (free of charge to CADIC Project Consortium members) as an online service, developed and maintained by CADIC RTD partner LSE. These ProjectPier implementations of CROFT are mounted on the CADIC server at the London Multimedia Lab. CROFT Project Implementation manuals are currently available, both for CADIC Cluster Facilitation teams, and for Cluster SME members as a whole.

This guideline is written for administrators of the CROFT methodology, particularly in CADIC-supported SME clusters. Typically you will be member of a Cluster Facilitation Team it is designed to be followed in conjunction with the broader CADIC framework providing offline services for holistic cluster management.     

 

Now, you might be tempted to jump to the CROFT ProjectPier implementation Manual for CADIC Cluster Facilitation Teams and get to grips with the specifics of implementing and using CROFT.

However, we highly recommend you to dedicate some time to go first through this Guideline. This will give you an overview of what CROFT is all about and, more importantly, a general idea of what you might expect from its implementation.

 

Introduction

 

Taking best advantage of virtual, or online, collaboration tools is fundamental to successful and productive clustering for most organisations. It is particularly vital to the survival of many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the current economic climate. However, virtual collaboration is rarely, if ever, successfully conducted without a reason or face-to-face interaction between cluster members.“Bottom-up” clustering is now the norm with support from both SMEs and government agencies and with ICT enablement as a focus.

Over the last 20 years, the way clusters are perceived has changed significantly.


 “Bottom-up” clustering is now the norm with support from both SMEs and government agencies and with ICT enablement as a focus.
  • A ‘Cluster’ in 1998: “Geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, specialised suppliers, service providers, firms in related industries, and associated institutions in particular fields that compete and/or cooperate.”1
  • A ‘Cluster’ in 2008: “Network arrangements that, though embedded in, transcend geographical location, focus on global markets, operate as ad hoc and/or long term business networks, are ICT enabled, and are based on dynamic aggregations of capabilities of different SMEs.”2


The old definition often led to top-down, or government, initiatives focused on geographically local groups, for example, areas controlled by different regional government agencies.  However, this disregarded clusters that cut across geographical locations, and a new broader definition, specifically incorporating ICT, has become more widely accepted in recent years.  This is the definition of ‘cluster’ used in this document and throughout the broader CADIC Framework.

CROFT: CADIC Relational Online Framework and Toolset was developed after close observation and input from bottom-up, self-motivating/self-managing clusters across Europe, it provides support, informed by the CADIC Framework in conjunction with CADIC Offline Services.


Start with a reason for using CROFT that motivates cluster members to participate. The methodology can be implemented in most online collaborative systems.

CROFT is not designed to work in “virtual isolation”.  Its use should complement other cluster development and management tools and services, especially those tools and services addressed in the CADIC Framework. And there needs to be a reason to implement it, in a particular cluster context, in the first place. This could be a common business goal for all the initial cluster members, for example:


  • A joint venture to engage in;
  • A cluster event to organise; or
  • A collaborative funding bid to manage.


This provides a strong motivation for cluster participants to joint the CROFT “Company” for that cluster, and to make effective use of CROFT in promoting, facilitating and managing intellectual capital flows in the service of that goal.

 

The role of the CROFT Administrators: The Cluster Facilitation Team

 

The Cluster Facilitation Team is accountable for the CROFT: acts as administrator and manages resources and membership.

This guideline is specifically addressed to the administrators of CROFT implementations at SME cluster level: typically Cluster Facilitation Team members engaged in the roles of CADIC Country Coach, Cluster Facilitator, and Cluster Manager. It is also addressed at the individual SME levels to the Cluster Relationship Managers from the SMEs in the Cluster.

The Cluster Facilitation team members act jointly as administrators (according to a procedure agreed between themselves) and are collectively accountable for the CROFT. They monitor the membership within the safe virtual collaboration space created through the implementation of CROFT in their own cluster context. Collectively, this membership constitutes the “Company” for this CROFT implementation. The Cluster Facilitation Team have the responsibility to control the admission of new members to the Company, and manage the transition of new members to “Voyager” (full) member status, with privileges to participate in particular projects established in the virtual collaboration space and in reality. They also ensure the timely availability of the necessary resources for cluster development activities and facilitating Intellectual Capital flows, available to all member of the company.

Voyager member of the Company, as well as the cluster facilitation team can be involved in creating and/or managing specific projects within CROFT. The Cluster Facilitation Team can give any Voyager member of the “company” the permission “able to manage own projects”.  In this guideline, we refer to such members of the Company as “initiator” members.

 

The CROFT administrators (Cluster Facilitation Team) should be non-partisan, keeping the interests of all cluster members in mind.

At the SME level, the Cluster Relation Manager has the responsibility to spread awareness about the existence and purpose of CROFT and projects/activities being managed in part by CROFT, and to nominate to the cluster facilitation team the participants from his/her SME who should be members of the CROFT company for the cluster. For example, regularly updated emails/newsletters, posts on the web and periodic meetings within the SME could be of help. This will contribute broad support to the initiative as well as effect IC flows between and within the cluster members.

 

 

CROFT Support Strategy


CROFT supports other collaborative activities of a cluster and shouldn’t be viewed as a standalone system.    It is designed to be a method of creating and managing an online “safe space” where cluster members are happy to communicate and work together for collaborative advantage: in other words, overcoming co-opetition anxiety. The rules and access rights of this virtual “safe space” provide an infrastructure for knowledge (IC) flow that is dictated by the needs and interests of the cluster members themselves and not controlled by an external governing body such as a trade organisation or government agency.

Every cluster of SMEs has their own needs, interests and ways of working, so CROFT is necessarily flexible and non-prescriptive. How you establish the rules for membership of your own CROFT “safe virtual collaborative workspace”, and the activities and project within it, and how you use the concepts and tools in CROFT should be decided in consultation with your cluster members, so you’ll need to involve them from the start in deciding the details of your CROFT implementation.  And remember, this methodology works best when the cluster is driven by the needs of all members. It is the Cluster Facilitation Team’s job to remain as non-partisan as possible and help CROFT benefit the entire cluster.


Figure 1: CROFT can be used for a number of purposes

  • In CADIC SME Clusters, Offline-services lead: Even in this virtual age, most clustering should be centred on face-to-face interaction between people and organisations with online tools having a supporting role.    You are human and designed to relate best when you can see a person “in the flesh”, look them in the eye and shake their hand.   Trust is easiest to build between two people in the same room.  Don’t let technology fool you otherwise.
  • The Emphasis is on enhancing and facilitating knowledge (IC) flows: Based in the “flow” model of soft knowledge3 and Intellectual Capital (IC), CROFT provides methods and cluster management tools to help you promote effective and efficient IC-Flows between the SMEs collaborating in a CADIC Cluster. These include methods to shape collaboration events, and group decision and communication support in Accelerated Learning Environments.4

 

The Value-Added of implementing CROFT


?Checklist for an effective CROFT implementation
Ask the following questions before you start:

  • Is there a compelling reason for cluster members to participate in a CROFT collaborative workspace? Is the reason clear?
  • If you decide not to use ProjectPier: Have you chosen an online collaborative tool that is fit for purpose and suitable for all cluster members?
  • Do you have a set of Company membership acceptance criteria that is acceptable to all cluster members?
  • Has the Cluster Facilitation Team decided on how to share the responsibilities of administering the CROFT collaborative workspace? Do the persons chosen have the right skills, motivation and time?
 

 

There are direct and indirect benefits to implementing a CROFT methodology in your chosen online collaborative software.  The CADIC consortium can offer to host your implementation of CROFT in ProjectPier running on the server at CADIC RTD partner LSE (London Multimedia Lab).Your effective use of CROFT methodology, virtual collaborative space, resources and supporting tools will then help the cluster to:

  • Focus on face-to-face interactions, which are the essential for growth of trust, shared cluster goals and identity, and sustainability in the long term.5
  • Ensure that elements of power are widely distributed among the partners. This is essential: intellectual capital will then flow more freely among cluster members, allowing significant collaborative learning to take place6 as new knowledge is created through the continual social interactions and shared practice7 among  SMEs in the cluster.
  • Emphasise non-economic incentives, creativity and learning, for enrichment of the business context and improved access to IC flows (e.g., valuing learning about intangibles, contributing to knowledge about IC. Creating and sharing knowledge-conveying artefacts, like case studies; to accomplish collaborative projects; to create wealth for their territory and be recognised as innovators, etc.).
  • Operate a clearly defined and transparent selection process for new members (defined by cluster-specific rules of governance and interaction) that facilitates the creation of a desirable network, valuing cluster membership and attracting new members. This also assures current cluster members that new adherents have appropriate qualities regarding co-opetition, thus supporting the construction of the trust that is essential for cluster sustainability.8
  • Explore intellectual capital resources and flows, and how they can be beneficial to the SMEs in the cluster. This has been  found to promote the use of cooperative language within participating SMEs and in networking with competitors, clients, suppliers etc. (exploration of relational capital), resulting in real improvements in trust, motivation, communication and results.9
  • Design, run and provide virtual collaborative support for events in Accelerated Learning Environments (ALEs), including bonding, team-building and networking events, IC master classes, collaborative workshops and “spark sessions”. Through these events participants, working cooperatively, find creative syntheses, emergent contexts or new pathways enhancing IC, that they can share.10
  • Enable new collaborative ways of organizing11, making sense of otherwise intangible knowledge, and enriching context, enabling the participants to find their way toward new outcomes.12 Through this process, group norms and values and a sense of shared identity, founded on cluster membership are established. It will also radically increase the frequency, scope and depth of interactions between cluster members, which is fundamental for building long-term trust and cluster sustainability.13

 

The steps to an effective CROFT Implementation


Being platform-independent, CROFT virtual collaborative workspaces may, in theory, be implemented on a variety of collaborative software platforms. However, based on our research on CROFT implementation in the CADIC pilot clusters and elsewhere, we recommend the online collaborative software “ProjectPier” as the vehicle for implementation.  CROFT implementations in ProjectPier are offered (free of charge to CADIC Project Consortium members) as an online service, developed and maintained by CADIC RTD partner LSE. These ProjectPier implementations of CROFT are mounted on the CADIC server at the London Multimedia Lab. CROFT Project Implementation manuals are currently available, both for CADIC Cluster Facilitation teams, and for Cluster SME members as a whole.

In you decide to implement, for your SME Cluster, a CROFT safe virtual collaborative workspace yourself, using a collaborative software platform other than ProjectPier, then you must make sure that your chosen platform meets the requirements.

In the case that you decide that the CROFT virtual collaborative workspace for your  SME cluster will be implemented in ProjectPier, running on the CADIC server at LSE, the major activities that the Cluster Facilitation team will  need to carry out, as the administrators of this workspace, in effecting the initial set-up of their specific ProjectPier implementation for the cluster are as follows:


  • Define & describe the “Company” profile.
  • Review and if necessary add further content to the supplied “Cluster Facilitation Team Resources” project and the “SME CADIC Resources” project.
  • Customize the supplied “welcome” and “going further” templates; complete the structure of the “Welcome” project.
  • Create a “General Resources” project and populate its with the requite content for this implementation.
  • Set up the initial membership of the Company (members of the cluster who are validated to access the ProjectPier implementation) and set members’ permissions appropriately.


Details of the precise procedures involved are given in the CROFT ProjectPier Implementation Manual for CADIC Cluster Facilitation teams.

 

 


1 Porter, M. (1998). Clusters and the New Economics of Competition. Harvard Business Review, 77-90

Damaskopoulos, T., Gatautis, R., & Vitkauskaite, E. (2008). Extended and dynamic clustering of SMEs. Engineering Economics, Issue 1 (56), 11-21.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Good Business: Leadership, flow, and the making of meaning. New York: Viking.

Humphreys, P., & Jones, G. (2008). The Decision Hedgehog for Creative Decision Making. In F. Burstein, & C. Holsapple, Handbook of Decision Support Systems (pp. 723-744). Berlin: Springer.

Rocco, E. (1998). Trust breaks down in electronic contexts but can be repaired by some initial face-to-face contact, Conference on human factors in computing systems. New-York, NY: ACM Press.

6 Provan, K. G. & Human, S. E. (1999). Organisational learning and the role of the network broker in small-firm manufacturing networks. In: Grandori, A. (1999). Interfirm networks. Organisation and industrial competitiveness. Routledge: London.

Brown, J. S. & Duguid, P. (1991). Organisational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning and Innovation. Organisation Science, 2 (1) Special Issue, pp. 40-57.

8 Newell, S. & Swan, J. (2000). Trust and inter-organizational networking. Human Relations, 53(10): 1287–1328.

Provan, K. G. & Human, S. E. (1999). Organisational learning and the role of the network broksmall-firm manufacturing networks. In: Grandori, A. (1999). Interfirm networks. Organisation and industrial competitiveness. Routledge: London.

10 ALEs (also known as Flexible Leaning Environments and Collaborative Solutions Environments) integrate spaces, processes and event designs that facilitate innovation, creativity and communication, in inter-organizational contexts. They are configurable in a very flexible way to meet immediate group needs, task demands and local social and cultural conditions.

11 Humphreys, P. C. and Jones, G. A. (2006) The evolution of group support systems to enable collaborative authoring of outcomes, World Futures, 62, 1-30

12 Hardy, C., Phillips, N., & Lawrence, T. (2003). Resources, knowledge and influence: the organisational effects of interorganisational collaboration. Journal of Management Studies, 40 (2), pp. 323-347.

13 Nooteboom, B. (2004). Inter-firm collaboration, learning and networks. London: Routledge.