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External collaboration in complex situations: effective when combined with strong internal integration

Date:14 December 2022
Mitchell van den Adel (left), Dirk Pieter van Donk and Thom de Vries
Mitchell van den Adel (left), Dirk Pieter van Donk and Thom de Vries

Teams perform better when they collaborate and actively share information with other external teams outside their own organization. External collaboration enables teams to share best-practices and get access to original (external) ideas that can lead to creative solutions and innovation. This is primarily important when teams work on complex projects or deal with complex situations. At the same time, it is very difficult to organize external collaboration well when the teams involved deal with complex work situations. During such complex situations, team members are generally very busy, which puts the external collaboration under pressure. This could lead to teams not paying enough attention to external collaboration or not having time for it altogether, regardless of how important it might be. An important question is thus how teams can effectively organize external collaboration in complex (work) situations. Mitchell van den Adel, Thom de Vries, and Dirk Pieter van Donk examined this issue. In this blog article, they will give a summary of the most important findings.

Supply Chain Management simulation

Van den Adel, De Vries and Van Donk’s research uses the Supply Chain Management simulation that is part of a course within the MSc Supply Chain Management (SCM) of the Faculty of Economics and Business. In this simulation, the SCM master's students work in several 4-person interdisciplinary teams or "cross-functional teams," each consisting of a Vice President Operations, Vice President Sales, Vice President Supply Chain and Vice President Purchasing. These cross-functional teams represent the top management of various food manufacturers during six simulation rounds. During the simulation, the cross-functional teams are tasked with managing the operations of their food manufacturer in such a way that the profitability of the company can be increased. An important detail is that the cross-functional teams have to deal with various disruptions in their production and supply chain during the simulation. Suppliers are raided, employees of warehouses go on strike, and natural disasters can delay deliveries. The cross-functional teams need to react fast and find a quick and efficient way to deal with these disruptions, to prevent the profitability of their business from plummeting. The researchers note: “In this study, we looked at how teams can use external collaboration to mitigate the impact of these disruptions on the profitability of their businesses. We have extensively monitored all participating teams, through surveys, data from the simulations and observations. In total, we collected data from 80 4-person teams that completed 6 simulation rounds.”

The researchers’ results show how cross-functional teams can use external collaboration to minimize the impact of disruptions. “We find a direct relationship between external collaboration of a cross-functional team and the profitability of the company which is managed by this team in the simulation. At the same time, we find that external collaboration comes under pressure when a cross-functional team has to deal with a very complex situation in their supply chain in the simulation (with many disrupted suppliers, production facilities, etc.)”, they explain.

Internal Integration

In such a "vulnerable" supply chain, the researchers find that external collaboration of a cross-functional team is often no longer sufficient to minimize the effects of disruptions. In other words, the positive effect of external cooperation seems to have disappeared. Fortunately, this is not the case for all cross-functional teams in the simulation. “We see that teams that combine external collaboration with "internal integration" within the team continue to benefit from external collaboration, even when they have to deal with a highly vulnerable supply chain. It seems that internal integration makes it possible for cross-functional teams to collaborate effectively externally, even in complex and challenging work situations.” Other research shows that internal integration can be promoted by scheduling regular work meetings within the team between team members, by building a "dense" information network within the team, or by appointing information brokers (so-called liaisons) within the team.

All in all, Van den Adel, De Vries, and Van Donk’s research once again shows the benefits of external collaboration, but at the same time warns that it is not always easy to realize these benefits in a complex work situation. During complex work, teams need to combine external collaboration with strong internal integration. This finding is in line with previous theoretical research that highlights the importance of aligning the interface (manner and degree of external cooperation) with the so-called intraface of a company (manner and degree of internal cooperation) in order to achieve optimal results.

Mitchell van den Adel obtained his PhD in Supply Chain Management at the Department of Operations early 2022. His research focuses on the role of collaboration in helping teams and organizations deal with disruptions to their operations. Mitchell is currently employed as Supply Chain Manager at Royal Koopmans in Leeuwarden.

Thom de Vries is Associate Professor at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen. He conducts research into collaboration within and between teams.

Dirk Pieter van Donk is Professor of Operations Management at the Department Operations at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen. His research focuses on supply chain integration and supply chain resilience.


De Vries TA, van der Vegt GS, Bunderson JS, Walter F, Essens PJMD. Managing boundaries in multiteam structures: From parochialism to integrated pluralism. Organ Sci. 2021.

Van den Adel, MJ, TA de Vries, DP van Donk, Improving cross-functional teams’ effectiveness during supply chain disruptions: The importance of information scouting and internal integration. Supply Chain Management, DOI: 10.1108/SCM-06-2022-0243 (2022)

Questions? Please contact Thom de Vries.