Tensions in collaborative innovation projects and higher-level learning

Elise Marcandella (European Center for Research in Financial Economics and Business Management (CEREFIGE), Université de Lorraine, Nancy, France and IUT Epinal-Hubert Curien, Université de Lorraine, Epinal, France)
Khoudia Guèye (European Center for Research in Financial Economics and Business Management (CEREFIGE), Université de Lorraine, Nancy, France)

The Learning Organization

ISSN: 0969-6474

Publication date: 14 May 2018



Ensuring collaboration between partners involved in a collaborative innovation project is a challenge for project managers. This paper aims to highlight how taking a high-level learning approach can represent a managerial lever. In addition, it analyzes the impact of learning tensions in a partnership context.


The paper focuses on an explorative, longitudinal and in-depth analysis of the Innovative Solutions in Urban Systems project via a qualitative single-case study. The research is inductive and based on data from the field rather than a deductive application of theory.


Collaborative innovation projects represent a high-level learning case. Activity theory is suited to studying the dynamics of learning in collaborative innovation projects. Tensions can fertilize the front-end of collaborative innovation projects.

Research limitations/implications

Because of the chosen research approach, the research results may be difficult to generalize. Therefore, researchers are encouraged to test the conceptual framework further.

Practical implications

This article provides a framework for managing tensions in collaborative innovation projects. The results provide also a process to implement all criteria of sustainable development in these projects.

Social implications

This article highlights to what extent collaborative relations can be developed between participants through a questionnaire with social responsibility attributes. The questionnaire allows to foster participants’ trust.


This approach is original because the authors consider that situations exist that, by definition, belong to “higher-order learning”. Through a case study, they propose a framework to manage this situation.



Marcandella, E. and Guèye, K. (2018), "Tensions in collaborative innovation projects and higher-level learning", The Learning Organization, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 248-259. https://doi.org/10.1108/TLO-06-2017-0066

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


Over the past five decades, interest in the concept of organizational learning and studies of the field have grown dramatically (Örtenblad, 2002; Argote, 2011; Easterby-Smith and Lyles, 2011). However, Visser (2007), Chiva et al. (2010) and Tosey et al. (2012) highlight conceptual confusion in the case of so-called “higher levels of learning”. They also consider this field as rich in conceptualizations, but rather poor in operationalization and empirical research.

To fill this gap, this article suggests studying a particular situation of high-level learning, i.e. the front-end of collaborative innovation projects (CIP). Executives involved in CIP are generally very skilled in their field. However, their tools are not adapted to the CIP context (Chiva et al., 2010). This approach is original because the researchers consider that situations exist that, by definition, belong to “higher levels of learning”. Through a case study, they propose a framework to manage this situation.

This paper draws on a qualitative research study in an innovation cluster. The study addresses a CIP that gathers several organizations to make a product emerge. This kind of project is becoming more and more common, which creates a challenge, as it requires specific management. In fact, a consortium featuring academic, public and industrial partners jointly finances, plans and executes a CIP (Davenport et al., 1998; Wu et al., 2017). Partners work on a common project and provide complementary resources and competencies to reach the project’s goals (Sommer et al., 2014) without, first, sharing a contractual relationship. Members of collaborating organizations are interdependent, but do not have a common culture and so have to learn how to work in this specific context. They are “relying on diverse experiences, resources, capabilities, and frames of reference often have competing interpretations of tasks, routines, and information” (Kleinsmann et al., 2010; Eriksson et al., 2016, p. 690). The importance of the front-end decision-making phase in securing a project’s long-term success is increasingly recognized (Samset and Volden, 2016). Previous studies consider that the front-end is the most troublesome and chaotic step of the innovation process. Kim and Wilemon (2002, p. 270) highlight the “unstructured, experimental, creativity” aspect of management methods at this stage. They emphasize that information for decision-making is qualitative, informal and approximate. These studies take into account the front-end challenges of project management, but they mostly neglect that human relations management is a key factor of success (Fan et al., 2014).

Nevertheless, to approach the management of the front-end stages of innovation from a theoretical point of view, researchers can rely on the concept of equivocality (Frishammar et al., 2011). Equivocality refers to multiple and conflicting interpretations of a goal, situation, or task (Daft et al., 1987; Weick, 1995). Eriksson et al. (2016) posit that:

[…] equivocality could be managed through knowledge search strategies that either provide refinement and selection (i.e. exploitative search) or variation and synthesis (i.e. explorative search) of diverse interpretations of tasks and knowledge.

The authors highlight that explorative search strategy tend to mitigate the negative effects of equivocality when managing a high level of equivocality. This approach is a “slower learning process” (than an exploitative approach) (Miller et al., 2006) that “allows knowledge to be organized more comprehensively by promoting diverse viewpoint and considerations” (Eriksson et al., 2016, p. 695).

Following the work of Eriksson et al. (2016), and based on the observations of researchers in the field, front-end stages of CIPs can be defined as situations of strong equivocality in which management relies on a slow learning process. To address this learning process in an equivocal situation, researchers mobilize activity theory (AT). AT is relevant here, as it considers interorganizational tensions linked to equivocality as the driving force of “expansive learning”. Indeed, according to Engeström (2001, p. 139), expansive learning and higher-level learning are linked:

The theory of expansive learning develops Bateson’s idea into a systematic framework. Learning III is seen as learning activity which has its own typical actions and tools […]. The object of expansive learning activity is the entire activity system in which the learners are engaged. Expansive learning activity produces culturally new patterns of activity. Expansive learning at work produces new forms of work activity.

Based on a case study (Innovative Solutions in Urban Systems [ISUS] – a pseudonym), the researchers highlight that equivocality is linked to AT. AT can be used to represent the way members of the consortium work in the front-end stages and the extent to which their cultural-historical activity collides with others’ cultural-historical activity creating some tensions. These tensions are a sign of a high level of equivocality. Equivocality requires new management skills. With the help of researchers who propose management tools to improve the collaboration, dynamics of learning take place in ISUS. Thus, members of the consortium discover that they can learn by doing.

The paper begins with a brief literature review of the front-end management of CIPs, equivocality and the AT applied to study this work situation. It then presents a detailed description of the case (methodology and results). It concludes by proposing a conceptual framework based on higher-level learning (expansive learning) and recommendations for management practice, along with implications for future search.

Activity theory to highlight equivocality in the collaborative innovation projects

The collaboration aspect of a CIP represents a new work situation for partners (Harkema, 2003; Vom Brocke and Lippe, 2015). To deal with this new situation subject to equivocality, partners must learn to collaborate.

Equivocality is defined as “divergent interpretations and understandings of tasks and knowledge” (Eriksson et al., 2016, p. 691). These authors highlight that:

[…] equivocality can be sensed or observed when team members are unable to interpret ideas and information effectively in order to undertake their tasks and combine different mental models and knowledge sets » (Eriksson et al., 2016, p. 701).

In the front-end stages of CIP studied in this article, the innovation consortium members have to experiment new forms of working and try to adjust their cultures, rules and institutions. This process is “slow”, as partners cannot rely on existing rules; they have to create new ones and, by doing so, manage “equivocality” at the same time.

To help “project managers to be aware of the signs of equivocality and to implement appropriate search strategies to manage” (Eriksson et al., 2016, p. 701), this article links equivocality with AT. This theory considerers that equivocality through tensions can be positive and stimulate partners, as they are the starting point of expansive learning and can contribute to the project’s performance, especially in the front-end stages. This sort of “explorative search” creates an opportunity to bring about expansive learning, which is considered by Engeström as a “higher level learning”.

This paper focuses on AT according to Engeström (1987, 2001). Activity is a collective system insofar as several participants with their own cultural-historical background interact (see triangles on Figure 1, Figure 2). These participants use conceptual and material cultural artifacts that mediate a “human activity”. They bring their own context through the division of labor, community and rules. Rules consist of conventions and practices specific to an activity system. The subject belongs to a community that influences him and shares his motivation. There are as many communities as organizations involved in the CIP, and so just as many ways to consider the CIP. The division of labor is different from one system to the next, which therefore brings complexity when several systems (activities) interact (Figure 1). These interactions generate equivocality, or tensions that “can only be identified through their manifestations” (Engeström and Sannino, 2011, p. 369). These tensions can be a driving force of change when supported by expansive learning.

AT allows researchers to address the management of the front-end of CIP as an interorganizational learning case (Engeström, 2001). From the “equivocality”, partners can learn by trying to deal with “the churn” (Miterev et al., 2016). Engeström (2001, p. 139) proposed to use the theory of expansive learning to study this complex situation:

The object of expansive learning activity is the entire activity system in which the learners are engaged. Expansive learning activity produces culturally new patterns of activity. Expansive learning at work produces new forms of work activity.

This article proposes some tools to contribute to a high-level of learning defined by Fiol and Lyles (1985, p. 810) as “the development of complex rules and associations regarding new actions”.

The presentation of the ISUS case (a pseudonym) highlights the cultural-historical background of partners. This CIP shows to what extent an equivocal situation manifested through the tensions occurring during the front-end phase can lead organizations to develop an “expansive learning” that refers to a higher level of learning.

A case study: the ISUS project


Characteristics of ISUS.

The ISUS project illustrates an integrated management approach on the scale of an urban community. Its role is to design and implement a plan to reduce micro-pollutant emissions. The project involves nine organizations represented by 17 participants (subjects). Participants do not usually work together; however, their relationships are interdependent in the ISUS project. Table I presents their motivations (objects).

The focus here is on the tensions between four activity systems (shown in italics in Table I).

Design and credibility.

The cluster used one researcher for three years to work as “project manager in sustainable development”. The mission of this researcher was divided between operational and research activities. In collaboration with the research team, the researcher supported “technical” project managers by studying events in relation to the CIP and by constructing tools with them to improve the collaborative innovation process. This article focuses on an explorative, longitudinal and in-depth analysis of the ISUS project via a qualitative single-case study (Yin, 1994, 2003). Dooley (2002, p. 337) highlights that “case studies can also be used for both theory testing or theory building”. The approach is based on “grounded theory” (Glaser and Strauss, 2017), i.e. inductive and based on data from the field rather than a deductive application of theory. After iterations between observations and theories, AT is used to represent what was observed during the ISUS project. In this way, the initial design is transformed.

Concerning the credibility of grounded theory, the reader can refer to Glaser and Strauss (2017, p. 223). These authors explain that:

[…] a field worker knows that he knows, not only because he has been in the field and because he has carefully discovered hypotheses, but also because “in his bones” he feels the worth of his final analysis.

Moreover, to assure the credibility of the results (or the capacity to represent what occurred around the CIP), researchers carried out a number of “reflexive dialogues” with practitioners on the field and other researchers (i.e. with their research team and more broadly with the scientific community).

Data collection.

The data collection process started with interviews with members of the cluster. The aim was to determine their reasons for joining the cluster and their attitudes to innovation. These initial interviews revealed the first tensions among some members. The research then gradually moved the focus to the front-end of CIPs.

Qualitative data were collected from project managers with experience of front-end innovation activities. During the five semi-structured interviews with project managers, researchers focused on eight projects. Parallel to the interviews with project managers, they used semi-structured interviews (15) to collect qualitative data from participants (project members) directly involved in the ISUS project. These interviews provided information about front-end activities, participants’ motivations and their expected project outcomes.

Researchers also made participative observations. Consistent with their approach, they directly observed the way participants tried to work together during meetings in which tensions were clearly visible. In addition, they initiated informal discussions, several group meetings and seminars with both project managers and participants. They also studied different reports produced by the cluster and performed triangulations to substantiate the characterization of different relations and the way project managers support collaboration.

These various types of data collection enabled researchers to represent activity systems in the ISUS project.

Dynamics of learning through tensions

Figure 1 presents the four activity systems (a, b, c and d) in which the observed tensions threatened the continuation of the project. Triangles are used here because the researchers refer to the frame of AT (Engeström, 1987), which supports that the subject is not only a unit that realizes its object thanks to artifacts. The subject–artifacts–object trio is enriched at its base (community, rules, division of labor), and this base establishes a collective activity.

Tensions (T) arise when activity systems that do not share the same purpose collide. They occur during collective activity and are manifested as follows: “the current project is different from the initial one and we wonder if we will keep on working with other participants”, “nobody will get the subsidies requested”, “we do not have the same definition of productivity and that works against the project”; “you need us to integrate specific partners into the project, but you do not give us the necessary financial resources”; “a car cannot move when several drivers have their hand on the gearbox”, etc.

These tensions impact the project’s orientations. In the ISUS project, they can potentially generate negative outcomes and stop the project or “stimulate participants and create coordination challenges”.

Tensions between the lead representative of the urban community and the technical director of the engineering office (Tab) were critical and even threatened the continuation of the ISUS project. First, the lead representative of the urban community behaved in an “authoritarian” manner that was incompatible with CIPs. Within the CIP, he tended to reproduce his historical role of prescriber in his own domain. Moreover, the technical director refused to submit to the orders of the urban community, as he made a distinction between the CIP context and traditional tender in public procurement. In the CIP context, the cluster’s project manager channeled these tensions through his/her role as mediator. A meeting with two conflicting parties (urban community and engineering office) brought an opportunity for the cluster to initiate a discussion on future collaboration arrangements in accordance with the contributions of every ISUS project stakeholder.

Tensions (Tbc) arising from differences in expectations between the manager of a VSE and the technical director of an engineering office (knowledge vs marketable tool) also produced positive effects. These tensions obliged partners to rethink their “collaborative capacity” beyond the CIP. Thus, partners were obliged to work together and discuss the CIP’s orientation in more depth, considering each participant’s motivations. Tensions also resulted in participants committing to new operating rules according to a charter drafted for this purpose.

Tensions (Tad) between two leads (urban community vs chamber of commerce) sprang from misunderstandings related to the drop-in resources initially allocated. There was no information as to why resources were reduced. The chamber of commerce lead viewed it as a lack of due consideration and threatened to withdraw from the project. In this context, the project manager’s role consisted in analyzing the source of tensions and above all resolving them. This process is explained in more detail below.

Researchers then analyzed tensions in depth. The CIP participants overcame tensions thanks to the project manager’s support and the joint construction of tools. The different steps are described below:

Step 1: Interactions between researchers and the project manager about the tensions observed.

The front-end of the ISUS project featured equivocality, i.e. tensions between the members of the project. As equivocality had generated several failures in former projects, the challenge was to mitigate its negative effects in ISUS. Thus, the project manager and researchers concluded that managing relationships was a way to manage equivocality and that this mission required new tools.

Step 2: Co-constructing a questionnaire with social responsibility attributes.

This co-construction confirms the “slow learning process” (Eriksson et al., 2016). In the absence of certainty about its impacts, the solution of a questionnaire emerged from interactions between the project manager and the researchers. This questionnaire was useful to explain the different interpretations and objectives of the project (Guèye and Marcandella, 2016). From the conflicting expectations raised by the questionnaire, it was possible to formalize and compare the different representations.

Step 3: Analysis of data from the questionnaire.

All data collected from the questionnaire were compiled for discussion at the last participants’ meeting. The questionnaire made clear the implications of an innovation project. It stressed the need for executives to be aware of the transformation of their initial roles (Chiva et al., 2010).

Step 4: Dynamics of learning.

The questionnaire resulted in the emergence of further tensions. It also enabled several viewpoints to be compared. As a result, ISUS project members learned to talk directly to each other and no longer systematically referred to the project manager as an intermediary.

Furthermore, the questionnaire generated innovative solutions to help partners overcome tensions:

  • a charter that defines rules of good collaboration between members, reviewed periodically;

  • collaboration between decision-makers and technicians from the front-end of the project, to avoid gaps because of division of labor; and

  • workshops and training sessions organized within the cluster about CIP requirements.

Such tools emerge dynamically during a project. Forged by all stakeholders, they feed into the support offered by the project manager, which he/she in turn adapts to stakeholders’ shifting demands.

The following comment by the ISUS project manager shows that the questionnaire was positive and allowed access to learning:

[…] We co-designed a common project on that basis [of the questionnaire] […]. What cemented the consortium and allowed it to move forward was the common drive to accomplish the project and the shared ambition to come up with a sustainable development project. This extra dimension meant that decisions could be reached through compromise and mutual understanding.

Results and discussion

Conceptual framework: from equivocality to higher level learning

The conceptual framework proposed below (Figure 2) presents the results of the investigations based on the grounded theory approach.

As suggested by Glaser and Strauss (2017, p. 225):

[…] by the close of his investigation, the researcher’s conviction about his own theory will be hard to shake […]. This conviction does not mean that his analysis is the only plausible one that could be based on his data, but only that he has a great confidence in its credibility.

The previous discussion suggests that managing front-end innovation of CIP is complex. To facilitate the representation of this complexity and improve the process of collaborative innovation, this paper suggests a conceptual framework based on three main points (Figure 2):

  1. the value of using AT to represent different stakeholders;

  2. the importance of identifying equivocality (tensions) that plays a leading role in the dynamics of the project; and

  3. the need to create specific management tools to manage this equivocality.

The conceptual framework and analysis have a number of research and managerial implications.

How high-level learning contributes to CIP and vice versa

From a theoretical perspective, the conceptual framework illustrates the particular characteristics of the management of human relations during the front-end of innovation. Researchers stress that high-level of learning, defined by Fiol and Lyles (1985, p. 810) as “the development of complex rules and associations regarding new actions”, is a challenge in the front-end of CIP. The representation in this paper characterizes this front-end as an “inter-organizational object” (Engeström, 2005) that refers to AT. This theory is consistent with the front-end innovation context for three reasons:

  1. AT focuses on activity.

  2. AT considers that tensions are natural around an “inter-organizational object”.

  3. AT considers tensions as a motor for expansive learning.

Thus, studying different relations through activity systems and then observing equivocality (tensions) can lead to a new theoretical framework to manage a situation of equivocality.

The contribution of this article lies in the use of AT in a context where few studies refer to it. AT is an appropriate framework for studying front-end innovation and more specifically human relations management at this stage. It investigates the object of collaboration, i.e. the CIP. It also focuses on tensions that emerge at the borders of the organizations involved. This approach is made possible by the specific relationship that each cluster project manager has with each organization involved. This “mediator” can thus perceive and investigate the “equivocality” specific to such non-contractual stages. Dynamics of learning appear from the moment when project managers and project members of the cluster become aware of the limitations of their own tools. This awareness enables both project managers and researchers to co-construct new management tools to improve collaboration and then slowly invite partners into this learning process. By considering tensions and introducing artefacts, CIP can become a collectively shared activity and an opportunity for “expansive learning” (Engeström, 2001).

From a practical perspective, the research aims to provide a framework for managers. The researchers attempted to show the connection between empirical research and higher levels of learning. The ISUS case study provides a concrete illustration of an equivocal situation, its impacts on the CIP, and the role played by project managers in overcoming them. From the moment an artifact intervened in the complex context (CIP) and led the partners to change their way of working, a high-level of learning was achieved.

The research also helps to manage the process of value co-creation. One project manager’s feedback testifies to the usefulness of the questionnaire:

The way [the leader – head of department of the urban community] asks questions after completing the questionnaire shows the acceptance about the ISUS project. He really thinks about it and tries to see the outcomes. For him, [Questions] are not simple indicators to be discussed quickly and summed up in five minutes. […] These indicators are unprecedented in a project like this, and it is really crucial to see how they are applied over a long period.

The team of cluster leaders continues to use the questionnaire, adapting it to different CIPs. The researchers also obtained feedback after the certification of the ISUS project. Partners still use the charter of good governance. They focus on certain items, such as a check-list to maintain dynamics in the consortium. The researchers show that during the learning process, equivocality, i.e. tensions, is overcome thanks to the introduction of an artifact (the questionnaire). Referring to the expansive learning cycle (Engeström, 2001), researchers can consider that members of the consortium adopted a new practice of collaborative work, as they admitted the usefulness of the questionnaire and transformed it into a charter of good governance that will follow the evolution of the ISUS project.

From the perspective of managing a “high-level learning” situation (e.g. CIPs), AT represents a real value-added to develop constructive relationships.

Limitations and research implications

First, the conceptual framework was constructed from the researchers’ experience of a cluster and their knowledge of AT. It was mainly tested on the CIP ISUS. The next step is to refine this conceptual framework through iteration, i.e. repeated application to other projects. Secondly, this article highlights the limitations of AT. Indeed, AT makes it possible to understand interrelations among project members (consortium) and the tensions arising from these interrelations. However, it proposes no solutions. AT suggests using mediating elements (artefacts) to overcome tensions and trigger the learning dynamics necessary for the project’s dynamics, but it does not enlighten the researcher as to exactly what these learning dynamics are. Thus, future research will continue to study AT and specifically the suggested levers that encourage the dynamics of expansive learning. Investigations on the field identified social responsibility as a lever for overcoming tensions.

While this paper already identifies several potential opportunities for using AT in a CIP context, it would be useful for management sciences and learning organizations to work together to generate operative frameworks based on high-level learning. This article has focused on conceiving management tools. However, learning is an important side of CIPs. Thus, specialists in high-level learning could provide valuable input to jointly construct suitable management tools.


Four activity systems showing tensions

Figure 1.

Four activity systems showing tensions

Conceptual framework for managing the front-end innovation stage of a CIP

Figure 2.

Conceptual framework for managing the front-end innovation stage of a CIP

Organizations, subjects and objects in the ISUS project

Organizations Subjects involved Objects (motivation of activity)
Urban community Head of department
two other participants
Assists in implementing change in practices, enhances the “acceptability” of the project
Midsize engineering office Technical director Designs software for decision-making
Very small enterprise Manager Promotes the implementation and monitoring of a wastewater agreement
Chamber of commerce Head of environmental department Contributes concrete solutions for reducing pollutants in trades
Industrial and Business Public Establishment (IBPE) three participants Selects and approves metrological systems, provides support for multi-criteria decision
Public Research Laboratory (PRL 1) two researchers Researches storm water, monitors tests in a river
Public Research Laboratory – Engineering School (PRL 2) two researchers Makes a civil society diagnosis: representation, behavior analysis
Small and medium-sized enterprise (SME 1) two participants Diagnoses and monitors the effectiveness of demonstrators
Small and medium-sized enterprise (SME 2) two participants Diagnoses and monitors the effectiveness of demonstrators


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The authors would like to thank the competitiveness cluster and ANRT for supporting this research. The cluster employed researchers for three years to work as “Project Managers in Sustainable Development”. Their mission was divided between operational and research activities.

This paper forms part of a special section “Levels of learning: hither and whither”, guest edited by Max Visser, Ricardo Chiva and Paul Tosey.

Corresponding author

Elise Marcandella can be contacted at: elise.marcandella@univ-lorraine.fr

About the authors

Elise Marcandella is a Researcher at the CEREFIGE (Centre Européen de Recherche en Économie Financière et Gestion des Entreprises), a laboratory of Lorraine-University (France). Her research interests include the development of formalisms and tools allowing the integration of sustainable development concept in the early phases of an innovative process.

Khoudia Guèye is an Assistant Professor in Management Sciences at Lorraine University/CEREFIGE. Her research concerns mechanisms of inter-organizational collaboration in the context of French clusters. With project managers in a French cluster, she conceived management tools to improve human relations, in consistent with sustainable development.