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Partner Choice in Emergency Management Collaboration

Scott E. Robinson Ph.D. Bush School of Government and Public Service Texas A&M University

DRAFT: Please Do Not Quote Without The Author’s Permission

April 20, 2010


Successful emergency planning and response requires the cooper- ation of a broad array of partners. The literature on collaboration and social networks provided conflicting predictions about how orga- nizations choose partners. One tradition focused on the powerful role of similarity (or homophily) as predicting partner choices (Lazarsfeld & Merton. 1954, McPherson & Cook. 2001). A contrasting tradition argued that rational organizations will choose partners both unlike themselves and unlike their other partners to ensure that each collab- oration provides access to unique resources (Burt 1995, Burt 2005). This article starts with the question of how an organization whose primary responsibilities are not focused on emergency management choose partners when they respond to and prepare for emergencies. Using a survey of school districts in Texas immediately following Hur- ricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the article assess the priority of partner choice. The results indicate that school districts choose part- ners largely on the basis of strategic difference though there is some evidence of homophily.


1 Introduction

Descriptions of collaborative public management and the emergence of policy networks have become a prominent component of policy research (e.g. Rhodes 1997, Adam & Kriesi 2007). While the existence of such networks is hardly news to people who have been studying policy implementation, research into the dynamics and processes involved in these policy networks has recently opened a number of new research questions to investigation (Robinson 2007). Researchers have now begun to differentiate types of networks (Agranoff 2007), the impact networking behaviors on policy outcomes(Provan & Milward 1995, Meier & O’Toole 2001), and the administration management skill set needed within policy networks (McGuire 2002, Koppenjan & Klijn 2004). This article focuses attention on a relatively understudied question within policy network research: why does a collaborative manager choose the part- ners she or he does? Once managers become aware of the possibility of seeking resources (of various kinds ranging from financial resources to in- formation) it also becomes clear that there are many options for potential partnerships. It is not a matter of whether there are partners in the envi- ronment. Now it is a question of which of the many options will most help the collaborative organization. Given that collaboration is a costly activity (Burt 1995, Burt 2005), one starts to consider the costs and benefits of each potential partnership. While there is little guidance within the collaborative public management literature on the choice of partners, there are theories of individual social networks that provide some initial guidance (Lazarsfeld & Merton. 1954, McPherson & Cook. 2001). The article is organized as follows. Section 2 will provide a general model of partner choice followed by a review of issues related to why organizations may choose one partner rather than others. Section 3 will describe data on school district emergency management partnerships following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that are useful for identifying patterns of partner choice along with operationalized predictions. Using these data, Section 4 presents a test of these predictions. Finally, Section 5 gives the conclusions.

2 The Dynamics of Partner Choice

Advice about collaboration and the construction of policy networks tends to be of a general nature. There are many books and studies available to tell


people that collaboration will help solve problems ranging from budgetary pressures to better information about policy problems. Beyond the general advice that collaboration can be helpful, there is not much specific advice about with whom exactly an organization should partner. This lacuna in the literature is a by-product of an often implicit assumption that the costs of collaborative partnership are low or non-existent. It is only when one considers collaboration as a costly activity, and therefore creates an implied collaboration budget, that one stops to consider whether one should prior- itize a specific partnership over others. This section of the article builds a general model of partner choice that acknowledges the cost of collaboration and incorporates the sorts of factors that may be relevant to the sequential choice of partnerships.

2.1 A General Model of Partner Choice

Reading the literature on collaborative public management one seldom sees any reference to the costs of collaboration. One is left with the triumphal- ist conclusion that collaboration is a magical strategy that managers have available to solve all sorts of problems. In fact, one may quickly wonder why managers who are not collaborating extensively are not doing so. Any ab- sence of collaboration is seen as a lack of imagination or energy on the part of the manager. However, a simple explanation is available. Collaboration is difficult and costly. Partnerships involve investments of time (and sometimes other re- sources). When one is collaborating, one is not managing the day-to-day internal operations of an organization. Furthermore, a manager only has so many hours in the day to collaborate with other organizations (in addition to all of the internal demands on his or her time). Every partnership consumes some of these scarce resources. The acknowledgment of the costs of col- laboration and the scarce resources that managers consume in collaborating leads to the need for managers to budget her or his time spent collaborat- ing (Burt 1995, Burt 2005). Alternatively stated, a manager has to target resources to maximize collaborative advantage without being drawn into ex- pensive, but inefficient, partnerships (Huxham & Vangen 2005). In simple terms, a manager (of organization i) will partner with an orga- nization (j) where the expected utility of the partnership exceeds the costs of the collaboration (in terms of time and other resource investment). The model assumes that the costs and the benefits of any relation are specific to


the identity of each partner.

Eu(r i,j ) > c i,j

The available theory to specify the expected utility of partnership r be- tween organizations i and j is sparse. As a result, it is difficult to specify the exact content of that component of the equation. Instead of a fully speci- fied model, I propose three sets of factors that could influence the utility of the partnership. First, there are characteristics of each source organization

(β i ) that may make collaboration with any other partners either easier or more difficult. Examples of such characteristics could include the creation of boundary spanning components of the organization (Thompson 2003 (1967)) or slack resources within the organization. Second, there are characteristics of the partner organization (γ i )that can similarly make partnership with

them more or less costly.

Finally, there are characteristics of the relation

between the two actors (δ i,j )that can make their specific partnership more or less valuable. For example, the specific nature of the partnership (formal or informal, possibly by degrees) or the relative similarity of dissimilarity of the two organizations can make the partnership more or less valuable. It will be on this last possibility that this article will focus.


Eu(r i,j ) = f(β i + γ j + δ i,j )


A partnership is efficient if the expected value of the partnership minus the costs of that relationship are greater than zero. One should partner if:


Alternatively, we expect partnerships where the benefits are larger than the costs. One should partner if:

f(β i + γ j + δ i,j ) c i,j > 0

f(β i + γ j + δ i,j ) > c i,j

The complexity of the expected value of collaborative partnership should make it obvious that trying to study each component simultaneously would be a poor place start. In the absence of well-developed theory to help fill in the various components of utility function, significant exploratory work is needed to build a foundation for a fuller model of partner choice. This article then simplifies the model by ignoring characteristics of the


initial actor (β i )and the potential partners (γ i ), and only looking at specific


characteristics of the partnership itself (δ i,j ). article is:

The resulting model for this


For organizations that have scarce resources to devote to collaboration,

it is not enough to know that a partnership will be worth the cost. Instead,

one will want to prioritize partnerships that will generate more utility than other potential partnerships. For example, if you can only choose one partner (r i,j ), you will want to choose the partner with the largest utility net of the costs rather than all other potential partners (r i,j ).

f(δ i,j ) > c i,j


We should expect that organizations that only partner with one organi-

f(δ i,j ) c i,j > f(δ i,j ) c i,j

zation will choose that organization from whom they have the most to gain

in partnership. If you can choose two organizations, you would expect the

two most valuable (net of the costs) partnerships. The order of partnership can help provide some insight into the relative value of different partners. I strongly encourage research into the importance of other components of the fully general model (equation 4), but illustrate the model here by focusing only on these limited components (equation 5). In the following subsections, the article will discuss two traditions from the theory of social networks that generate expectations about how joint characteristics shape the probability of observing a collaboration between two parties.

2.2 The Homophily Principle

A time-honored tradition within the sociological analysis of social networks

focused on the propensity of actors to seek relations with other actors who are like them in important ways. This literature reinforced the folk wisdom that “birds of a feather flock together”. The logic of such partnerships is that actors who are similar to each often share values and modes of com- munication. Since we are more likely to meet people who are like us (due to geographical sorting or even similarity of the needs that motivate us to venture out among other people), we are more likely to create relationships with people who are like us in key ways. It may also be the case that any collaboration with a similar partner is easier to sustain than would be the


case if partners had to communicate across a language barrier or mediate conflicts over fundamental values. In terms of the general theory of partner choice elaborated in 2, the homophily principle suggests that costs of any partnership (c i,j ) are reduced by similarity between the actors. These theories of homophily generate a simple proposition for partner selection in the process of building policy networks.

Organizations will seek partnerships that are like them in ways impor- tant to a specific policy domain.

2.3 Structural Holes

The aphorism “opposites attract” provides a contrasting set of predictions. Rather than predicting that people seek people who are like them in key ways, this aphorism predicts that people will seek partners unlike them in important ways. The logic of such partnerships is that differences tend to compensate for each other. In inter-personal relations, scholars may seek co- authors that possess different strengths so that the partnership can jointly produce research of higher quality than either party could have done inde- pendently. Compensatory strategies create heterogeneous networks of actors. The advantage of partnering with organizations unlike oneself is they key to Ronald Burt’s theory of structural holes (1995; 2007). Burt’s focus was on the development of networks between private, for-profit organizations. He wanted to build a theory of strategic partnership with which one could better assess the potential benefit of various proposed partnerships. He noted that a partnership could be redundant. If two potential research partners possess exactly the same skill set, adding the second identical partner does not add new skills to the network. If there were costs associated with adding the second researcher with the identical skill set, it may not be advantageous to do so. Burt used the term “structural hole” to describe the advantage created by partnering with organizations who could contribute uniquely to the net- work. The unique contribution becomes of a source of leverage to the unique actor. An organization that is the only provider of a particular resource within a network has an advantage over organizations within the network that all provide the same resource. The absence of connections to people with similar unique contributions to the network are the “structural holes”


that inspire the title for Burt’s original text (1995). Organizations that want to maintain power will maintain the structural holes around them while or- ganizations that seek partnerships may want to identify partners who possess these unique resources. In terms of the general theory of partner choice elaborated in section 2, the structural holes principle suggests that the benefits of any partnership

(δ i,j ) are reduced by similarity between the actors. The theory of structural holes generates a simple proposition for partner selection in building policy networks.

Organizations will seek partners that are unlike them in ways important to a specific policy domain.

3 Data and Models

The previous section reviewed literature on social networks to generate propo- sitions related to partner choice in policy networks. Two traditions generated opposite expectations about the propensity of actors to partner with others like or unlike themselves. This set of contrasting expectations provides a rich opportunity for empirical research. In practice, do organizations tend to partner with actors like or unlike themselves? The key to operationalizing any hypothesis motivated to address this question is identifying the types of differences that are relevant in a particular case. This article will provide a specific context in the form of emergency man- agement networks following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The following section will provide a description of the data followed by a section localizing the previous propositions to the context of emergency management.



In the weeks following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Fall of 2005, school districts across Texas struggled to provide services to hundreds of thousands of students who had either been displaced within the state or entered the state fleeing the devastation in other states. School districts, not often focusing on emergency response, found themselves with a variety of questions about how to provide services for these students. As a result, many school districts sought help from other organizations. From some organizations they sought financial resources; from others they sought information.


The uncertainty in the period immediately following the hurricanes pro- vided an opportunity to study partner selection among these school districts. To whom did these districts turn for assistance? With the support of the National Science Foundation 1 , we sent a survey to every K-12 school district in Texas within weeks of Hurricane Katrina (with Hurricane Rita occurring in this gap). As part of the survey, we asked each school superintendent to identify the sorts of organizations with whom they collaborated in the after- math of the hurricanes. Superintendents could choose among six different types of organizations: police, fire, and first responder organizations; non- profit and relief organizations; community and religious organizations; other school districts; government relief and welfare organizations; and business organizations. For each actors, superintendents could report whether they collaborated with this group. The survey of approximately 1200 school dis- tricts in Texas ended after three waves of self-administrated mail instruments for a response rate of approximately 60%. 2

3.2 Assessment of Partner Choice

The data described in the previous section provide opportunities to test the propositions generated in section 2. The survey’s questions about the type of organizations with which district’s partnered provides a basis on which to test the propositions. To the extent that the homophily principle is correct, we would expect that school districts are more likely to partner with other school districts than with non-education organizations. This leads to the following hypothesis.

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school districts were more likely to report collaborating with other school districts than other types of organizations.

To the extent that school districts follow a structural holes approach to partner selection, we would expect school districts to seek partnerships with partners with different competencies than they have internally. Without

1 The survey and the subsequent analysis were supported by NSF CMMI-0553124 and


2 Assesment of the comparability of respondents to non-responding districts shows that responders are slightly larger than non-responders, but not by a substantively large amount.


theory (or even much in the way of empirical observation) to guide a prior- itization of partner selection among the non-school district organizations, I propose instead the following general hypothesis.

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school districts were more likely to report collaborating with types of organizations other than school districts.

In addition to the relative frequency of partner selection, equation 6 offers insight into the order of selection of partners. We would expect that when organizations choices are constrained that the selection they make will reveal preferences about each partnership. When a district can only select one partner, they will select the partner with the highest expected benefit (net of the costs of the partnership). When a district can select all but one of the potential partners, they will like leave out only the partner with the lowest expected net benefit. Based on the homophily and structural holes propositions in section 2 I propose the following:

(Homophily A) In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school districts will report collaborating with other school districts when they may only choose one partner.

(Homophily B) In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school districts will not report collaborating with other organizations unless they have also reported collaborating with school districts.

(Structural Holes A) In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school districts will report collaborating with types of partners other school districts when they may only choose one partner.

(Homophily B) In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school districts will not report collaborating with other school districts unless they have also reported collaborating with the other organization types.



The following series of tables present the school districts’ reported collabo- rative partnerships with various organization types. Overall, we can initially see the diversity of partner types and their relative frequencies (see Table


Organization Type

Percent Partnerships

Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations


Local Community Religous Organizations


Other School Districts


Nonprofit Relief Organizations


Government Relief and Welfare Organizations


Business Organizations



Table 1: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type

1). The overall evidence provides mixed support for both the homophily and structural hole strategies. The most frequently reported partnership is with Police, Fire, and First Responder organizations. This is definitely an orga- nization type that is different than the school districts in a variety of ways and offers distinctive competencies. The propensity of partner with these or- ganizations indicates a structural hole strategy among the superintendents. The third most commonly reported partner were other school districts - the partner type most like the school districts themselves. This relatively high ranking represents a homophilic tendency. The second most common part- ner was local community relief organizations. This organization represents an element of difference (these are not school districts) and an element of homophily compared to other non-local organizations. The relative high proportion of the local community organizations represents, then, a mixing of homophily and structural hole strategies.

4.1 Initial Choice

By looking at the districts where partnership activity was constrained to one possible partner we get a second view of the priorities of the district officials. If a district can only partner with one organization, it is likely to choose the partner that offers the greatest net benefit. The relative proportion of partnerships among those districts who only choose one partner should then indicate the frequency within which a partner is preferred to all others. Table 2 reports these choices.


Organization Type

Percent Partnerships

Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations


Local Community Religious Organizations


Other School Districts


Nonprofit Relief Organizations


Government Relief and Welfare Organizations


Business Organizations



Table 2: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report- ing One Collaboration)

The evidence of a mixed strategy among school districts in the overall rate of partnership is reflected among those districts who only report partnerships with one type of organization. If you only choose one partner, you are most likely to choose a police, fire, or first responder group - evidence of a structural hole approach to seeking unique competency. However, the second most likely partner among those who only have one partner is the most similar group of other school districts - evidence of a homophilic tendency. It is interesting to note that only two of the partner types are chosen by more than 20% of the school districts. This represents a strong attraction to the few partners types that are chosen by these highly constrained districts.

4.2 Follow-up Choices

Partner choices when there is a partially constrained resource, that is where

a district only reported partnering with two or three partner types, provides

a third lens through which to dissect the partner choice process. Table 3 il-

lustrates the proportion of partner type selections among those districts who chose two partner types. At this point, the partner types chosen begin to spread out - with the notable exception of business organization who are still largely ignored. The pursuit of unique competency is still supported with the police, fire, and first responder organizations being the most frequent selec- tion. With two choices, the local organizations that are partially homophilic (in the local connection) and partially possessing unique competencies come


Organization Type

Percent Partnerships

Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations


Local Community Religious Organizations


Other School Districts


Nonprofit Relief Organizations


Government Relief and Welfare Organizations


Business Organizations



Table 3: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report- ing Two Collaborations)

in second with over half of these districts reporting a partnership. Part- nerships with other school districts come in third and well behind - a weak showing for this homophilic partner type.

Table 4 provides a similar illustration for the districts who reported three partner choices. Partnerships with police, fire, and first responder organiza- tions become almost certain among these districts. Following closely behind are the relatively common partnerships with local community religious or- ganizations. Nonprofit relief organizations overtake other school districts with 57% to the other school districts proportion of 54%. Altogether this provides stronger evidence for districts seeking unique competencies rather simply seeking partnerships with organizations like themselves.

4.3 Final Choices

The final look at the evidence focuses on the final choices of school districts who reported partnerships with most of the partner types. Here our attention shifts from asking which organization type the districts chose to partner with to the organizations with which the districts chose not to partner. Low values in this analysis represent the rarity of non-partnership. Table 5 reports the proportion of districts not reporting a partnership with each type of organization among those districts who reported partnerships with five of


Organization Type

Percent Partnerships

Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations


Local Community Religious Organizations


Other School Districts


Nonprofit Relief Organizations


Government Relief and Welfare Organizations


Business Organizations



Table 4: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report- ing Three Collaborations)

Organization Type

% Absent Partnerships

Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations


Local Community Religious Organizations


Other School Districts


Nonprofit Relief Organizations


Government Relief and Welfare Organizations


Business Organizations



Table 5: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report- ing All but Two Collaborations)

the four of the types. Organizations in this set reported leaving off two types. What is interesting is which types were most likely to be left off.

The evidence from Table 5 is consistent with the results from the assess- ment in the previous tables. The least likely partner type to be left out of a districts partnership portfolio is police, fire, and first responders. Follow- ing closely behind (in being unlikely to be left out of a district’s reported network) are local community religious organizations and nonprofit relief organizations. Only in fourth place are other school districts who among school districts that only leave off two types are left off over one third of the time. Business organizations and other government organizations (interest-


Organization Type

% Absent Partnerships

Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations


Local Community and Religious Organizations


Other School Districts


Nonprofit Relief Organizations


Government Relief and Welfare Organizations


Business Organizations



Table 6: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report- ing All but One Collaboration)

ingly similar to school districts in their government sector type) are most likely to be left out of the network.

Table 6 reports the frequency with which an organization type is left off when school districts report collaborating with all but one organization type. Interestingly, these organizations are more likely to leave off police, fire, and first responder groups than local community and religious organizations - a first for all of these analysis. Again other school districts come in fourth behind nonprofit relief organizations with government relief and welfare or- ganizations and business organizations coming in last - each being left off around one third of the time.

5 Conclusions and Discussion

The results of the tables in section 4 illustrate the tension between structural hole and homophilic strategies among school districts collaborating following a natural disaster. There is strong support that school districts seek partner- ships with organizations unlike themselves. The most frequent partners, the first partners chosen, and the partners least likely to be left out of a network are police, fire, and first responder organizations and (most commonly) local community religious organizations. These are organizations that are unlike the school districts in important ways and offer a variety of services that the school districts may not be able to provide internally. Trailing relatively far


behind in the partner choice process are the most similar organizations, the other school districts. There are organizations with whom it would seem- ingly be easy to partner. There are other organizations that share important characteristics with the district including technology and professional iden- tification. Despite this similarity, other school districts are not attractive partners to these school districts. Other government organizations which share a governmental sector with the school districts but not technology or professional identity are also among the last partners to be chosen and among the most likely not to be chosen at all. Only the least similar organizations, the business organizations that are in different sectors and only rarely bear any similarity in professional background and mission with the school dis- tricts are chosen less often that other government organizations. This may very well be a case of the school districts not only seeing business organiza- tions as different (and thus difficult to partner with) but also offering little in obvious advantages - unlike the first responder organizations and local community organizations that could provide services more obviously useful to the districts. This initial study of partner choice serves only to demonstrate the sorts of dynamics one might anticipate in partner choice processes. Here the focus has been on characteristics of the partner dyads. Organizations that were similar were not more likely to be chosen than those that were different. In fact, the most likely chosen partners were quite different than the school districts. Instead, school districts seem to be selecting for difference - at least difference of specific sorts. There are a variety of directions that research into partner choice could take. First, one could assess the impact of agent characteristics on partner choice. In this case, do school districts with different characteristics choose different partner types? It could be that the size of the district or its internal planning capacity affect the expected utility of partnering with different types of others. Districts with well-developed internal planning capacities may see less advantage in working with other school districts. Districts with less well- developed planning capacities may see great benefit in collaborating with other school districts as part of an effort to pool similar planning capacities. Information on partner characteristics could also help explain partner choice. The expected utility of a potential partnership likely depends on the unique contributions of those partners. Partners that offer resources or information that, say, school districts need following a natural disaster are likely to be attractive partners. Those potential partners with either the


slack to donate the resource or the facilities to coordinate activities will be more attractive than those whom have to be coaxed into working with the school districts. It may also be the case that the nature of relationships affects the ex- pected utility of different relationships. Based on the logic of Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties” (Granovetter 1973), one might expect that some sorts of relationships are most valuable if they do not involve frequent or intense relations. It could be that the preference for difference observed in these data would be quite different if one looked instead at more intensive relationships. The findings reported in this article are be heartening. School districts are seeking different sorts of organizations with whom to partner in the aftermath of a large natural disaster. As these school districts sought to accommodate large new enrollments and, in some cases, to respond to closures and flooding in their own communities they sought organizations unlike themselves as partners. While these organizations could have circled their wagons and looked only within their own number for partners, they reached out to a wide variety of potential partners. Seeking these new partners can raise additional questions. What sort of complications arise as organizations partner across professional boundaries (e.g. education officials working with public health officials), sectoral bound- aries (e.g. public sector education organizations working with nonprofit or- ganizations), and across levels of government (e.g. local education officials working with state and federal emergency management officials)? How does one manage across differences like these? As much attention as scholars have paid recently to issues of collaborative public management and policy net- works, a great deal of work lies ahead. We must move beyond again pointing out how common and how important networked public policy is and asses how to manage and implement policy within these settings.


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