Dis/organizing Co-production: Liminal Spaces Haunted by the Spirit of Formal Organizing

Rasmus Bergmann, Ghita Dragsdahl Lauritzen

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Increasingly, Western public organizations engage in political calls for co-production, where volunteers contribute to the development and implementation of welfare services (Pestoff, 2019; Sandvin, Bjørgo, Hutchinson, & Johansen, 2011). Scholars, managers, and politicians alike argue that collaboration with volunteer-based organizations and voluntary individuals has the potential to improve the quality and effectiveness of their innovations in welfare services (Bergmann, 2018; Boyle & Harris, 2009). However, when volunteers are invited inside welfare organizations, such as schools, kindergartens, and nursing homes, they bring with them unpredictability into the organizations they enter in that their actions are hard to control (la Cour, 2014). On the one hand, this unpredictability is exactly why volunteers are invited to contribute in the first place as stakeholders expect volunteers’ unpredictability to come with the potential to rethink and innovate welfare services (Bergmann & Plotnikof, 2018). On the other, public organizations typically seek to control the disorganization fueled by volunteers, e.g., by demanding that voluntary contributors follow distinct and predefined values, goals, divisions of responsibilities, and tasks to ensure specific notions of quality in collaborative projects and services – i.e., quality that matches the direction set out by the respective public organization (Sandvin et al., 2011). Due to these tensions between organization and disorganization, most research find that co-production in welfare services is a challenging endeavor (Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2015; Doberstein, 2016; Selsky & Parker, 2005). In this paper, we use the concept of liminality to address the intimacy of dis/organization in co-production by examining multiple cases of Danish ‘open school’ cross-sector collaboration in which schools invite volunteers into the organization to contribute to better learning. The term liminality has been used to describe settings where regular routines and structures are suspended (Johnsen & Sørensen, 2015). Although liminality may be a creative and desirable state that increases possibilities of innovation (Garsten, 1999), it has also been described as a profoundly unsettling experience since relatively settled organizational identities, routines and rules disappear (Sturdy, Schwarz, & Spicer, 2006; Szakolczai, 2017). We show how ‘open school’ activities create an experimental and potentially innovative liminal space in which regular routines and rituals of the school organization are suspended. While such space appears to encourage disorganization, our initial findings, however, also indicate that ‘open school’ activities are haunted by the spirit of formal organizing reflected in demands about meeting specific learning objectives. This coexistence of liminality and formal organization gives rise to tensions between determinacy and indeterminacy and produces new expectations to school professionals as responsible for organizing the disorganization of ‘open school’ activities. Extending discussions on liminality (e.g., Sturdy et al., 2006), this paper illustrates how liminal spaces can exist in parallel to – and even enable - highly structured and formal organizational spaces while being highly disorganized and unsettling. Moreover, we explore the productivity of this apparent paradox in relation to public organizations’ innovative potential, thereby also deepening understandings of the possibilities, challenges and complex dynamics of co-production.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication11th International Critical Management Studies Conference “Precarious Presents, Open Futures”
Number of pages2
Place of PublicationMilton Keynes
PublisherThe Open University
Publication date2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019
EventThe 11th International Critical Management Studies Conference. ICMS 2019: Precarious Presents, Open Futures - The Open University Business School, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom
Duration: 27 Jun 201929 Jun 2019
Conference number: 11


ConferenceThe 11th International Critical Management Studies Conference. ICMS 2019
LocationThe Open University Business School
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
CityMilton Keynes
Internet address

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